Building “Verification Communities”

Bill and I at my CCJ going away party in 2005My mentor, friend, and former boss at the Committee of Concerned Journalists, Bill Kovach (this is he and I at my CCJ going away party in 2005), came to talk to a lunchtime gathering of the Missouri Journalism School today about the future of news. Nobody can articulate big thoughts about journalism the way that Bill can, but I will do my best to report on some of his comments here. As Dean Mills put it at the end of the session, if you don’t get food for thought when Bill engages you in a conversation, you are officially brain dead. And if you are me, you get pretty FIRED UP all over again about journalism. (As if I really needed extra help on that front…)

The author of the Elements of Journalism pointed out that the real crisis in journalism is not apathy or poor content, as some believe. The demand for truthful information — which, at it’s most fundamental level, is what journalism is all about — is skyrocketing, as is the effort to produce it. People are consuming ever-larger quantities of information; bloggers are grappling with many of the questions journalists have long dealt with, such as the role independence from faction plays in credibility and how to establish an adequate chain of evidence behind a fact. As Bill put it, we are in the seemingly unlikely situation in which capitalism is behind the intellectual content. Advertisers haven’t figured out how to sell products in new media, and the ability to effectively monetize news has thus suffered. Numbers in this year’s State of the Media report back him up — it’s the decoupling of news and advertising, not a dearth of traffic on news sites, that is causing the problems we are seeing throughout the industry.

Bill’s prescription for dealing with this situation is to essentially start thinking of journalism as more of a conversation and starting to build what he called “verification communities” in which readers would be partners with journalists in establishing the accuracy of information. In Bill’s view, which I strongly share, journalism is not defined by institutions or even by a skill set (although the skills can be valuable), but by a set of principles or values. He says we need to start thinking more broadly: the game is no longer just about increasing circulation or Web traffic, it’s about building community, much like American Public Media has done with its Public Insight Journalism. As this community grows stronger, journalists can teach bloggers some useful skills about news gathering honed over years of experience and education, and bloggers can harness their own backgrounds and expertise and time to help journalists produce more accurate and comprehensive news that will make communities better and inform public decision-making.

What I love most about this concept of “verification communities,” which is vintage Bill, is that he has managed to effectively capture the best of what both citizens and professional journalists have to offer in a way that transcends the labels “citizen journalist” and “mainstream media” that are hurled back and forth between critics of each as though they were epithets. He has put the focus squarely where it belongs: on the values, and what really matters, which is truth.

He is also quick to point out that transparency will be a huge part of this effort. Readers will know if a citizen blogger has made a contribution to Obama’s campaign. What we don’t know, as well as what we know, will go into the stories. People will have a richer and greater understanding in this verification community of how the news they are reading is produced and thus how much weight they should give it.

Though he professes not to know exactly how the economics of all this will work out, Bill believes that switching this mindset to seeing readers not as the problem but as the source of everything we need will, ultimately, change the tide. One possibility he mentioned was citizen-financed investigative projects, noting that, for example, perhaps some of the Barack and Hillary donors might be willing to give $5 for journalism they cared about. A student in the audience then noted that people who are accustomed to getting news for free won’t pay newspapers to tell them which vacuum cleaner works better, to which Bill asked, well, what if it was a story about how the University of Missouri was mismanaging your tuition dollars? The student readily agreed that was worth the price of a burrito at Chipotle. Point made.

I urge all of you that were there, and those of you who were not, to comment!

5 Comments

Filed under Transparency

5 responses to “Building “Verification Communities”

  1. Madu

    Dear Chris,
    Just found your blog —and believe I’ll keep coming back! Bill Kovach is an outstanding journalistic mind of our times, and I’ve got amazed by his view of collaborative roles in journalism. Thank you for sharing! =)
    Cheers,
    Madu

  2. Bill raised some very good points, especially about our need to build community rather than fill columns. But there are two areas where I beg to differ with him.

    I do not at all believe that “advertisers haven’t figured out how to sell products in new media.” They have just figured out that they don’t need to sell them as tag-alongs to editorial content. Merchants no longer need us to get into the doors of their customers — they go directly via Web pages and email. The part of captialism that hasn’t come up to speed is the business of journalism.

    I also reluctantly speculate that investigative reporting via donation is wishful thinking unless we can give it some sort of entertainment value. In the value given for value received formula, altruistic desire falls behind voyeuristic thrill. I’m not ready to be a journalistic gun-for-hire. But someone undoubtedly is.

  3. changingnewsroom

    Good points. I don’t know enough about the ad industry as a whole outside of media (I’m thinking I need to learn), but my impressions from what I have read in the trade press is that as a whole, the advertising industry is struggling to find ways to connect with people in the age of the DVR et. al., but I could be wrong.

    I would clarify that the investigative reporting via donation wasn’t presented by Bill as “the” panacea or anything close to it, but more or less thrown out there as one idea that could be a natural outgrowth from an engaged community. I think though that you are right that there would be some clear risks to a “gun-for-hire” strategy.

  4. Doreen Marchionni

    Carrie, I think you captured Bill’s message with eloquence. I had never met him before but hope our paths cross many more times. There are so many issues that interconnect, including conversation, transparency and community. I actually think Jane Stevens, who visited MU last week, is on to something about that Lawrence Journal-World. They give away free online advertising to every local business, then charge for upgrades. Seems counterintuitive, but it’s paying off in dividends–businesses not only are clamoring for upgrades but taking out ads in the print edition. I love this idea because it captures the essence of participation and user-directed control so important on the Internet. It shows respect for community–the community of citizen businesses in this case–buy providing free ads as a community service. But it also gives control to those businesses on how to frame the message. That works well for Internet audiences accustomed to free content and control. I say we get to work researching how this model might work in other markets and media. Woot!

  5. changingnewsroom

    I’m pretty excited about the Lawrence idea. That would be fantastic. Good example of thinking more like Google and less like traditional media.

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