Reporting isn’t journalism.
This is a distinction that few people understand, including many in the news business. And an inability to distinguish between the two is one reason why newspapers and other traditional media outlets continue to lose paying customers to the Web.
We no longer need traditional media and professional reporters to inform us of breaking news because Twitter or Facebook has it first. Reporting, as I noted back in 2009, is a commodity. Any person with an Internet connection can report on the facts of a news event – be it an earthquake, a political upheaval or the outcome of a sporting contest.
In fact, bloggers and citizen journalists do it quite well – sometimes providing better insight than professional reporters.
That’s because reporting is simply the act of collecting facts about an event or an issue and then summarizing it in a brief article. The one advantage you get from a professional reporter that you don’t get from an amateur is that the professional will provide a balanced summary. But as I’ve noted many times in this space, balance is vastly overrated.
That said there’s no doubt that a skilled reporter is of value, especially one that is a good writer, but reporting isn’t a difficult job and anyone with a few weeks of training can learn the necessary skills to be a professional reporter. This low bar of entry is why citizen journalists have cropped up everywhere.
This is one reason why newspaper circulation continues to plummet. It turns out that people don’t want to pay for reporting.
Journalism, however, is another story. Journalism is getting beneath the news to provide insight. It’s investigation, analysis and thoughtful commentary. It’s in-depth expository reporting. People will pay for journalism because bloggers and Tweeters don’t have the skills to do it well. Take a look at the success of the New York Times paywall as evidence that readers will pay for good journalism.
Rather than move to providing more journalism, newspapers have turned instead to hyperlocal as the new savior – because it is cheaper and less difficult than to focus on journalism. So they are covering small communities and cities with blanket reporting – parades, Board of Selectmen meetings, school board votes, high school sports, etc.
And, not surprisingly, it hasn’t worked. Readers either don’t care or are getting the hyperlocal news from online outlets like Patch Media that specialize in localized reporting. The formula is the same – the Web provides for free what the newspapers want to charge for.
Unfortunately, many newspapers abandoned journalism long ago because it was too expensive and journalists (usually older veteran reporters) were laid-off and replaced by younger and inexperienced reporters. Even worse, many newspapers never really practiced journalism all that much in the first place.
The Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I was a reporter for many years, is a typical example.
The T&G is a newspaper that never put a premium on journalism, but a heavy emphasis on reporting the happenings of Central Massachusetts. The joke used to be that if the world ended in nuclear holocaust the headline in the T&G would be “Worcester Among Cities Destroyed As World Ends.”
Without a real history of journalism, the T&G has emphasized its local reporting. When I left the newspaper in 1999 the daily circulation was above 117,000. The T&G now has a circulation of less than 83,000 and it continues to fall.
Clearly, this hyperlocal strategy isn’t working.
Unfortunately, reporting, even hyperlocal reporting, isn’t going to save newspapers. Sending reporters to government meetings and local events and publishing articles summarizing the happenings won’t sell newspapers anymore. Instead, they need to shift focus and invest in journalists and journalism. The days when newspapers were simple reporting mechanisms is over.
What can save newspapers? The answer has always been there. Journalism.
I’d be interested in hearing from readers about this topic. What are your thoughts about reporting vs. journalism and reporters vs. journalists?
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