Why Trump is good for journalism

Publishers and journalists need to explain what they do and and why they do it. Photo by Philip Strong, via Unsplash.com

Let’s face it. Donald Trump is the best thing to happen to journalism in years, perhaps ever. Not only is the new president constantly talking about journalists and journalism. Because of him, so is everybody else.

Strangely, for such a student of reality TV, the president seems to have forgotten his Oscar Wilde: to paraphrase from above, don’t ever, ever let the punters forget you.

This could be a once in a generation opportunity to state boldly and frequently the case for journalists and journalism, and not just behind the walls of Fortress United States, but right across the journo-hating, reporter-baiting planet.

So, we better not waste the opportunity.

Here are a few thoughts on what journalism might like to do — and in some cases is already doing — to make sweet jam from Trump’s bitter words:

1Publishers need to invest in journalism. There, I said it: Stop selling and cutting, start buying and growing. The laws of supply and demand are going to place a premium on journalists who excel in the core skills of journalism — digging, reporting, listening and being persistent and curious. People are hungry for independent news. Recent US media subscription increases attest to that. Trump is good for our business.

2Journalists need to listen to their audiences. Not a unique point (though I was talking about this stuff a few years ago) but there are real and tangible benefits for journalism if they start listening more, especially to people who they don’t necessarily agree with or look like.

3Publishers and journalists need to explain what they do and and why they do it. Be more accountable and transparent. Not doing so, or being less than frank, has given the Trump-eteers an opportunity to spread around terms like fake news and alternative facts, aka, respectively, lies and propaganda. There are multiple ways to be more open. Suggested first step: employ a readers’ editor to be a bridge between journalists and the public.

4Make more original journalism — reveal more — and less stuff that simply fills holes. Audiences are bored and disengaged with journalism that doesn’t look like — and act like — journalism as distinct from the incremental, hokey and fluffy stuff they get in their social media feeds. That doesn’t mean it all has to be hard news. Or that there’s anything terribly wrong with fluff. But that’s not what journalists are for.

5Try to be more constructive. As James Fallows documented two decades ago, journalists in part broke the news — and didn’t do much for democracy along the way — because they spent more time reporting the pie fight than what went into the pies. Anyone can see the fight. But journalists are best placed to explain, construct and deconstruct what goes into the pies.

6Be local and be relevant. It is sad (perhaps) but true that much of life is run of the mill stuff. Local schools, local sports, local roads. Whatever. Journalists ought to dream of Watergate but depending on the context of where and how they are working, they also need to think about our/your gate. The fourth estate is a lofty and worthy ideal but it means much more than bringing down a president. (Presidents are obviously worthy subjects of investigation, btw.)

7Separate facts from commentary and analysis. This is not as simple as it sounds because facts are not “pure”. They don’t come to the journalist in a hermetically sealed pouch labeled “here are all the facts you need for this story”. There are judgment calls at every turn. Facts are sought, denied, compromised and bargained for — and in order to produce journalism, they are wrestled to the ground, roped up and branded. But every journalist knows where commentary enters their story; and every editor ought to know when a story is less factual reporting and more analysis or straight out opinion. Again, be more transparent.

8Journalists and editors need to embrace collaboration. They need to work more with the product people, UX designers and developers inside the building (or close to hand) to produce better and more relevant journalism — and beyond that, they need to form broader alliances within and across civil society. This leads to the next point.

9Re-state journalism as a progressive ideal that seeks to help readers and listeners make better-informed decisions. Journalism is perhaps too often seen and practised in political or ideological terms. Progressive ideals are not the sole purview of the political left or right.

10Experiment with ways of using Artificial Intelligence and smart machines to better connect with and understand audiences. Some jobs in journalism will be lost to machines. That is happening or going to happen across a broad spectrum of job categories that have repetitive and structured tasks. Journalism is not immune. But journalism is creative. Typically it isn’t repetitive. Why not supercharge that creativity with artificial intelligence? Why not transform journalism for a new era — for a Trump and post-Trump age?

11Everything Trump and his people say needs to be fact-checked. Period. Journalism will outlive Donald Trump and other populist leaders who play to the base by castigating and denigrating journalists. Take that as a given. The question is how will we make the best of the opportunities before us in the meantime?

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