You’re asking the wrong question

Last week’s issue of SEE Magazine was a “theme” issue, focusing on the future of the media industry (“print in peril”). In addition to this interesting article, there was a panel comprised of four local newspeople with lots of experience: Linda Hughes (U of A, formerly Edmonton Journal), Ron Wilson (CBC), Jeremy Lye (iNews880), and Roy Wood (MacEwan, formerly Edmonton Journal). They discussed a range of things, including the fact that the industry didn’t develop these problems overnight. The general consensus is that journalism is important, but what it looks like in the future is up in the air.

Of course, you can’t have an article on the future of media without asking who’s going to write about City Council, and the panel didn’t disappoint! Linda Hughes asks:

But with breaking news and local-level news, who is going to go sit in a courtroom all day for a three-paragraph story that is important to know about but isn’t sexy and is just part of the pubic discourse? Who is going to do that? Bloggers often provide a lot of insight, but most bloggers are not going to go to sit in city council committee meetings for five hours to keep track of what city council is doing.

Ask a sports writer about the future of news and he’ll probably use this defense, even though he never sets foot inside City Hall! It’s the easy way out, and it’s an incredibly common response lately from journalists in the hot seat. To make things worse, SEE asked the question again later in the piece:

If newspapers and mass media outlets do dwindle, then, who will be the watchdogs in society to ensure politicians don’t run wild? Who will pay for the investigative reporters who can zero in on one thing for months and all of a sudden have the biggest story of the year?

Sigh. There will still be passionate individuals who follow specific topics and do investigative reporting. Probably more now than ever thanks to easy publishing systems (blogs, wikis, Twitter, etc). And they’ll produce much more interesting content than someone who does it just because they get paid to.

Let’s ignore that argument for a minute, however. Asking how to pay a journalist to sit through meetings to get three paragraphs is still the wrong question!

The real question is, why have we ever had to pay someone to sit through five hours of City Council committee meetings? Let’s get rid of that absurd need altogether and this discussion becomes irrelevant.

This is why I’m so excited about ChangeCamp and the possibilities it represents. If we can change the way our government communicates with us, the need for a newspaper filter could go away altogether.

Let’s focus less on how we’re going to pay a journalist to sit with Council all day and more on how we can get Council to communicate with us in a meaningful way. If we can do that, the journalist will have much better things to cover!

10 thoughts on “You’re asking the wrong question

  1. Gee get Council to communicate with us in a meaningful way and we wont even need journalists. Bottom line is the age old supply and demand. No demand = less supply.

  2. To me, this is still evidence of the fact that “old media” is watching itself crash and burn, as various elements of their coverage gets vivisected and co-opted by new, inexpensive forms of citizen-powered self-publication.

    You’re right here, Mack, they aren’t asking the right questions.

    But in a weird way, one can hardly blame them; they’re standing more or less helplessly on the sidelines distracted by their own demise [way too dramatic a way to say it, but there it is] to actually adopt a more realistic, pragmatic viewpoint when it comes to local or even hyper-local news coverage.

    Some journos/bloggers are starting to get it, and they’ll realize before members of the panel you cite that there will be people to take up the slack; I can think of no better examples than people like Dave Cournoyer or the folks at AB: Get Rich or Die Trying — concerned, engaged citizens who are more than happy to write about these topics with no pay.

  3. “Let’s focus less on how we’re going to pay a journalist to sit with Council all day and more on how we can get Council to communicate with us in a meaningful way. If we can do that, the journalist will have much better things to cover!”

    And much better ways to cover them. Why don’t they stream it online? Even the Leg is doing that.


  4. Edmonton City Hall does stream their meetings. Last week my students and I watched a meeting in the morning, then went to city hall in the PM to check out the debate and view the hall. They played Ontario Sucks by the arrogant worms to commemorate the death of Joe Bird. My students actually enjoyed the monotone debating to.

