Monday, 3 December 2007

Lest We Forget: What Journalism's All About

Like most people in my profession, I spend a lot of time these days thinking about how journalism has changed/is changing/will change. It's hard not to. As one journalist said last week: "At places where editors and publishers gather, the mood these days is funereal. Editors ask one another, 'How are you?' in that sober tone one employs with friends who have just emerged from rehab or a messy divorce."

That journalist was Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, in London to deliver the Hugo Young Memorial Lecture. His lecture is worth reading in full, especially if you're a journalist.

Keller gave a candid, and rather scathing, assessment of the Bush presidency and the damage it's done to the United States and its standing in the world. He also devoted a large part of the lecture to analyzing where newspapers are going in this digital world. While accepting that the landscape has changed, Keller argued that newspapers must remain the great information accumulators that they have historically been.

"People crave trustworthy information about the world we live in," he said. "Some people want it because it is essential to the way they make a living. Some want it because they regard being well-informed as a condition of good citizenship. Some want it because they want something to exchange over dinner tables and water coolers. Some want it so they can get the jokes on the late-night TV shows. There is a demand, a market, for journalism." (As long as "The Daily Show" is on, that is.)

Keller made a clear distinction between journalism and citizen journalism: "What is absent from the vast array of new media outlets is, first and foremost, the great engine of newsgathering -- the people who witness events, ferret out information, supply context and explanation."

That might be a point you could argue (in some cases untrained amateurs do "beat" the big guys, especially when, for whatever reason, the big guys are blind to certain stories) but while your Googles and your Facebooks, your NowPublics and your Diggs, may all have a place in how people access, parse and understand information, newspapers--online or in hand--must continue to be the bedrock upon which these other services are built. Or the factories from which raw materials emerge, to be refined in infinite ways.

Chatham House: It Rules
Keller's remarks were delivered at Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Many of the seminars I've attended here at Oxford operate under what is called the "Chatham House Rule." It's an actual edict, devised in 1927 and last revised in 2002, that basically ensures that speakers may talk in the knowledge that their comments will not end up in the next day's paper (or on a blog). Things are off the record.

Bill Keller obviously declined to lock his comments in such a straightjacket. There was nothing incendiary in his lecture, though I suppose rabid New York Times-haters might latch onto his raw view of the Bush presidency.


Old Lady said...

Thanks for leading me to the lecture by the NY Times editor. It gave me a better appreciation for the problems of paper vs internet press.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Keller's speech was interesting and even encouraging after all this gloom and doom about newspapers dying. He did an excellent job in identifying the market demand for a source of reliable information.

At the core of the internet problem is the reader who is overwhelmed by information and unsure about whom to trust. One glance at Diggs left me somewhere between laughter and nausea.

The essential question that Keller did not answer was: how to you turn this demand for quality news into a marketable quantity? The NYT on-line used to require a paid subscription for full access, and now in the spirit of the internet, it has opened to the public.

The issue isn't the quality of the product or the demand for it but rather how to sell it on-line. This isn't so much about journalism as marketing.

So newspapers aren't dead yet - they are only resting. Time to wake up and find your market.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

For half a century I have thought of the newspaper as a miniature daily encyclopaedia.