What journalists can leave behind on our way to the Promised Land

Originally published in What’s New in Publishing by David Cohn

I often refer to the journalism community as a diaspora. Like the Jews in the biblical story of Moses, we’ve left.

Most people know the basics of the story; After 10 miraculous events the Jewish people grabbed unleavened bread (Matzah) and fled the only life they knew in search of a new homeland. What most people don’t know about the story is that despite all the miracles that happened, the Jews weren’t whisked away to the promised land, or even a place with air-conditioning. Instead, they wandered the desert for 40 years. An entire generation lived and died only knowing this nomadic life. And while it can be depressing to think of journalists today as wandering the desert, there is also a noble role that this generation must play.

When fleeing their life in Egypt, there wasn’t much time and so it was an easy choice to take unleavened bread. At the same moment, the Jews decided to take the Torah, a cumbersome and heavy object, strapped to their backs and protected for the next 40 years. This was a value decision. Today, journalists are making similar decisions. What do we value? What are the traditions, customs and ethics we wish to carry with us for generations to come and what do we feel comfortable dropping, to be lost in the sands of time?

Three Examples: What we can drop

A perfect example of a tradition to be dropped is the “reporter standup” performed by most local broadcasters. This was first pointed out by Jeff Jarvis in 2008 in this post “Rethinking TV news.” While beautifully fit for a time-locked TV viewing experience, this tradition of the TV reporter being ‘on the scene,’ but really just holding a mic against a backdrop that doesn’t add much information, will go the way of the Dodo bird. And as far as values go, I don’t think we’re losing much. Seems like leavened bread to me.

Another place of slippage is the idea that a local paper must be “daily.” We’re already seeing this with the decline of 7-day-a-week print editions, but even digital-first news organizations may decide that they don’t need the eyeballs from churning content, and would prefer the loyalty of subscribers earned from infrequent but deep reporting. Maybe it would be a boon to have a news org that only focuses on press releases dropped on Friday evenings. Such an org wouldn’t compete with the breaking news of the AP, but it could become a highly sought-after weekly visit rich with sponsors and members.

A third area of change might be the dropping of relatively young trends or traditions, which have only come of age recently. During our nomadic years we’ve seen the rise of millennial media news organizations, mostly venture-backed and reliant on social media platforms for distribution. In retrospect, our worship of the “pivot to video” could be seen as a false idol moment. It’s definitely something we’ve lived through and has played a formative role for any journalist coming of age in the last 15 years, but I wonder if some of the newer habits from these orgs will stand the test of time. These organizations changed the way we wrote headlines and the traditional career arc (go straight to New York, do not stop in a small market first, do not collect print clips) and more. But I suspect many of these traditions will revert or morph. Whereas elements of this fad will become a part of journalism going forward, others may end up watered down as new, more fit traditions take their place.

What we can’t stand to lose

If that’s what we can leave behind, what is our Torah? What are the traditions and norms we should strap to our back and carry through the wasteland no matter what? This is the most important question for journalists today, because ultimately this will be our legacy – what we carry forward. What I most value about this framing is it brings us back to first principles. What is journalism for?

It’s worth noting that this is precisely where the best arguments should be had. While I offer suggestions, I don’t think any one person can be the arbiter of truth here. At one time most journalists would have listed “objectivity” as an immediate keeper, but even that value is under attack as something to drop in the sands of time. I’ve even been part of a startup that tried to imagine journalism without the confines of “the article” as the core unit of information. Nothing should be taken for granted and everything must prove its worth. That’s our generation’s calling. We are the funnel through which values and traditions must pass and we should not take that responsibility lightly.

What do you, reader, think are the values and traditions journalism can leave behind and what should we clutch close to our chest?

1 thought on “What journalists can leave behind on our way to the Promised Land”

  1. Leave behind, far behind, the notion that journalism must stand above considerations of product, marketing, sales, that is, above the business of providing news. I was once a journalist, and then crossed the great divide to the business side of media. As I looked back, I marveled at how my former colleagues flouted their innumeracy, as though that ignorance somehow protected them from the clutches of Mammon. The superiority of the high priests of the newsroom removed them from the reality of the markets they were supposed to serve. It bred hubris and myopia. It explains why newspapers in particular failed to develop new digital news products for new audiences. All journalists should have a basic understanding of consumer product development and the principles of marketing, including segmentation, data analysis, retention and churn, and promotion. How else can they expect to succeed?

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