November 3, 2010

Evolving, and Devolving Journalism Ethics & Business Model in New & Social Media Era.

bdw_live on Justin.tv

Note: above video will expire in week. With thanks to Jen Myronuk, we hope to have an edited version up shortly.


Journalism has never had a Golden Age. That’s important to get straight at the outset.

Back in the 1800s, we had tabloid yellow journalism. In the 1960s, no less than media pioneer Edward R. Murrow martyred himself, in a famous speech, on the altar of Enlightened Journalism.

Still, the last 10 years—without hardly anyone noticing or caring—have been the worst of times, the best of times for journalism. Ever.

Maybe 80% of quality, investigative, original journalism is gone.

On the other hand, mommy bloggers (and family) can, sipping coffee in their bedroom or local cafe, do four things that, up until 15 years ago or so and, would have been considered downright magical.

  1. We can publish.
  2. We can do so for free.
  3. We can distribute everywhere.
  4. And we can do so instantaneously.

But clicking “publish” does not a journalist make.

Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar. ~ Edward R. Murrow

Journalism is a craft, a profession, best taught by hardened, irreverent and fundamentally idealistic individuals. I had many such professors at Boston University, where I attended Communications College for Journalism in the 1990s. One of my best professors was an active journalist at the Boston Herald—which was closer to tabloid in form and content that it was to, say, the Globe or the NY Times or the Washington Post. But he spent months training and teaching and taming and cutting our writing. Mostly cutting.

My other professors, a few of them, were writers and editors from the respected, non-sectarian Christian Science Monitor, widely considered one of the best papers for journalism ethics and quality in the country—it was passionately admired by Chogyam Trungpa, my parents’ Oxford-trained Buddhist teacher. They hammered at me, and my peers, about ethics for years. At the time, I didn’t know why. I thought hearing that we should be ethical once was enough.

Only when I was released into the wild, and started my own magazine, in 2002, did I learn firsthand how I and all journalists are tested and tempted to change what we say, if only subtly, by advertising dollars.

Traditionally, print journalism has had four table legs to its business model: newsstand sales, subscription sales, advertising and classifieds. Craigslist killed the lucrative classifieds leg almost overnight. Advertising has dwindled, or remained steady at best, as the economy has suffered and more and more ad dollars flow online. Subscriptions have collapsed, particularly for newspapers, as news is available free and instantly online. Same with newsstand sales.

I made good money—not great, but steady and growing money through my magazine. Enough that I could slowly build up staff, infrastructure, distribution and quality overall. But after six years, I found that I couldn’t 1) distribute and grow a magazine to a first or second tier level of fame, influence and money-making ability without compromising the eco-responsiblity which lies close to the core of our editorial mission. And, two, I had finally, belatedly, fallen in love with writing online. I saw that it was instant, it was cheap, it was “greener,” it was growing. And I made the leap. I gave up 90% of my revenues, my staff, my offices, my car, and nearly lost my house. But it was worth it—because while no one knows exactly where journalism is going and what it will look like when it gets there, the tides of history and technology is clear.

Two years later, we’ve won some awards for our work in social media—I literally credit twitter and facebook with having saved my business. We’re already far more connected and popular in two years than we were in a magazine, after six. This isn’t about us—we haven’t changed our message or content particularly. This is about new and social media—which enables anyone to connect with other organizations in a cooperative, not competitive manner—every day. For instance, I tweet and am tweeted by PETA frequently on food and diet and vegan and vegetarian issues. Or Whole Foods, or the occasional celeb.

Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. ~ Edward R. Murrow

But we no longer put out quality content. Well, let me be more precise: we put out more quality content than we used to—40 articles every 4 days, instead of 40 articles once every three months, as we did with elephant magazine. But those articles tend to be less edited, and more opinion-based. Just as readers don’t pay to read, we can’t pay our writers to write. Writers, unpaid, are not journalists—they don’t have the time to make phone calls and research much. They focus more on popularity, on issues, on opinion. Opinion is cheap, as they say.

But for every negative—more opinion, less fourth-estate watch dog—there’s a positive. The 2.0 nature of new media—you know, reader comments—is hugely valuable, even transformative of the fundamental function of communication—if it’s constrained by a editorial policy that requires respect.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.

There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television [or any new media ~ ed.] could be useful.

Fundamentally, journalism ethics matter.

They were the subject of Jon Stewart’s 12 minute closing speech at his Rally to Restore Sanity. Why? Because we inform and shape society, we divide or bring together society, we enlighten or we antagonize. We are called the fourth estate (after executive, legislative, judicial brances) for a reason—we are, at Jefferson said, necessary to the functioning of democracy. Journalism can create enlightened society, or it can entertain. Or, at its best, it can do both—a la the Daily Show, 60 Minutes, Fresh Air, New Yorker, New York Times, Economist, Wall Street Journal (at least pre-Murdoch).

If we were to do the Second Coming of Christ in color for a full hour, there would be a considerable number of stations which would decline to carry it on the grounds that a Western or a quiz show would be more profitable. ~ Edward R. Murrow

Still, in new media journalism today, self-censorship isn’t common—it’s rampant. We bloggers give up our duty to serve as watchdogs in exchange for shallow friendships, or 350 dollars in schwag. This weekend, for instance, I’m being flown and put up in a hotel, expenses paid. Why? I don’t have the advertising or subscription or newsstand revenue to cover those expenses myself. I have no staff, anymore, in fact. And do you think the $1,000 bucks they’re throwing at me for coverage on elephantjournal.com and our popular twitter and facebook pages comes free? Sure, it’s up to me to remain critical and do so respectfully. But it’s tough, even with my great ethics training. And most bloggers these days didn’t have old school journalism ethics hammered into ’em.

As for monetization, my guess is that we will imitate the music industry. We’ve done a good job of collapsing, and transforming over the last 15 years, just as music did with Napster and then Jobs’ iTunes. Soon, we’ll begin putting up paywalls. Not hard paywalls, a la a few well-known failures. It’ll be like the second-try NY Times’s model. You’ll be allowed to browse for free, just as we do in a bookstore or newsshop. But then, if we want to read in-depth, we’ll be asked to pay a pittance, and it’ll just be one click to do so.

As for advertising, it will continue to shift online and to other forms of new media as more and more of us watch movies and videos and read and subscribe online, though of course not entirely.

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