Last August, I decided to leave the newsroom and go back to the school benches. Unlike many other colleagues, though, my reason to leave was not the pessimistic perspective of a declining industry, or even the stress of an underpaid and over explored profession. It was due to an optimistic view that journalism still matters, maybe more than ever, and we need to figure out how to make it viable again.
“Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present”, by Chris Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, gives some valuable insight on how journalists can survive on this unstable scenario. It starts with the assumption that “there are many opportunities for doing good work in new ways”. It might sound obvious, but a relevant part of the traditional – and, sometimes, the non-traditional – media responds to our current challenges by trading relevance for click-baiting. Therefore, the thought internet can be a tool for improving journalism, not lowering its quality, is a good starting point.
The essay presents many qualities that new journalists need to pursue in order to maintain their work’s relevance and quality. A few of them I found particularly important for the type of journalism I want to make. A basic literacy level in coding is one of them.
“Journalists should learn to code. It’s true that to be fluent and useful in many programming languages requires very highly developed skills; not every journalist will be able to do this, and not every journalist should do this. But every journalist needs to understand at a basic literacy level what code is, what it can do, and how to communicate with those who are more proficient.”
Coincidentally, as I was reading this essay, the daily journalist routine showed me the importance of coding. On Monday, I was working on a story about magistrates and public prosecutors that received wages above the legal salary cap. I knew that both the State Court and the Prosecution Office had this data available on their website. But the volume of information we wanted to extract required either entire weeks of work or an automated routine that could download and organize the information. And I wouldn’t know where to start to build this automated routine.
Since the story had a huge potential, a developer was assigned to help me with this process, and this data issue was solved in a matter of hours. Nonetheless, I kept thinking of how many other great stories I could go after, on my own, if I knew a little bit of coding.
Other relevant quality underlined by this essay is more about a change of habits than proper learning of new techniques. After five years working as a political reporter, I developed a reasonable range of sources, from well informed employees in the city council to senators and other high rank politicians. Nonetheless, I neglected to establish relations with the audience. I’ve made all my social media accounts private – in order to keep some level of privacy – and avoided any form of interaction with readers.
“Public persona was once the exclusive territory of the high-profile columnist. Now it is part of the job of every journalist; editors and reporters, designers, photographers, videographers, data scientists and social media specialists all have their own perspectives and accountability for storytelling. This requires judgment exercised consistently and publicly; whatever the medium of publication, information is now instantly shared, discussed, annotated, criticized and praised in a live, uncontrolled environment.”
A journalist presence on social media might be important for the development of a solid career, since a high popularity in this environment might be transformed into a bigger impact of a journalist’s work.
But also, being a public person can also be a way to make journalism more transparent to the readers. To know who’s behind the story might turn the story itself more “believable” – or less, depending on the reporter’s reputation. And, when all sorts of conspiracy theory are popping on everyone’s timelines, any efforts toward making a serious and relevant work “believable” is worth a try.
But their analysis is not restricted to journalists. They also state that, despite the model crisis, traditional institutions are still important. Even the most successful new journalistic enterprises lack the influence, the funds and the capacity to follow a story from the first report to the last. Also, a story published on The New York Times or The Guardian is still seen by the audience as more “believable” than something written by an unknown blog. And this sort of credibility is particularly important when readers are bombarded with all sorts of information, from all sorts of sources.
Nonetheless, the lack of resources and the changing environment mean institutions have to change to survive.
“We want to argue that news institutions of the future, apart from simply being smaller and revenue agnostic, should have three defining characteristics. They will have a hackable workflow. They will embrace a form of what we call “networked institutionalism,” and many of the largest, national journalism organizations should embrace local accountability journalism in partnership with local news outlets. Finally, news institutions will have to dramatically rethink what counts as “valid journalistic evidence,” find new ways to evaluate this new evidence, and program these collection and evaluation process into their hackable workflows.”
I believe that these sort of changes on the media ecosystem (and others) are not solely a publisher’s headache. Journalists that work for these institutions need to be able to propose new models of work, new formats and new ways to overcome this crisis and make this new, post-industrial journalism reach its full potential.
And this is precisely why I decided to leave the newsroom: so I can eventually come back. With new ideas, new insights, new ways to do a good, relevant work.