What is journalism?

Journalism, in my mind, is the process of providing impartial, accurate information to empower a community to make decisions. It's important to have a working definition of journalism as its forms fragment.

Dharmishta Rood started a thread on Seesmic for a class at Harvard on the 9th of March asking, “What is the future of news?” I don’t feel as though my two minute response conveys everything I’d like it to, and want to clarify a few of the ideas.

The future of news isn’t newspapers. The newspaper is an inefficient, uneconomic, and environmentally-troubling method of moving data. In my opinion, Steve Rhodes laid out an epic laundry list of everything that’s broken in the newspaper industry a few days ago. There isn’t any need to repeat that, thanks to the internet. The key takeaway is that, instead of trying to figure out how to financially support newspaper-style journalism on the web, we should be active in conversation about what journalism is, and how the internet will enable us to do it better.

To me, journalism is the act of providing impartial, accurate information to empower a community to make decisions. I had “independent” in the definition earlier, but I don’t believe that independence is entirely necessary if you partake in the art of full disclosure. The process of journalism need not be limited to newspapers, and the format need not be tied to an article measured in column inches. As Suzanne Yada rightfully noted just over a month ago, “Twitter isn’t journalism, just like television isn’t journalism, but you can find journalism ON Twitter and ON television.” Our information needs have changed from a hundred years ago, and the internet lends news organizations greater ability to fulfill this responsibility.

Two premises for the near future (that you’re welcome to dispute):

  • Newspaper journalism operated in the era of information scarcity, where “what is news” was determined by the amount of space available in the delivery mechanism. Online journalism operates in the era of information as a commodity. This means that “what is news” is defined by the quality of information.
  • We’re also now in an indefinite era of format fragmentation, meaning that journalism can be implemented in a myriad of different ways. This is another paradigm shift from the newspaper age, but not for the worse: the internet allows us to do more with information. The internet is ultimately a more powerful platform for journalism because users can be exposed to information automatically based on context and the depth of information they need.

The “Future of News” is going to be a competition to see who can create the most innovative and engaging ways to deliver information which empowers communities to make decisions.


Steve Woodward March 3, 2009 Reply

I wonder about the value of trying to pin down a definition of journalism. I agree with you that it involves providing information that empowers a community to act and make decisions. But is impartiality necessary? Perhaps transparency is enough. Accuracy is important, but should we also throw in concepts such as fairness, completeness, timeliness and all the other tropes of traditional journalism? Perhaps we should simply leave the definition to those who consume “news”: Like pornography, consumers will recognize journalism when they see it.

Daniel March 3, 2009 Reply

The reason I’d like to re-center the conversation on “what is journalism” is really because of the second point of the paradigm change. In the conversation about newspapers dying, I feel we’ve drifted too far towards an argument about formats for journalism when we’d be better off figuring out what journalism is and how the increasing number of tools will allow one to enhance how they do it. The Seattle PI wiki has a list too, but I think I’d disagree with some of the tenets of “traditional” journalism.

Steve Woodward March 3, 2009 Reply

I think your instinct is the right one. But I wonder if journalists are actually the best people to decide the definition of journalism. I’m serious about this. Why not ask consumers of journalism how they define it? We journalists are blind to a large extent: We define journalism as the kind of information we want to provide, not necessarily the kind of information people need to make decisions. The problem for newspapers is not really the Internet; it’s that newspaper people and news consumers don’t agree on what relevant news is. The Internet then becomes a vehicle for those consumers to find the journalism that newspapers aren’t providing.

Daniel March 3, 2009 Reply

Good point. Another distinction: I still stand behind my definition, but the type of information needed by a community is still very open to debate (and input from the same community). Part of that can come from the “newsroom as a cafe” idea, and another part from smarter algorithms for presenting personalized news organization homepages. The conversation about the type of information, though, is definitely missing from this discussion about the industry in turmoil.

Steve Woodward March 3, 2009 Reply

That’s exactly right. A friend and I were just discussing a public-service model that would identify half a dozen key areas that the public considered essential for community health: education, crime, health care, social services, etc. Perhaps news organizations should be focal points for pinpointing these areas and spurring the public discourse. What would happen if a newspaper created an advisory board of cops, teachers, health execs, union leaders and others? Or what if you went even further and made them your editorial board? I suspect the kneejerk reaction of most journalists would be defensiveness and cries over the death of objectivity. But perhaps it’s time for the interests of news organizations and communities to be explicitly aligned.

Rodney Barnes March 3, 2009 Reply

I’m reading a book right now for class (Ryerson J-School) about this topic. “The Elements of Journalism,” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. They held 21 public forums attended by 3,000 people involving testimony from more than 300 journalists to come up with a list of 10 principles that most of those journalists agreed on, and what they think citizens have a right to expect from journalists.

They are:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to its citizens.
3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
8. It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.
9. Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
10. Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

I’ve only made it to the third one, so I can’t answer any questions about the content, but I thought it might be interesting for you to look into. I have been reading up on journalism’s struggle to remain relevant, and this book has so far been an insightful read.

Steve Woodward March 4, 2009 Reply

Interesting list, Rodney. Did the 300 journalists develop those principles or the 3,000 people who attended the forums? Or was it a joint statement?

Ashley Braun March 4, 2009 Reply

Daniel, I’m intrigued by this concept of a “newsroom as a cafe” idea. Could you expand on this and how you see it as an efficient and practical model in professional newsrooms?

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