What Counts as Quality Journalism in the Digital Age?

For this month’s Journalism Carnival, we were asked by moderator Lisa Williams to think about what qualities judges should consider when determining the winners of the Online Journalism Awards. Steve Fox of UMass has a good summary of some of the early discussion on the topic on the list serv.

A tough question, this one. The criteria for a great online project may be multiple and varied, and naturally, there’s plenty of slippery subjectivity involved. But if I was to make a broad statement,  quality in online  journalism is primarily determined by how  innovatively it combines the enduring core values of journalism with the features of the online space.  Smart applications of technology are necessary but not sufficient. Great online journalism uses the features of the medium like interactivity and multimedia to make journalism more accurate, more engaging, more transparent, more relevant, more comprehensive, more independent, more able to hold the powerful accountable.

I don’t think it’s a question of gee-whiz technology OR solid reporting/social impact – it’s both, and how well these two outcomes have been executed together in ways in which each one serves and enhances the other. The technical features should not only be cool and fun to use, but they should engage readers, tell powerful, important stories and allow others to be part of our reporting and vetting processes in the ongoing, pre and post publication pursuit of larger truths.

This may be somewhat obvious, but I think there are examples out there of big splashy projects that look glorious but lack substance, and projects that may be online but not truly execute when it comes to genuinely engaging readers, etc.

I would also tend to reward risk-taking and big thinking. Executing innovative ideas in newsrooms remains extremely difficult; the culture is still, despite platitudes to the contrary, risk adverse and easily threatened by change and new ideas. I think Jan Schaffer’s idea of rewarding ideas that “work” is important,  but I would tend to a favor a project that maybe is less-than-perfect but represents a clear willingness to experiment with ideas outside the box, make things happen, and use the lessons learned to continue to improve the project.

I think rewarding profitability, as some have suggested, is a little tricky – as Lisa Williams has already alluded to, profitability is often a longer-term goal, and I’m not sure a snapshot in time would necessarily represent overall “success.”

A brief word about the somewhat tangential discussion that arose on the list-serv about whether or not journalists are or should be uncomfortable with money making. I’ll take the unfashionable step of saying – yeah, I AM “one of those” who have, to some degree at least, some sense of discomfort with the profit motive, though of course I’ll qualify that substantially. Let me emphatically state that I do NOT believe that running a successful business is in any way opposed to doing good journalism or inherently evil or any such silliness.  I want to see sustainable businesses and people paid good wages and independent journalism all that. Duh.

But, yeah, I do think journalists aren’t quaint or stupid to have some skepticism about greed and its potentially corrupting influence. Have we come so far down the road of pettiness that this, too, is going to be an all or nothing proposition? Journalists are skeptical of money making because they’ve seen first hand that it can certainly influence coverage. They’ve watched while top execs at companies like Gannett pocket the big bucks while newsrooms are gutted, which might make even the most happy capitalist a little disgusted.  I applaud every dollar a news startup makes, but yes, I do still believe that journalism plays a vital role in our democracy, and therefore I think some healthy skepticism along the road to profitability is warranted.

Finally, I’ll end with this. Thinking about quality made me think about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig. I need to reread that book. Here’s a quote to ponder:

“The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of “style” to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it’s not just depressingly dull, it’s also phony. Put the two together and you have a pretty accurate basic description of modern American technology: stylized cars and stylized outboard motors and stylized typewriters and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in stylized kitchens in stylized homes. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in a while. It’s the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don’t know where to start because no one has ever told them there’s such a thing as Quality in this world and it’s real, not style. Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start.”

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2 responses to “What Counts as Quality Journalism in the Digital Age?

  1. Pingback: What counts as quality journalism in the digital age? | Jessica Swink

  2. Pingback: Carnival Round-up of July « Carnival of Journalism

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