Tow Report Takeaways: “Proceed Until Apprehended”

Just finally finished reading the excellent, detailed Tow Center report Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present” by three authors whose work and thinking I respect a great deal, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky.  Since I geeked out and took three pages of notes, I thought I would share what I thought were a few highlights here.  While some aspects of the report aren’t new to news nerds who exhaustively follow journalism developments, it’s an excellent overview of the state of the industry today and a must-read for students and others that need to catch up on the latest smart thinking in our field.

  • One thing that I found striking was the powerful and well-articulated argument for the importance of institutions to the survival of public-interest journalism.  Not the endurance of traditional institutions in their current form, mind you, but the ability of those institutions to adapt and/or new ones to stabilize.  Many of the so-called “future of news gurus,” of which Shirky is one of the most well-known, are constantly getting heat for what many seem to believe is their tendency to cheer the demise of newspapers and other traditional media (among other things). Most of these “FONs” have responded to this critique by pointing out that they aren’t cheering so much as simply pointing out the inevitable, but I think this report might help solidify some areas of agreement among those who care about journalism and, one hopes, dispel some of the more useless black and white thinking about the issue. Here is the key quote:

“Institutions provide certain key advantages when it comes to reporting news in the public interest: the kind of leverage, symbolic power, continuity and slack necessary to go toe-to-toe with other institutions: politicians, governmental agencies, businesses, schools, nonprofits, religious organizations. Yet the very same ‘systems of established and prevalent social rules’ that help give institutions their heft also, in their inertia, serve to block necessary and needed change. The solution to this paradox is not to abandon institutions. Nor is it to blindly stick with the institutions that have traditionally provided the best journalism in the past.”

  • I love the watchdog vs. scarecrow metaphor. Let’s face it, as important as the watchdog function is to democracy, the watchdog barks only rarely, but, thanks to institutional continuity, its presence serves as a critical check on power. This is one of the reasons we need institutions, even though they are hard to change.
  • The report also does a nice job of reaffirming the value of original reporting while also noting that curation/aggregation, crowdsourcing, and other new and evolving forms of journalism are important, too. Another good example of avoiding black and white thinking.
  • Their list of what journalists today need is useful for journalism schools to think about when designing curricula: 1)Mindset – to improve journalism, entrepreneurial 2)network – of sources, professional colleagues, etc. 3)Persona, helps readers to feel engaged with the journalist; ability to convey your values, your judgment and integrity 4)Specialist knowledge e.g. “contextual micro fame” 5) Knowledge of data and statistics 5)Understanding metrics and audience 6)Coding (at least how to speak the language if not advanced programming) 7)Storytelling 8)Project management
  • Also of relevance to journalism professors: The artfully named “Final Cut vs. Excel” problem.  “Journalism schools are more likely to teach tools related to basic video production than to basic data exploration.” I’d like to think this is not a vs. but an and, but sure enough, the one class my department in an overstuffed curriculum could agree on eliminating, much to my chagrin, was computer-assisted reporting. (?!?!). Food for thought, at the very least.
  • If you were still holding out some small hope that advertising will be able to support journalism of the future in anything resembling the way it did in the past, this piece will rid you of that notion. Not a new argument, but it’s pretty stark when you stop and really contemplate it anew.
  • Inflexible, print-oriented content management systems are among the biggest impediments to changing newsroom processes. My husband works for a daily newspaper, and all I can say to that is “hell yes.” I like their “break the glass” protocol, which allows you to override CMS protections when you need to on deadline, subject to subsequent oversight.
  • The story of how the New York Daily News built their Storm Tracker system during Hurricane Irene is a great one that resonates with all my research and observations in newsrooms. It illustrates perfectly the core issue that process [and I’d add, culture] are the biggest impediments to change. Cops wouldn’t let staff into the newsroom, so they HAD to hack the CMS to allow people to log in from elsewhere. Also,  Irene happened in late August when senior management was on vacation and couldn’t stop the younger, more junior, web-savvy staff.
  • I love the general advice  for journalists who wants to embrace the future: “Proceed until apprehended.” Pretty much my life motto.

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