‘Just the facts’ isn’t good enough for journalists anymore, says Tow Center’s journalism manifesto

Of the dozens of assertions in a wide-ranging “manifesto” about the altered state of journalism from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, this one stands out:

Journalists are not merely purveyors of facts.

That awakening call comes from Clay Shirky, C.W. Anderson and Tow Center Director Emily Bell, in a lengthy report titled “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

The wide-ranging essay calls for journalists to change “not just tactics, but also self-conception.”

The authors can foresee a world where 90 percent of news reports are written by computer algorithms that convert data into narrative structures and where many newsworthy events are first described by connected citizens rather than journalists.

The result:

The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation. …

Working between the crowd and the algorithm in the information ecosystem is where a journalist is able to have most effect, by serving as an investigator, a translator, a storyteller.


An investigator. A translator. A storyteller. Working between the crowd and the algorithm.

You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better tweet-length synopsis of the new and old skills required of today’s journalists.

That new world order harbors several implications.

This is an era for the journalist who has “in-depth knowledge about something other than journalism,” the authors write. “The complexity of information and the speed with which people wish to have it explained and contextualized leaves little room for the average generalist.”

This is an era for the journalist who uses critical thinking to interpret and analyze, whether it’s working with data sets, interviewing aggressively or calling BS on conventional wisdom.

This is an era for the journalist who knows how to put herself into her work. Not, necessarily, her opinions or biases — but her personality, energy and voice. “The more we feel engaged with a journalist through his persona, the more we want to hear what he has to say about the world,” the authors write. “Public persona was once the exclusive territory of the high-profile columnist. Now it is part of the job of every journalist.”

This is an era for the journalist with “a mindset that wants to improve journalism, not simply replicate or salvage it,” the authors write.

The authors rightly acknowledge that to find all these qualities in one person, much less a full newsroom, is rare.

Having the desire and motivation to exercise personal influence over journalism at the level both of the story and the institution requires a mix or awareness, confidence, imagination and ability.

Not all of these qualities might be teachable, but they are not optional. It is important to recruit and develop journalists, whether in newsrooms or through journalism schools, who engage with persistent change.

For traditional news organizations, the big question is not whether these types of journalists will exist. They will, and in fact already do. The question is whether news organizations will adapt quickly enough to nurture and make room for them.

The report overflows with examples such as Laura and Chris Amico of Homicide Watch, Leela de Kretser of DNAinfo, Lissa Harris of Watershed Post and Pete Cashmore of Mashable, who all set out on their own rather than innovate within a traditional news organization.

The new role of journalists is just one aspect of the report. The full 122 pages (in PDF form, or alternatively as an e-book) is well worth the reading time to explore more recommendations for news institutions and ecosystems.

The overall message is often a castigation of journalism institutions, many of whom the authors pessimistically expect will disregard it. But beneath that there is a layer of hope — that it is actually possible to “do more with less,” so long as you are willing to adapt what it is you “do.”

Related: Josh Benton provides highlights from the report (Nieman Journalism Lab)

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  • SFMH57

    Well, if “just the facts” is not enough for news coverage now and 500 years into the future, then we are doomed. Of course, this comes from a “center for digital journalism,” so consider the source, the framework, the hypothesis, and the (breathlessly and gleefully anticipated) outcome.

  • edward_ericson_jr

    Downloaded the report. Will read when done writing more blurbs and tweets and stuff. I sure hope your synopsis is total horse shit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=788365371 Gerald Grow

    Interesting, very interesting. I used to tell my students: Who is interested in your opinion? Aside from your mother and your boyfriend — absolutely nobody!

    Readers care only about their own opinions.

    But therein lies the opportunity: If you can help readers create informed opinions about complex issues in a changing world, they will read you forever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.mulvaney.16 Jim Mulvaney

    My dear friend, John Montague started his writing life as a journalist. He later switched to verse and eventually became poet laureate of Ireland said, “Journalists write facts, not truth. Poets attempt truth.” I ran that past my mentor Murray Kempton, who agreed. If computers are writing it isn’t journalism, it’s computing. If journalists are producing facts, it’s journalism. If poets are waxing, perhaps it is truth. Glad to see that academics can waste time, and pollute youngsters, to justify paychecks and tenure. Can a computer win at Jeopardy? Sure. Can a computer write a Jimmy Breslin lede? Nope, unless it steals it from him.

  • JTFloore

    i will be VERY interested to see exactly how “90 percent of news reports (will be) written by computer algorithms that convert data into narrative structures…” whew! are computers going to attend and report on city council meetings, too?

  • http://www.facebook.com/hannahweinberger Hannah Weinberger

    So basically, I’m off to get a few PhDs, see you in the news room in like fifteen years.