What is Journalism? Let’s Find Out

John Strieder
May 3, 2015 · 5 min read
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Taping an episode of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” radio program at the 2015 What is Journalism conference

News geeks, data dorks, and journalists of all stripes converged in April at the University of Oregon Journalism School’s downtown Portland campus for the What is Journalism? conference. They heard a range of speakers take turns chewing on the current state of the industry.

Academics toyed with theory, literally attempting to answer the title question. Meanwhle, podcasters and multimedia producers dropped in from the field to speak about their practical successes in a post-newspaper world.

Notably, we heard from a lot of folks proud of their launches and innovations, but fewer good ideas about how a newbie in the field might make a solid living. A journalism conference next year could very well tell a different story. Journalism is now like any other digital product, which means this year’s hobby could well evolve into next year’s billion-dollar baby. It was fun wondering which wide-eyed producer on the WIJ stages would produce the next “Serial” or even the next Huffington Post.

Doctor delivers industry trends

Every good conference starts with a crisp keynote, and Ken Doctor of Newsonomics delivered, organizing industry trends into “Five Truths, Four Paradoxes and The Long Road Ahead.”

We might think that newspapers peaked right before the introduction of the World Wide Web, for example, but Doctor noted the peak circulation for the New York Daily News was way back in 1947. The print model was in decline well before the rise of the World Wide Web.

Doctor said that the journalism business model of “digital first” is working at The Oregonian, Portland’s newspaper of record. (The New York Times apparently agrees with him.)

Most local news companies were unprepared when the “mobile first” transition occurred, particularly when compared to national companies, he noted.

Finally, he recognized the services newspapers used to provide, from movie times to weather to box scores to classifieds. All these bits of data can now all be accessed easily via mobile apps. He wonders why newspapers don’t develop these apps as well.

Civic engagement: When reader are journalists

Harsha Gangadharbatla, interim chair of the Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design department at the University of Colorado, Boulder, examined “The Role of Social and Mobile Media in News Consumption.” He said that 90 percent of the content “out there” is generated by only 10 percent of the public.

Given the ubiquity of smartphones, why aren’t there more citizen journalists? Ryan S. Eanes, who explored “Smartphone Ubiquity and Antecedents for Citizen Journalism,” thinks that it takes a particular personality type to be a citizen journalist.

And Jesikah Maria Ross, community engagement specialist at Sacramento-based Capital Public Radio, says that as a “documentary mediamaker” who helps people tell their own stories, she encounters criticism of the idea of participatory journalism.

Innovation trend: Multiplatform journalism

Several innovators at this conference presented spins on the idea of multiplatform journalism — producing and releasing a story on several different platforms, either simultaneously or over time.

Jigar Mehta, leader of the engagement team at AJ+, says that journalists at his wing of Al Jazeera produce and publish on a variety of social media and content access platforms, not just paper and video. Their responsibility is to customize their pieces to fit each platform.

Jesikah Maria Ross advocated for an unlikely platform — audio. Bucking the conventional wisdom that radio is dead, she argued that when it comes to participatory projects, audio is the easiest and least invasive way for people to share their stories.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon is an award-winning documentary storyteller, visual journalist and one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2013. She called herself “platform agnostic,” meaning that she doesn’t limit herself to telling stories in only one form, and this is very apparent in her Emmy-nominated interactive documentary “Hollow”.

Also, Evan Hansen, head of Content Labs for Medium, brought forth some ideas surrounding tracking readers and quantifying engagement. “Total Time Reading” is software on Medium that tracks how long people actually spend on a page reading. He says that this information is at the core of Medium’s success in getting people to read more on the site.

Innovation trend: Changing newsrooms

First and foremost, newsrooms are changing by shrinking. Ken Doctor says that this equates to loss of experience, loss of intelligence, loss of wit and loss of civic capital.

Evan Hansen of Medium took the opportunity to promote how this platform can improve distribution. Substance, a college magazine, was ignored in print. It moved onto Medium, and now, not only do more alumni read it, but people around the globe are being exposed to it.

Jigar Mehta talked about using social media trends to direct story selection. For example, AJ+ responded to the #alexfromtarget trend by commissioning a story about minimum wage workers.

Lindsay Green-Barber, from the Center for Investigative Reporting, explained that while Reveal’s audiences come for big investigative reports, they are encouraged to return daily to engage.

Ethics

Professional journalism was a “bad referee,” John Nerone allows, but it’s better to have a bad referee than none at all, to protect the powerless. That’s why “hegemonic journalism” will rise again, he argues.

Journalistic ethics have fragmented, Stephen Ward stated. What he hopes is that new standards will be reconstituted into a clear whole instead of being adopted piece by piece.

Mr. Ward also noted that in the 20th century, journalists were considered stenographers of fact, with little theorizing, speculation or opinion allowed in their work. That concept is outdated, and good riddance, he says.

What is journalism?

All in all, defining journalism was no easy task, and much is still left up for debate. Here are some ways panelists defined it:

John Nerone, professor emeritus, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana: Journalism is an “ism.”

Stephen J. A Ward, a distinguished Lecturer in ethics at the School of Journalism, University of British Columbia and courtesy professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at University of Oregon: It’s difficult to clearly define journalism in the age of multiple platforms.

George Papagiannis, external relations and information officer with UNESCO: Journalism must include personal experience.

Sven Hakkanson Jr. summed it up nicely: Journalism is the power to take hold of our past and present as human beings so that we can have ownership over our stories.

By: Stephanie Essin and John Strieder

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