Weekly Reading Insights–Week 9

In this week’s reading, we approach the newly evolving concept of journalism as it has become more like a conversation as opposed to a lecture.

For the life of the journalism business, news has merely been reported to the audience, which thereby simply consumed it. Pervasively, the audience has had little to no prerogative to either respond to or engage with the news.  Aside from limited opportunities like ‘letters to the editor’ or so-called op-ed pages in newspapers, audience participation in the news gathering process has barely existed.

The internet has clearly changed this.  In our modern digital society where technology is relatively cheap and more widely available and internet access is rapidly filtering into nearly everyone’s lives, the public has not only become a part of the discourse–it has assumed its own roles of news gathering and dissemination. This is even more common with the rapid adoption of mobile devices.  Indeed, citizens can frequently be ‘on the scene’ and capture breaking news far more easily than a bonafide news team can.  The audience now has more than a right to be informed, it has a right to be heard. This has clearly changed the democratic process of journalism.

In this consideration, it’s important to analyze best practices for how this new dynamic works.  In her research, Doreen Marchionni set forth an explication of operational definitions to illuminate this veritable new way that news happens in our society.  Describing the difference between traditional journalism (where professionals dispense the news) as opposed to collaborative journalism (wherein the audience and news professionals exist and perform in conjunction), Marchionni does more than spell out definitions. In effect, she describes how this new collaborative reality is requiring changes in news professionals and the way they do their work.  Journalists now have to demonstrate less an air of authority, and more an air of humanity.  Because the audience functions no longer as subjects in the news kingdom, journalists now have to be friendlier and more relatable.  Informality–to an appropriate degree so as not to undermined credibility–is now the order of the day.  And interactivity is paramount.  In essence, the new social dynamic of the news requires journalists to be people too.

That’s a bit of a struggle for a business that has self-designated as a watchdog and a gatekeeper.  But according to Marchionni, it’s only necessary.  If our purpose as journalists is to inform the public, in modern culture that is best accomplished by allowing ourselves to engage with the audience in the manners the audience is comfortable with.  And simply, to a large extent, the audience no longer needs or wants to view news professionals as authorities.

Take, for example, the phenomenon of public commenting on news websites. In this one specific reality, academic research has been prompted to call the interaction a new public sphere.  And some scholars like Arthur Santana have even been prompted to characterize this scenario as a breakdown of this new public sphere where incivility in readers’ comments is common and pervasive.  (Santana’s work in this arena is scheduled to be published in the upcoming winter 2015 issue of Newspaper Research Journal).  Indeed, the reach and scope of this type of collaborative journalism and new public order is requiring new thought processes for academics and practitioners alike. This and other realities like it wherein in a participant public plays a heavy role in the journalism process prompts the industry to redefine its procedures.

The readings this week offer many insightful suggestions as to how to address this, but none perhaps as compellingly as in Why comments suck (& ideas on un-sucking them. This piece just makes sense.  Public comments (and the aforementioned new public sphere) is here to stay.  The news industry cannot redefine this course or stick its head in the sand and wish it away.  To embrace it is the best solution.  Practical ways of doing that, as suggested in this article, require a new streamlining of news operations. And change is difficult.  But with simple advice like learning how to reapportioning staff investment to monitor commenting, news organizations can wrangle the madness.  Ideally, as this article suggests and, in a sense, alluding back to what Marchionni discussed about media types becoming more human, journalists make the best investment when they acknowledge their constituents and communicate them humanely.  My favorite quote from this article reads, “When I’m speaking in public, I stand behind a lectern and I use a particular set of skills. The more I hone those skills, the better I get at public speaking. But if I’m talking with people at a cookout and I use those same skills in that setting, I’m just an asshole.”  This is a brilliant characterization about how journalists must reconsider their disposition amidst a growing trend of collaboration.

This collaborative reality is actually furthered on social media platforms like Twitter. This medium has basically evolved into being tailored perfectly for digital news dissemination, and the very nature of its design allows for commenting.  Facebook, too, is designed for this functionality.

But this new dynamic doesn’t have to be a nuisance.  As momentums like crowd sourcing and the perennial need for community engagement will always exist for news outlets, the new conversational nature of journalism actually makes endeavors along these lines easier, as pointed out in the report from Mayer and Stern. The reality is already so firmly rooted in the profession that analytics and metrics are being published to demonstrate the effectiveness of embracing the reality.

In sum, the internet and online social communication has redefined journalism at its core–to what full extent, no one can even foresee. But with an understanding of this new collaborative nature, modern professionals must continue to iterate their practices and their habits to adapt. Unilateral dissemination of the news is of the past;  finding the best ways to accommodate will be the key to the survival and credibility of news outlets.




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