Information is only scarce if you live in a bubble

Just back from a week with Suw and our families at my home in the US, and I’ve had some space and time to think about things in a more considered way that I usually have time to in London. Via FriendFeed and a room there on Digital Journalism set up by Adam Tinworth, I stumbled upon an interesting post by Kristine Lowe asking whether you would rather marry a blogger or a journalist. The post has kicked off a fascinating discussion raising a number of issues in journalism. Craig McGinty had this pithy observation:

There are still many journalists who live in the land of scarcity, where information is something to be controlled, unaware that 99% of the time it’s like water and many others are drinking from the same trough.

Journalists are under the misguided belief that information is scarce because they often live in informational silos of their own making. They only read “serious” journalism from other publications and seem to have completely missed the information explosion of the last 20 years with multi-channel television and the internet. It’s only down to their narrow professional focus that they miss the fundamental fact that most people are trying to cope with a dizzying choice for information.

Journalists have only belatedly woken up to this reality as their jobs are threatened, and the institutional response seems to have got bogged down in arguments about quality, fact versus opinion and a fundamentalist construction of what is news. For too many journalists, anything outside of a narrow, overly institutional definition of news is banal and unworthy of coverage. And just as Clyde Bentley of the University of Missouri says that most journalists are poor judges of banality, I’m increasingly of the view that they are also poor judges of fact versus opinion. For many journalists, “opinion” is pejorative shorthand for “something not written by a journalist”.

Once one realises that information scarcity isn’t the issue but attention is the new scarce resource, then the role of journalist as gatekeeper is irrelevant. The question then shifts to: What is the value that journalists add to this sea of information? The answer cannot simply be to add more information. The answer also can’t be that the journalist is simply a better or cleverer writer. Look at information choices, and quality and cleverness often don’t cut through the noise. What is the value that a journalist adds? Answer that question and maybe we can move beyond the rut that discussions about journalism are stuck in and develop a business model to support journalism and journalists.

(Want to see value added journalism? See the Des Moines Register excellent package on a tornado that devastated the town of Parkersburg on 25 May, 2008.)

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