Monday reality check: Journalism is being replaced by lots of non-journalistic things
Software developer Stijn Debrouwere is getting attention with a provocative post about how journalism is being replaced by other sources of information that provide a roughly equivalent service to users. Add up all his examples (he provides plenty) and you see how people are gravitating away from traditional news stories to answer questions about music, real estate, health care, neighborhood news and many other issues.

There are organizations and websites everywhere that are taking over newspapers’ role as tastemaker and watchdog and forum. These disruptors don’t replace investigative reporting, but they replace the other 95% of what made professional news organizations important.

This is not sharing cat pictures, this is stuff that matters. People can read the health section in their newspaper and get drip-fed badly researched advice about how to live a healthy life, or they can visit the NIH or the Mayo Clinic online, or create an account on one of the many bulletin boards about anything from fitness to dealing with cancer.

He argues that this is a generational shift:

Educated people over forty have come to assume that journalism, whether on television, radio, print or the web, is the most convenient way to get answers to questions like what’s on the television, what’s going on in my neighborhood, who got elected, who is making a mess of things, any new music I should hear? Ask any of those questions to the baby boomer middle class, as the Knight Foundation did, and they’ll hand you a newspaper.

The younger the person you ask, the less likely it is you’ll find that link between wanting to know what’s going on and grabbing a paper or opening up a news website. They use Pinterest to figure out what’s fashionable and Facebook to see if there’s anything fun going on next weekend. They use Facebook just the same to figure out whether there’s anything they need to be upset about and need to protest against.

His argument reminds me of something I wrote about a site called, a crowdsourced effort to determine the market price of marijuana in various places:

I’m not going to call PriceOfWeed “journalism,” but it is a source of information with a straightforward methodology and easy-to-discern limitations. Often, information is what people want; they don’t care whether it’s called journalism.

Debrouwere’s analysis is particularly challenging for journalists because it shows that, regardless of how much journalists argue that their process produces work that is more authoritative, people value these alternative forms of information. They’re “good enough.”

His assessment of the problem is more compelling than his solutions: Focus on storytelling, “join the revolution” by creating things like EveryBlock, focus on people’s passions, do public-service journalism. We’ll see if people build on his ideas with their own.

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  • Anonymous

    Dan Mitchell
    Well said!

    The part that got my attention was this:
    “Debrouwere’s analysis is particularly challenging for journalists because it shows that, regardless of how much journalists argue that their process produces work that is more authoritative, people value these alternative forms of information. They’re “good enough.”’

    I question whether Mr. Myers has a definite idea of what journalism is. Or whether whatever that idea is gets adapted to whatever point he is trying to make.

    Mr. Myers provides two links in the quoted paragraph above.
    The first one links to a comment by ML McEwan which accurately reflects the “more authoritative” opinion. The very next comment by Michael Huber, however, provides a much more elegant and cogent explanation:

    “While I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, I think that your definition of journalism as a system that produces “news you can use” is way to narrow. Sure, new sites are nibbling away the formats we used to get music/film recommendations etc. – but could it be that those sites are actually nibbling away the pieces that are actually NOT journalism? In my definition, journalism has much more to do with providing useful ways to reduce complexity than with just producing content. And while all that content may have been vital for the economic survival of traditional media, it didn’t – at least not always – fulfill the core tasksof sound journalistic practice. So the main task remains to develop new formats in which journalism can thrive.”

    Well said Mr. Huber!

    The point being, that the non-journalistic things that Mr. Myers and Mr. Debrouwere believe are replacing journalism are replacing parts of journalism that were not really journalism to begin with.

    The second link brings us to an article on “good enough” technology which HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH JOURNALISM. (Even the arguments that it does make about technology are ones that I find fault with.) I think in an attempt to make an intellectually interesting argument, Mr. Myers stretches a comparison beyond aptness.

    I get the sense that the need to cover journalism news on a daily basis makes finding interesting stories more important than finding coherent ones.

  • Dan Mitchell

    I’m coming to believe that the people who are constantly trying to prove that journalism is no longer necessary are most often people who wanted to be journalists until they discovered that they weren’t very good at it.