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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Online Journalism: Like "Drinking from a Firehose?"

An old friend and colleague, Al Stavitsky spent a few days here in Washington, DC to work with me on a project. Al is the Associate Dean of Journalism at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He and I have worked together over the years and we have co-authored the Ethics Guide for Public Radio as commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting back in 2005. Al is also one of the foremost writers and thinkers about the issue of media convergence and in that role, I invited him to speak to my class last Thursday night at Georgetown University.

Al is a natural teacher and I knew the students would find his presentation engaging and amusing (Al used to do stand up comedy in Eugene. Timing is everything in both show business and teaching).

In his discussion about covergence and how journalism is being reinvented for the Internet, Al mentioned as an example of how life for journalists and journalism is changing, the job descriptions of positions available at NPR.
While there were the more traditional jobs available such as program producer, Berlin Correspondent and Business Reporter, there were some others which would have sounded bizarre even a few years ago.

For example, there is a position called "Senior Interactive Designer, User Experience Delivery." Another is entitled "Associate Producer, Social Media - Editorial." Both positions require extensive computer literacy with the aim at creating new forms of journalism, new communities of journalistic consumers and then assessing how effectively these new journalism forms serve the NPR users.

I understand from colleagues inside NPR that a ukase has been sent from senior management to avoid using the term "radio" when describing what NPR does. Naturally, this fatwa provoked considerable discussion among the older staff. But it does have a certain logic. NPR sees itself as no longer "just" a radio service. The phrase these days is "platform agnostic," meaning it will provide information in a variety of forms - online, text, webcasting, webstreaming, video, stills and oh yes, audio - aka radio. Al also suggested that "The Platform Agnostics" would be a good name for a band...

NPR, like other mass media organizations, understands that one of the things that Al spoke about at Georgetown, was something called "demassification." That's academese for there's no more mass media, or media that serves large collective audiences that share similar experiences at the same time. He also pointed out that audience fragmentation is something that is going on faster than you can say "declining readership" and the efforts by NPR to try to find a way to deal with that are nothing short of impressive.

At the same time, it occurred to me that the way in which information is transmitted can runs the risk of trivializing even the most essential and important ideas.

This notion is not new, and many others have lamented the way in which on line journalism is changing the content through the delivery. I have described the stream of information that is available to the public as like trying to take a drink from a firehose. You end up getting wet, but your thirst remains.

The problem of providing solid, reliable and contextual information remains: will online journalism be able to give listeners, readers and viewers that kind of connections to the rest of the world that old media - with all its limitations - at least aspired to do? Will new media be able to stop the fragmentation of audiences or will online journalism, with its hyperlinks and its lack of narrative reporting simply exacerbate the process?

As Al and I mused on this over a beer after class, neither us could say whether we felt journalism and citizenship - to say nothing of "user experience deliverables" - would be better served by new media. We toasted NPR and wished them well. But we still have no idea what this "brave new world" might look like. And neither, we suspect, do any of media organizations now trying to figure out what the information landscape might look like even six months from now.

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