Saturday, October 14, 2006

Olverholser: Throw out assumptions -- some ideas for keeping journalism relevant

Poynter Institute Online

Posted, Oct. 12, 2006 / Updated, Oct. 12, 2006

Wake Up, Newsies:
Stop Fretting and Start Building

A veteran editor and journalism activist argues that there are plenty of
ways to save good journalism -- but somebody has to pursue them.

By Geneva Overholser

To all who anguish about the prospects for journalism, here is an invitation: Let us turn our energy toward possibility. There are many opportunities to help ensure the survival of good journalism -- various steps that could be taken by different individuals and organizations. But focusing on those possibilities requires a change of perspective.

For one thing, it is difficult to embrace new prospects while clinging to the past by our fingernails -- however natural a reaction that has been to the fearsome developments of late. To champion journalism effectively, we will have to distinguish between our traditions and our principles. We have wonderful memories of all the things that once were, but few of them are essential to democracy. We must concentrate on those that are. If we spill our passion on keeping ads off the front page, will we have enough fight left in us to champion investigative reporting?

In these days of fast-paced change, we will have to give up on looking at things as simply as we have in the past. Similarly, we must open our minds to the possibility that some activities we have held ourselves resolutely above may now in fact be required of us. Our journalism must speak for itself, we have said. But nowadays the sound of journalism is easily lost amid the din of the many who scorn, misportray and revile it. Who, if not we, will make journalism's case? We must be prepared, too, to work together with people whom we have always kept at an "appropriate" distance. (A local citizens' group is worried about media ownership? That's their business, not ours. Or is it?)

And we will most assuredly have to get it through our heads (and hearts) just how exciting and full of possibility for journalism's future are today's new venues -- all those new digital platforms that so many have simply wished would go away. What could be worse than having journalism on iPods? How about NOT having it there? Take a cruise through some of the Web sites that, say, give ethnic news a well-deserved wider hearing. Or that enable people to search crime news by type, time and location. Or that pay the sort of loving attention to what's going on in a particular neighborhood that only an old-fashioned weekly once knew how to do. How wondrously they put us to shame, all of us with our endless reasons why we can't possibly fit something in our newspaper or newscast.

In these days of fast-paced change, we will have to give up on looking at things as simply as we have in the past. Take media ownership, which is fast becoming a much more complex picture. Nonprofits are an increasingly key source of everything from international investigative reporting to local-local news. And consider this: Given the way newspapers are changing hands, perhaps former editors and publishers should offer their services as a kind of traveling think tank to some of these folks who've suddenly ended up as local newspaper owners. Meanwhile, should public policy be shaped so as to make it easier to take publicly held companies private?

The bountiful opportunities to affect the future of journalism are available to people in all kinds of different positions. Board members could demand that the health of their companies' journalism be audited as avidly as its fiscal health -- and that their executives be rewarded as richly for the one as for the other. Shareholders could band together to exert pressure for corporate responsibility among media companies, much as they have pressed for corporate environmental responsibility.

We'll have to open our minds to new possibilities, take risks, experiment and engage one another (and lots of others) in lively discussions about new and unsettling prospects.Elected representatives could pass tax legislation to make it easier for news companies to be organized as nonprofit, tax-exempt corporations. Colleges could make civics and news literacy classes part of their entrance requirements. The journalism academy could turn its massive research capability toward questions of practical import for journalists: How can the concept of objectivity best be formulated to serve journalism today? How can journalism's enduring values be translated even more richly online? Journalism organizations could recognize excellence in ways that strengthen the craft: Master copy editors, say, anointed by the American Copy Editors Society, would have responsibilities to nurture the craft back in their newsrooms. The opportunities go on and on. Some are easy to ponder, others immedi!
ately discomforting: Should the government provide tax breaks for under-heard voices? Should an independent council be established to track, promote and define the news function in the United States?

But here is something truly unsettling: the prospect of a journalism hollowed out by corporate dictates, undermined by rants gone unanswered and swamped in a sea of "media outlets" meeting every need but democracy's.

To ward that off, we'll have to move past a lot of givens. We'll have to figure out what is really essential, and prepare to jettison what isn't. We'll have to open our minds to new possibilities, take risks, experiment and engage one another (and lots of others) in lively discussions about new and unsettling prospects. We'll have to take responsibility for our future -- and for the future of this craft we love.

We can save journalism -- if we open ourselves to the possibilities.

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