As the future of the daily newspaper becomes increasingly cloudy, columnists, bloggers and Wall Street analysts are writing obituaries not just for the suddenly failed economic model of mass circulation journalism, but also for the very practice of daily news gathering as undertaken by professional journalists for the past century.
In the eyes of most observers, the death knell is already sounding: gone are the days in which trained reporters cover news events, write their accounts that are edited by copy desk professionals and then published in printed newspapers (or their online siblings). What will take its place, and who, specifically, will gather, write and distribute “the news” appears to be very much in flux, but the consensus is that citizens — you and me and the neighbor down the street or the guy in the next cubicle – will be eager, willing and somehow able to report on the world as part of an ongoing general conversation among everyone via the blogosphere, on SM websites, and by cell phone texting.
The one voice missing in all this is that of the professional reporter or editor, defending the traditional practice of news gathering and promoting at least some kind of alternative future for journalism in which standards of accuracy, balance, objectivity and legitimacy are maintained and adhered to. If the practice of law were similarly threatened (don’t laugh), you can be certain the legal community would be raising a hue and cry over the threat to society that would arise if everyone could take up lawyering, while holding on to their day job. Journalists, however, have raised barely a murmur. It’s as if reporters and editors have concluded that there’s no use resisting the tide of consumer-generated, social media-distributed news and commentary that is crashing against the door of newsrooms all over the world.
There’s a reason for their reticence, I think: reporters and editors are loathe to even try to shape public opinion. They are drilled in j-school and by editors to report the facts and leave interpretation and opinion to the editorial page. From that perspective, engaging in a public relations campaign to save their profession or help it define a new survival model is viewed by reporters and editors as dishonest and manipulative – and certainly unbecoming to their self-image as guardians of the truth. Moreover, there’s a long-standing estrangement between journalists and PR practitioners that is preventing the two sides from getting together in this crisis. Despite the mutual animosity, the press and PR have a symbiotic relationship, in that they rely upon one another to generate and distribute information. Their mutual needs could be served if the two worlds were to come together with a focus on salvaging professional journalism in some recognizable form.
But that would take an admission on the part of journalists and the press that they need help. Instead, what we have is an industry determined to cling to the old way of doing things, rather than seeking creative ways for journalism’s adherence with standards and ethics to be maintained in whatever form the “new” new media takes. It is thus short-sighted, for example, for the Associated Press, (which is owned by the nation’s newspapers) to threaten legal action against online search engines like Google or Yahoo for distributing content that the wire service has generated. A far better solution might be for AP to engage in creative discussions with search engines about a new distribution solution in which news organizations would continue to produce professionally generated articles that can be disseminated online in a way that generates income for the providers and at the same time, emphasizes the reliability and objectivity of the content. That’s a product many people will want.
Good PR people can assist in devising such plans. After all, public relations is, at its heart, the management of a point of view. What’s missing in today’s debate over the future of journalism is the viewpoint of the journalists themselves. They have a great opportunity to tell about what they do, and how they do it. The irony is that, more than ever, they need someone to help them communicate their story.