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A New Year’s Wish – Journalism curmudgeons, please get over it!

by: Michele McLellan |

January 03, 2012

A New Year’s Wish – Journalism curmudgeons, please get over it!

In the news business, there’s plenty of reason to be cranky as 2012 opens. But I see little that is as self-defeating as journalism curmudgeonry - the general attitude that traditional news organizations are irreplaceable and that the Internet is debasing journalism. Happily, most journalists seem to have moved on. But for the stragglers, here’s my four-step plan for recovering curmudgeons.

(I admit I’m oversimplifying the argument somewhat for the sake of brevity. For a classic example of the curmudgeon at his craft, go and read Dean Starkman’s recent “Confidence Game.” I am not going to go back over the arguments why his assertions don’t hold up - several people, including Clay Shirky, have posted excellent responses.)

My hope - not a prediction, mind you - for 2012 is that the holdouts will figure out ways to get over their grief - and there’s plenty to grieve in what’s happening to the traditional news industry - and get real about the Internet.

So here are four steps for recovering curmudgeons:

1. Find something good to say about digital journalism
Try an exercise of appreciative inquiry - “If I liked what’s happening in digital journalism, what positive aspects would I identify.” Sure, the Internet has many flaws and the news business is in disarray - none of that can be ignored. But learning to see opportunity in disruption is the first step to recovery.

2. Revisit the mission
The mission of journalism is to engage citizens with news and information that will help them participate meaningfully in civic affairs. Traditional journalism has played an important role in this but it has not succeeded to the extent that industry preservationists like to think. One big plus I focus on now is that people and communities who were largely ignored by traditional news organizations have more opportunities to be seen and heard from, which has great potential to enrich civic debate.

3. Replace either-or thinking with “maybe both can work together”
The transition is not a zero sum game. For example, saying the Internet will enable more people to collect and share important information, which is true, is not the same as saying citizen journalists will replace the professionals in reporting on key topics. The trick, for journalists in downsized organizations, is to figure out what they can do that is unique and essential.

4. Be a learner
This is the most important one, and it circles back to #1. Spend less time talking about disruption and loss and more time identifying tools and practices that will help the journalism - and then learn to make them your own. Don’t criticize or discount something until you’ve tried it. Take your eyes off the rear-view mirror and look forward in 2012.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Michele McLellan, 01/03/12 at 5:00 am


Nice list, Michele. Rather than be dismissive of, or hostile to, new tools and technologies, we should simply ask: “How might this be used to do better journalism?”

By kensands, 01/05/12 at 2:19 pm

Thanks, Ken. That’s a great way to put it.

By Michele McLellan, 01/05/12 at 7:38 pm

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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