Monday, June 21, 2010

Journalism is a service, not a product

"Media companies are ongoing victims of the evolving user paradigm, because we spend our efforts trying to duplicate the money machine known as order-taking advertising. We mistakenly think that the established equilibrium of the past will, sooner or later, come to fruition online, and that is impossible when people who used to be our audiences are evolving faster than we are. We pay no (or little) attention to the user experience, because we're too busy multiplying the number of page views we can tout to advertisers. The cost of interaction that users must pay with us should be our most important metric, but it's often not even on the page. Hell, if we can shift six page views into seven, why not?" -R&D

The title of the blog from which this is quoted is "Local Media in a Postmodern World," and maybe it's because I studied postmodernism before I studied media, but I have been decrying the commercial infrastructure of newspapers since I became aware of it - which, sad to say, is pretty recently. Did I honestly think the pennies people paid for newspapers paid for journalists? No; it's even worse. I never thought about it at all.

In a way, we're blessed because now people are thinking about it. While it's true that people will use information against you, in many ways, with an explanation, people become better equipped to collaborate. For instance, admitting to our public that on an average day we have two copy editors proofing and laying out the entire paper does promote some understanding that while typos aren't acceptable, they aren't a capital crime (caveat: as long as we don't use it as an excuse). Instead of an editing mistake becoming a colossal tower of shoddiness and laziness at the paper - given that we tell our readers what we are trying to do about it - such mistakes become understandable.

People can be pretty smart; as one reader pointed out to me, there is a certain amount of "self-policing" that occurs in comments, where one commenter will address the inaccuracy of another's assumption.

And significantly for our concerns, when people realize that it takes money to produce quality journalism, they begin to get accustomed to the idea of paying for the journalism itself, rather than paying magically by taking a cursory glance at the latest Sears ad. Maybe they're not ready to do it yet - but I really believe the mentality is beginning to develop.

I'm trying to develop some "practice rules" for ethical journalism in light of business concerns (in the process of writing my thesis). I believe that business is by nature an ethical endeavor - that ethics separates business from crime, because if business were purely driven by profit motives, that's what it would be. (This might explain a lot, if you think about it.)

My favorite example, which I stumbled across in an academic journal, is that if a tax auditor covers up financial weaknesses, this is not "simply" an ethical failure - she is wrong also because she is no longer auditing. In that vein, deciding how to do journalism both profitably and ethically is a question of defining what it means to "do journalism" at all - hence, the need for what I am calling "practice rules." This process - I think - will help to clarify what exactly it is we're asking people to pay for, and justify that payment.

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