Reporting is Now a Commodity, but Journalism Isn’t


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There’s a lot of urgency about saving journalism in the wake of the destruction caused by the Great Media Collapse of 2009.

This is a good thing.  Journalism is a fundamental cornerstone of a strong democracy and an open and progressive society.  The problem, however, is that many people associate journalism only with print news – newspapers and magazines.  With the rapid decline of print there’s a fear that journalism is also in danger.

I don’t think we need to worry about journalism.  There will definitely be struggles as media companies figure out models to monetize it.  But journalism isn’t going anywhere – except online.

But here’s a reality that many pundits won’t acknowledge.  Many newspapers haven’t practiced journalism in a long time.  That’s part of the reason for their decline (along with a plethora of other challenges including the internet and the shift to online advertising).  What many print outlets are guilty of is letting journalism go while placing a laser-like focus on reporting.

And reporting is dead.  Well, not dead, but has been made into a commodity by the web.  Consumers of news don’t want to pay for reporting anymore because they can get it for free via mobile phones, PDAs, computers and laptops.  Reporting is what the internet is really good at.

In the age of instant communications via the web – reporting simply doesn’t make sense for print anymore.  For example, who learns about the winner of a Sunday NFL game in the Monday edition of a newspaper?  Very, very few people.  We now get live updates on NFL games on the web – every score change, every big play, and instantly updated statistics on the players.  Fans of the NFL know almost immediately after the game is over who won.  Print simply can’t compete with TV, radio, and internet when it comes to reporting on sports.

It is an easy bet that more people are alerted to sports scores through text messages and Twitter than by newspapers.

The same now holds true for most news.  When there is a plane crash or a hurricane or terrorist act, most people get the first reports on the internet or through instant modes of communication: TV and radio.  Twitter is now emerging as the fastest place to get breaking news alerts.  Even Facebook status updates are faster than print media.  There’s simply no place for reporting in newspapers and magazines anymore.  By the time they report on “news” it is already stale.

Here is a safe bet.  Today the state of Massachusetts is holding preliminary elections for U.S. senator (to fill the vacant seat left by the unfortunate death of Ted Kennedy).  Democrats and Republicans will be voting on which candidates will face off against each other in January.  Tomorrow the Boston Globe‘s headline will trumpet the winner.  Yet how many people won’t already know the results?

But thankfully reporting isn’t journalism.  In fact, there’s a huge difference between the two.

What’s the difference?

Reporting: A 747 aircraft crashed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean yesterday.

Journalism: A review of maintenance reports of the 747 aircraft that crashed last month revealed that the airplane had a faulty engine parts.  Reports indicate that airline management ignored warnings that the parts were malfunctioning.

Journalism is getting beneath the news.  It’s investigation, analysis and thoughtful commentary.  It’s in-depth expository reporting.  And people are still willing to pay for good journalism.  That’s why newspapers and magazines that have placed a premium on providing good journalism have done better – for the most part – than those that focused more on reporting (the Wall Street Journal and New York Times come to mind).

Investment in journalism declined as print outlets cut back on expenses.  Journalism costs money and is time-consuming.  But without it, newspapers and magazines become less valuable.  We can get reporting and op-eds online – the web is filled with it.  Journalism is one thing that bloggers and aggregation sites and social networks can’t do well.

If newspapers and magazines want to survive they should focus on journalism and leave the reporting to the web.

What do you think?  And do you value good journalism over reporting?

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21 Responses to “Reporting is Now a Commodity, but Journalism Isn’t”

  1. The reporting/journalism distinction is a good one.

    Certainly journalists no-longer “own” breaking news, or even news to a great extent.

    The problem for the big papers, who’ve lost money, is the ‘journalism’ – analysis and investigation are expensive.

    Smaller startups will be able to start doing more of this on a smaller budget.

  2. Lots of challenges ahead for large news operations, Adam. I’m not sure how small outlets will be able to afford it though. I’m thinking we going to see more media companies modeled like NPR – funded with grants, endowments and donations.

  3. George: You make great points here.

    There’s another dimension that I don’t think you mentioned — accuracy. Sure, reporting per se is now commoditized, but is *good* reporting commoditized? I’m not so sure. I think we will see reputation and reliability re-emerge as important factors in consumer demand for news. And I think it can make for enough product differentiation that consumers will be willing to pay for content — not a lot, but possibly enough to support a commercial model.

    There’s no way to make a pay wall insurmountable, but you can make it inconvenient for people to continually have to go around it, inconvenient enough that they’ll pay a few bucks a month for ready access to the content. I envision the possibility that a model similar to cable TV may emerge for online news sites. You pay for the tier you want and have access the news sites that are on that tier.

    I also agree that an NPR-like nonprofit model has to emerge for local and regional online news outlets. I’ve been saying that for years. It makes perfect sense.

  4. Great topic for discussion, George! It’s also important to examine the market for journalism…and whether some stories can accurately be told just by reporters…

  5. Hi Alison:
    Thanks… and good point. I do think some things don’t need a “journalism” filter to be reported.

    Hi Peter:
    When I talk about reporting – I mean the relay of information. The basics. Who won the game. An earthquake in California. A plunge in the Dow.

    All of that information can to relayed – accurately – by sources on the ground due to the ubiquity of web access. The accuracy will come from the fact that we’ll have multiple sources “reporting” the same information.

    I do think journalism steps in to report about the how, when, where, why, who, etc… That’s getting into the meat of the story. And I agree with you that people are still willing to pay for it.

    Thanks for adding your excellent insights to the discussion…

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