  5. It was indeed an interesting group of people on the panel (odd that nobody from Television was included).

    Looking back, the nearly exclusive benefits held by newspapers has been the ability of the print medium to deliver depth and detail into an issue. Extensive background information and scope was once something reserved for the pages of the local daily.

    The Internet has, to some extent, eliminated these advantages. Online can serve as the ultimate storehouse of information, although some online “facts’ need to be taken with a big grain of salt.

    Regardless of the background information, all media strives for impartiality in its reporting of facts and information. Reporting is not just about someone sitting in the gallery at city council meetings typing 140 characters. Training and experience dictate the tone and direction of true reporting, not some corporate edict from Toronto (as many people believe).

    Traditional media has a responsibility to cut through the clutter, strip away the obfuscation and deliver relevant information.

    Social media has its place, but to dismiss reporters and journalists as being irrelevant in the “digital age” is short-sighted. It’s not journalism and reporters that are antiquated, it is the medium.

  6. bigofuel, yeah, dismal is a good word to talk about the demise of the “old media.” I think its great that government wants to find a better way to communicate with citizens, but the reality is that government is always talking through their public relations office, in one way or another…whether its getting “prepped” or given key messages to repeat. We need traditional journalists that know how to uncover information, investigate, and protect the public. I just finished reading an interview series with various journalists (including the CSM editor) and what the future holds for the journalism world is just sad. Yes, citizen journalism is great, but it can’t 100% fill the gap that classic journalists fill. People like, period. Yes, things like Wikileaks is great, but I just don’ think its the same. Here is the link to the series, if anyone is interested:

  7. Aaron – Thanks for the link. They’ve been experimenting with streaming other things too, such as the Citizen Panel.

    crnkylttlmnky – I don’t think I was suggesting that journalists and reporters are irrelevant in the “digital age” only that they should be putting their skills to better use.

    Sandy – Thanks for the link. I think just because that’s the way it has always been doesn’t mean that’s the way it will always be 🙂

  8. With all due respect to citizen journalists, I think you are missing an important point. The gift of the newspaper was to link together a large and heterogeneous community with shared information. Most people are not political junkies, and few would want to spend five hours at a time watching streamed council meetings. What they want is for a journalist to watch the meeting, pick out the important bits, and explain them with background context. You often can’t really understand what’s said at a council meeting without speaking to the city manager, or someone from the city solicitor’s office, for example. Back when I was covering stuff at City Hall, I had access to politicians and city employees a civilian simply didn’t…not merely because I work for the Journal,but because I had spent years earning their trust, researching the issues, and paying my dues. I could cover a meeting, provide the background context that made it meaningful, and tie it up for readers in a column that explained why it all mattered to them.

    On a good day, my column reaches 100,000 people, minimum. That’s a hell of a lot more than the 207 people who follow me on twitter. A newspaper doesn’t just serve a narrow client base. A great newspaper serves a whole city, and unites it at the same time. On a good day, I can use my column to put an important issue on the public agenda and get the whole city talking. But as our readership erodes, those good days get harder and harder to find.

    Why do you have to pay me to do such work? Shouldn’t I, morally, do it for free? Perhaps. But i’m also supporting a young family .. my spouse is the stay-at-home parent, I make the mortgage payments and put the bread on the table. Don’t pay me, and I have to find another job. Simple as that.

  9. Great comments Paula, thank you.

    I think what you’ve described for a newspaper is the ideal. In practice, that rarely happens. Instead, pages are filled with stories from the wire, or writers in other cities. I like the Journal and often find great stuff in it, but most of the content just isn’t as you’ve described. Unless there’s a big culture shift at newspapers, away from “only include our own stuff” to “let’s help people find what they need/want” I don’t see that changing.

    On the audience sizes – sure, today the newspaper gives you better reach. Tomorrow? Definitely not. What the Journal should be doing is figuring out how to avoid losing those 100,000 people.

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