Emotions were let loose!

I attended the first day of the Carnegie-Knight Conference on the Future of Journalism today in Cambridge, MA. It’s hosted by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, & Public Policy. It’s a culmination of a number of initiatives and conferences hosted by the organization. I wanted to share the discourse and thoughts presented during this event. I tweeted all four panels during the day. If you’d like to read all of the tweets (from the newest down to the oldest) click here to download the pdf. I figured I’d give a quick overview of the discussions for each panel.

1) Working Journalists and the Changing News Environment
Moderator: Rem Reider (American Journalism Review)
Carl Stepp (University of Maryland)
Tom Fiedler (Boston University/Harvard University)
Philip Meyer (UNC)
Jennifer McKim (Orange County Register – Neiman Fellow at Harvard)

This was an interesting start to the conference. There were a number of very different opinions on the state of the professional journalism industry. It started with Carl Stepp talking about his belief that managers need to give journalists more freedom to think and invent. He thinks it’s possible one person in a newsroom could change the entire industry.

Tom Fiedler countered and said the business model will have to come from someone on the outside. He thinks the temperament of journalists is to do what they love and that’s gathering news. They aren’t going to be the people who are inclined to worry about a business model. It doesn’t fit their role.

Jennifer McKim (who is a Neiman Fellow) talked about how there are many demoralized professionals in the industry… But they have the passion and talent and want this industry to work.

Philip Meyer has a lot to say after the first three folks. He had an idea that has a lot of buzz in the room: Find a business model that is supported by the elites. A multi-step flow of information would eventually get that information to the general public. CCJ‘s Mark Carter mentioned The Economist as a possible model. There were audience members questioning if that was a viable business model on a smaller readership/viewership level.

2) Communication Research and the Changing News Environment
Tom Patterson (Shorenstein Center, Harvard)
Robert Entman (George Washington University)
Scott Althaus (University of Illinois)
Vincent Price (University of Pennyslvania)

I’d hate to bury the lead on the next panel but the highlight happened near the end. I’ll just quickly summarize this portion of the conference. The group talked about how there’s a discord between scholarly journalistic research and the practice of journalism. My favorite quote from Robert Entman was his thoughts on the state of the journalistic industry: “changing course may be the less risky path.” He may be right.

Scott Althaus showed how just a little knowledge of the past can give a ton of context to how we cover the news of today. He showed combat video from WWI through Iraq and the varying degrees of reality journalists showed through video.

Vincent Price talked about the mainstream media in perspective of the political season. He looked at what is new, what hasn’t changed and the effects changes have on news. His overall message: the mainstream media (MSM) operations are now working in a much more complicated environment. The interactions between the MSM and all of the current information sources (supplementary campaign information, web, audiences) will continue to change the way information is transmitted. He commented on how entertainment can bring the audience to MSM but its up to us to turn that into a teachable moment.

But since the overall message from the group was to encourage practicing journalists to use scholarly research, the most interesting comment was made. Ira Chinoy from Maryland asked the opposite of the researchers. He asked the question over whether it was possible for there to be a problem with scholarly activity. Then he offered a couple of suggestions. First is to have the scholars write for a general audience. He also suggested scholars take the time to conduct confrontation interviews before releasing studies with a one-sided result. If not, give an opportunity for a pre-publication review by some kind of representative audience. There were all kinds of murmur about that. Entman retorted that the current scholarly community looks down upon researchers who publish for the general public.

3) Citizen Journalism
Clyde Bentley (University of Missouri)
Jan Schaffer (J-Lab)
Ryan Thornburg (University of North Carolina)
Steve Yelvington (Morris Communications, Founder of BlufftonToday.com)

Clyde Bentley talked about his work with MyMissourian.com and research on citizen journalism (CJ). He likened CJ to cave drawing from long ago. He also compared citizen journalists to members of the national guard: a citizen soldier doesn’t want a career in the military, he or she just wants to help. Bentley also talked about how Martin Luther could be credited with starting citizen journalism. He opened the idea to the general public to question priests. He showed other forms of current CJ and the differences between how traditional journalists cover information while citizen journalists share information.

Jan Schaffer had some great thoughts on this topic as well. She showed so many ideas and projects that the J-Lab has sponsored. She talked about the trends and how the journalism of the future is the “architecture of participation.” Ordinary people become the “plankton” in the “media ecosystem.” In some ways, journalists would have the job to sift through the plankton to come up with a functioning ecosystem. Another thought that I enjoyed is how this “isn’t about covering community, it’s about building community.” CJs or as Jan put it, citizen media-makers are looking to make a different in tangible ways. Her idea is deputizing a person who has the job to network all of the citizen media in the community. An editor would have the job to figure out what topics need “Big J” journalism for the larger audience. If there’s a pattern in citizen media conversations, it may be worth bringing it to a larger audience.

Ryan Thornburg gave some great perspective about how citizen media is playing a huge role in the political process. Citizen journalists’ impact on politics means more voices in the discourse of a political season. Social networks are offering a more efficient way to deliver those messages. Currently politicians are doing things already that he said newsrooms should take note:
*build an infrastructure for citizen participation
*give volunteers/CJs recognition for the participation
*allow volunteers to easily connect to each other
*have fun
Of course he reminded everyone that this requires “authentic leadership.”

Do you see a consistent trend in these conversations? There is great potential for professional journalists to guide and lead citizen journalists/media creators. I have a lot of hope in these ideals.

Steve Yelvington talked about how most reporters of today are young, underpaid and have no community connections. He feels today’s “broken journalism can be repaired by learning how to participation in unfolding conversations” of citizen media.

You could feel some of the skepticism in the audience. There were concerns over who is liable for libelous blogs. One person considered blogs as a bar conversation. Another wondered how can we ensure blogs remain a supplement to quality journalism.

4) Panel on Innovation in Journalism Education
Tom Fiedler (Boston University/Harvard University)
Wolfgang Donsbach (Technical University, Dresden, Germany)
Nick Lemann (Columbia Graduate School of Journalism)
Peter Shane (Ohio State Law School)

Fielder and Donsbach presented a paper they wrote with recommendations for the future of journalism education. It is still in the vetting process and if we guage the reaction of the audience to the research, there’s more work to be done before it’s published. I’m not going to get into too many details but I’ll mention a couple of things. There was a recommendation to throw out undergraduate journalism programs because it’s too trade-based and not liberal arts enough (Dean Mills of Missouri was pretty quick to counter that). Also, there was a recommendation to “outsource skills.” They thought journalism schools should teach theory and farm out the skills training elsewhere.

There was an unsteady rumble during the many, many PowerPoint pages of thoughts and assumptions. I happened to sit next to UNC’s Dean Jean Folkerts. She gave a very eloquent response to the presentation and the rest of the audience joined in agreement. (I actually asked if she would type out her words – it was written down on paper – and I’m hoping to link to her thoughts when she gets them online) After the room was pretty hot and bothered for about 20 minutes, the conversation continued into drink time and into dinner tine. Long day, lots of thoughts and a TON of emotion.

**Update – Jean Folkerts posted her thoughts from the experience. Take a look.

2 comments ↓

#1 Debra Mason on 06.21.08 at 6:20 am

They continued the discussion in the morning and organizers agreed that there was no consensus on the report about journalism education. Sounds like they’ll be considering notions of limiting it to master’s only program, or perhaps distinguish between accredited and non-accredited programs.

#2 Ryan Thornburg on 06.23.08 at 2:09 pm

Thanks for the nice summary. I’ve posted a written version of my comments at http://is.gd/E7u

I welcome the comments of you and your readers.

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