It should come as no surprise that a journalist’s favorite topic of late is the future of journalism. Bleak matters for certain. What is surprising though is how few are speaking, or writing, on the future of journalists. Assuming blind optimism for a moment, that journalists will be necessary in the new world order, what is the paradigm that they will inhabit? How will the new journalist best communicate information? Thankfully there is a pretty good model to look at here for the future journalist, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof.
I think that there will be two important aspects to the future journalist. Whether we like it or not, Web 2.0 has firmly established itself as the internet strategy of the modern web user. No longer will people sit on the sidelines having entertainment delivered to them without their input. Passive media ingestion is now fodder for the Natural History Museum, much like Laser Discs and personal privacy. From here on out the comments section is definitely on, so wookie1138 can tell you exactly how much he hates everything you do, say, or feel. While much of the established print press has resisted this, it is a mistake. The world wants interaction, and if it isn’t offered, then people will move on.
Nick Kristof presents an interesting picture of interactive journalist. Not only does he welcome comments on his column, blog, twitter, etc., he welcomes advice. One of his recent blog entries was titled “New Topics for the New Year?”. Yes he is looking for responses to his reporting, but he’s also asking his readers to plug him in to any untouched stories out there. A lot of establishment journos pucker at this idea, the great and mighty reporter slumming it with the plebes for a tip. It’s a reporter’s job to find the story, not the reader’s, right? Well, why not cast a wider net? Why not include the reader as a source? Isn’t the best story telling just part of a larger conversation? I really think that Kristof is on to something here.
The second piece of the new journalist puzzle is presentation. How does the journalist tell the story? The old model involved reporting for a paper or a magazine and then every few years or so maybe latching onto the detail of a topic for a book. This worked well when there were plenty of newspapers and magazines to employ journalists, but the times, they are a changin’. This may not be a bad thing for journalists though, at least not the good ones. I equate the current climate for journalists to the end of the studio system in Hollywood, where hundreds of low rent actors lost their steady paychecks, but the cream rose to the top to collect a much bigger payday. When the studio system ended, actors essentially became freelance contractors, guns for hire if you will. Journalists look to be going this way as well, especially while the media world looks to find a new and successful business model. This may not be all bad though. Just as the studio breakdown put the industry power in the hands of the actor, so the media breakdown might do the same for the journalist.
What journalists will need though is to market themselves rather than the entities they work for. Journalists will need to become the main attraction. Again, Nick Kristof seems to have the model for this in the form of a sort of reverse media pyramid, or more accurately, a reverse word count pyramid. The reverse pyramid is, in its simplest sense, a break down of the different forms. First there is the most pedantic avenue of information, the place where the journalist really establishes his raison d’etre, which is a book. Kristof right now has the best seller Half The Sky. Next is something long form, or if not long form, longish by today’s attention span standards. This is where the journalist maybe has a primary beat on a magazine or a newspaper. Kristof of course has his NYT column. Then there is the blog, smaller then the long form stuff, but still long enough to parse a reasonable amount of info. More importantly though is pace. With the blog there can be a couple of updates a week. This is where the journalist really starts to get into a conversation with her reader. Next comes the social media, Facebook say and then finally Twitter. Twitter provides the avenue for intra-day updates and real interaction with the reader albeit in very brief doses. Kristof has really done well to master all of these and his reward is a large group of loyal readers.
With media evolving so quickly, I think the particulars of such a pyramid should stay fluid, but to my mind the bigger to smaller idea is really the future. Journalists need to get off of the pedestal and realize that reporting is no longer about telling people what they should be interested in, it is about a conversation. The conversation may not always be good but fighting against the tide at this point is pretty futile. There is, however, endless potential in the conversation paradigm of reporting, and while journalists may be evolving, I think it is important to realize that evolving doesn’t mean going away.