Tom Kelley is a freelance auto journalist specializing in trucks, He is founder of the Southeast Automotive Media Organization and Executive Director of the Truck Writers of North America. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
With magazines restructuring, newspapers imploding, and our ilk being spread to the four winds, it’s probably a good time to ask, “What does the future hold for journalism?”
One direction this discussion could take is to draw the line between true journalism, and those out there with just a computer and opinion, but that’s a topic for a future column. For now we’ll stick to looking at some structural elements of the business.
To be certain, the print-on-paper channel of communications will never go completely away, just as radio didn’t kill newspapers, and television didn’t kill radio. Every method of delivery has it’s pros and cons, and as new methods become widely used, the other methods become further refined, surviving by doing what they alone can do best.
However, the days of paper reigning as the supreme delivery channel may well be reaching their sunset. Today, there’s an entire generation of readers who have never had a paper route, collected used papers as a fund-raiser, or purchased a subscription to a newspaper. A newspaper is as foreign to this generation as buggywhips were to the boomer generation. Their paper analogues range from PDA screens, to Kindles, to e-Paper, to laptop and computer screens. Adding still more complexity to the mix, each reader is likely to use some, most, or all of these analogues interchangeably.
Yes, it’s still mostly words and images, but that which works great on a computer screen, doesn’t look so hot on a PDA, and may not even be possible on paper. So from the publisher’s point of view, it’s no longer enough to layout and distribute in a single format.
Similarly, from the journalist’s perspective, it’s no longer possible or practical to define one’s self as strictly a short/long-lead writer, or a photographer, or a radio producer/announcer, or a video producer, or a master of the web. The journalists who will thrive, will become highly proficient in two or more media, and active/present in all of the formats.
The idea that we all need to be multimedia-able is important, but is by no means a tremendous revelation for many of us. What is news about the news and information business is the evolution of its structure – how the personnel org charts and information flow charts are being reshaped by the connectivity of the internet, the technology of information production, and the explosion of methods for consuming information.
Apart from a few stringers, remote bureaus, or freelancers,most of those on the org chart in traditional news organizations were company employees working in a central headquarters. Although the headquarters element may have slipped into the virtual realm, many of the popular auto-themed “Web 1.0 & 2.0″ sites still follow a business model similar to traditional magazines and newspapers.
With the exception of the printing department, the “Journalism 3.0″ organization won’t lose the majority of the positions found on the traditional org chart, but where those positions are located, and how they’re connected, will change dramatically.
Many of the positions that were once at the top of the chart will be filled by the reader/listener/viewer. This new boss determines the method and schedule of information distribution, the topics to be covered and the priority thereof, and the hiring/firing of those in the information chain. What enables this new boss is that which also fills the org chart spots for subscription, fulfillment and delivery – an RSS feed aggregator such as Google Reader.
For those unfamiliar, the aggregator programs allow the user to subscribe to any site with an RSS feed with just a few clicks of a mouse. The aggregator collects the posts in reverse chronological order, and can display them as either just the headlines, or the headlines with a brief excerpt (unfortunately, some newbie sites haven’t figured out the difference between an excerpt and a full post). The aggregator enables the reader to quickly scan the latest posts from dozens/hundreds/thousands of sites, and if interested, click directly through to a full post.
The sites out there worth subscribing to are analogous to (and will be run by) the expert beat reporter.
As an example, I have no interest in sports news or commentary, but I do have interests in economics and constitutional law. Rather than relying on sound bites to find out what’s going on in Washington, I read news and commentary from the country’s top law and economics professors, the most expert reporters on those particular beats.
Another reader might be more interested in Broadway performances and cooking gadgets than economics and law. That’s the beauty of the RSS aggregator, the user isn’t forced to subscribe to ten sections of a publication to get the two sections he/she wants to read.
The down side to this for the reader is the “kid in a candy store” dilemma. With RSS feeds numbering in the hundreds of millions, even if only 10% are of any value, and if within that group you’re only interested in a small fraction of the topics, that can still amount to thousands of sites to find and follow. This may be an easy technical task for a database of Google proportions, but for those of us burdened with a day job, just scanning the aggregator headlines from that many sites would be prohibitive.
Similarly, from the journalist’s perspective, as one of maybe 700-800 expert automotive journalists operating amongst the clutter of tens of thousands of automotive web pages, how does one get their latest article in front of the right eyeballs on a timely basis, especially if they’re not one of the 50-60 contributors to the big-box auto sites on the web?
The answer for both the reader and journalist comes in the form of the most unique character in this tale of transformation. In Journalism 3.0, the role of the “managing editor” or “section editor” is as important as ever, but may now be an independent third party website, not working directly for either the reader or beat reporter, but providing a beneficial service for both.
There’s not yet a good example of this type of “editor” site in the automotive realm, but amongst my own list of RSS subscriptions are editor sites covering security, energy, environmental economics, globalization, constitutional law, and a few that defy categorization.
Just as Google Reader gives me headlines and excerpts from the forty-or-so RSS feeds to which I’m subscribed, these editor sites act as topic-specific aggregators, presenting me carefully selected headlines and excerpts of topic-relevant posts from literally thousands of sites to which I’m not subscribed. Most of the editor sites include original content along with the aggregated posts.
“Carefully selected” is the key element to the editor’s role. Too many links and the purpose of editing has been defeated. Worse though, at the opposite extreme, is employing the type of narrow ideological filter that has lost many old-school media outlets a significant portion of their audience, turning the aggregated content into a mutual admiration echo chamber. It’s crucial for the editor to build trust and credibility with the reader, vetting source sites and separating the wheat from the chaff, while avoiding the temptation for demagoguery.
Whether one lands in Journalism 3.0 as expert beat reporter or as a virtual section editor mostly depends on one’s skill set and desires, but both jobs are still as interdependent as they ever were in old-school journalism. Just don’t expect to find them in the same building, or even the same continent.
For those at liberty from a paid job in media or likely to be in the near future, Kelley recommends http://assme.org.