Journalism as Conversation

Changing Newsroom is back after a brief hiatus! I’ve moved to Memphis and am gearing up for the start of the semester, and as thus am hoping to start posting more again.

Photo by Jonathan Groves; Chicago.

Today’s post is brilliant, if I do say so myself — cause, well, I didn’t write it. This guest post comes to you from my friend Doreen Marchionni. Doreen has 18 years of experience in the news biz (most recently as night editor at the Seattle Times), a Master’s degree from Columbia, and is currently finishing up her doctorate in journalism at the University of Missouri. Check out the new Website she is developing as well.

Doreen does cutting edge research on news-as-conversation, and writes about it not with academic-ease but with a journalist’s touch. Here’s what she has to say:

Three cheers for Zach Sims of Greenwich, Conn. Until this week, he was just one among droves of youths heading off to college this fall. Then The New York Times got a hold of him and his family.

Apparently Sims family members like to read. A lot. Books, newspapers, magazines, journals. You name it, they read it. But it’s a house divided: Young Zach and his little sister prefer the Internet, while mom and dad prefer print (sis actually prefers games to reading for the time being).

In a front-page video snippet of their lives, NYT captured well the generational shift in reading habits. For a news junkie and journalism scholar like myself, I was captivated by the wisdom of Zach’s take on the difference: print tells you what to think, online lets you join a conversation on the thinking of a thing. Hundreds of books, research articles and painstaking analysis in my doc program finally taught me what Zach the Teenager knows instinctively: the Internet is all about the peopling of ideas.

I like that. I like people. And, I must say, I like to talk to them. A lot. When I occasionally went through withdrawals after leaving reporting to become an editor, I most missed talking and schmoozing with strangers. My head raced at night with their stories. Garbage men. Fishermen. Teachers. Bug experts. Loggers. Hair stylists. Accountants. You cannot be a reporter for a millisecond without realizing the strange and fascinating world of expertise in everyday people around you. People just know stuff. I always found the wonderful beauty of ordinary people was that they generally had no institutional agenda to cloud your trust of them–unlike, say, the governor, or the city councilwoman or whatever other “expert” you spent most of your time talking to.

Journalism-as-a-conversation. In academic terms, this concept has enjoyed two decades of fruitful, albeit mostly descriptive, research. For those of us who take citizen-journalist relations with deadly seriousness in an era of plummeting circulations and audience shares, conversation may well hold the key to salvation. But we researchers must blaze bold new paths, building new theory on this crucial concept. I have some ideas, beginning with explication in homage to the late Steven Chaffee (1991), a hero to groundbreaking research if there ever was one (for a recent paper Doreen presented at the 2008 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Chicago, click here or go to But we need more, along with the wisdom of this world’s Zachs.

Let’s continue the conversation.

-Doreen Marchionni


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