Fry: It’s Still Journalism That’ll Save Us, But…

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Nearly nine years ago, I came to Poynter to talk about how the Web was changing journalism –- and how it wasn’t. I said that this era’s new technologies and news sources posed challenges, but maintained that we could meet them with basic journalism tenets, from writing great stuff to using our offline instincts in assessing information found online.

Poynter asked me to revisit what I said then. What did I get right? What did I miss? And do I still think journalistic values are the best defense?

A lot of my advice strikes me as more or less today’s common sense. I’d like to say that’s because I was a far-sighted sage, but I think it’s just that the world has changed, with 2000′s online marvels now the stuff of daily life.

I said then that journalists could learn from online communities, but they had to take time to understand them and verify whatever didn’t pass their smell test. That’s hardly earthshaking advice now, because online communities are no longer exotic — many journalists spend time in them as part of their daily lives, and they’ve learned that their “feel” for what’s true and what isn’t works pretty well online, too. (See this post from BeatBlogging for a great example of unlocking the power of online communities.)

I said then that journalists had to beware of sacrificing accuracy and context for speed, and avoid the temptation to erase mistakes by republishing. Still an issue, but by now a familiar one — witness The New York Times’s recent examination of how it covered the circumstances of Caroline Kennedy ending her Senate bid. (For me, the most interesting question there wasn’t about the Times, but the Paterson administration: Did it exploit the Web news cycle by launching an attack designed to get early play and then be erased by a more-nuanced take? I couldn’t help thinking of the Roald Dahl story in which the police search a house in vain for the blunt instrument used by the killer — and then are served a leg of lamb fresh from the oven.)

But while the journalism principles may be the same, the rules of engagement are changing. Thinking about what I missed, two things jump out at me.

I didn’t see that stories would no longer be discrete things -– packages of text, headline and art prepared for print and adapted for online. They now increasingly flow from one form to another, and this is a question not only of timing but also of format. Yes, stories go from short Web takes to fuller accounts, which may be frozen in print at some point. But they’re also beginning to flow from words to video to beat blog to related links to topic page to discussion to reuse by readers, with the reporter shepherding the story through the process, if he or she isn’t tripped up by technological barriers along the way.

I also didn’t see what a two-way street the Web would become. And this may be the biggest change of all.

Back in 2000, most news -– however you defined it –- was still handed down from the few to the many. That’s changing as blogging, social networking and Web-enabled devices move from the techie fringes into more and more American lives. Facebook didn’t exist in 2000; its founder was 16. Nor did I mention blogs, which since then have gone from the stuff of starry-eyed revolution to supposed scourge of journalism to simply one of many ways we get information.

All these things have made the publishing world far more muddled but also far more interesting. If journalism was once a mountain from which we delivered our pronouncements, now readers have set up shop on the slopes. Sure, they’re now publishers in their own right if they want to be, which has provoked much hue and cry in newsrooms. But I suspect that ultimately, the fact that a few readers now create their own content isn’t nearly as important as the fact that many readers now comment on, share and re-use content. By using content as raw material and by voting with their feet for new forms of journalism, readers are doing as much or more than publishers to determine what journalism will become.

And journalists are learning that they have to come down from the mountaintop to meet those readers. I still insist, as I did in 2000, that the best way to grab the reader is to write great stuff –- this Michael Lewis story kills in print, over nine Web pages, or engraved on stone tablets. But Web readers gravitate to writers who engage them personally. In a sea of information noise, personality is a welcome bit of signal. More-personal writing won’t work for everything -– the account of the City Council meeting probably shouldn’t be a personal narrative –- but beat blogs, video, chats and discussion forums all offer opportunities for making a more personal connection that journalists can build on.

Such big cultural changes are challenging for many journalists, and our industry is experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. But these changes won’t be the death of journalism. There’s nothing about life on Facebook or a sideline blogging that will trip up a journalist with a working ethical compass. Nor will they be journalism’s salvation. Salvation is a rather abstract concept for an industry going through today’s brutal resizing. They’ll just be different.

So, an update for my 31-year-old self: Yes, I still think great reporting and writing is central to what journalists do. I still think a few newspapers — in whatever form –- offer a wider perspective valuable in a world of many niche publications. And I think basic journalism values are effective tools for tackling digital-era challenges. And thank goodness for all that. But we have to add to those values and skills by learning to help a story unfold in new forms and by engaging readers in new ways. Our readers are demanding no less, and they will determine our industry’s destiny.

Oh, and learn to stand up straight, kid. That picture still makes me cringe.

Jason Fry is the Web CMS evangelist for EidosMedia, a supplier of cross-media editorial platforms for news organizations. He spent nearly 13 years at The Wall Street Journal Online and has also worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Fresno Bee. His new blog is Reinventing the Newsroom. He also co-writes Faith and Fear in Flushing, a blog about the Mets. Visit his personal site, or contact him via Facebook or Twitter.

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