With the violently agitated context of so many platforms and of a potentially unlimited supply of agents, how do we update the definition of journalism? Where do craft or trade begin, where do they end? Inevitably, the profession reacts by circling the wagons, hoping to hold its own against hordes of writers now fragmenting what used to be cozily monolithic, easily understood audiences.  This is the time, more than ever, to revisit notions such as news reporting and news treatment.  This rethinking can’t be centered around yesterday’s corporatism, or legal definitions.  Instead, we must look at the following three concepts:
-    ethics
-    practices
-    training
We could also mention types of journalism, nature of the players, media… But, for today’s discussion, these are just sub-chapters.
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1. Ethics
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For what it’s worth, a first person experience.
Back in 2001, we were in the process of launching the French edition of 20 minutes.  The “profession” — in France a nice mixture of managers and unions equally committed to the preservation of the status quo — sent us a loud and clear message. Our free paper was an unwelcome UFO in the French media arena.  As a result, it was far from obvious that our young team of reporters and editors would be granted the famous “Carte de Presse” which, in France, is meant to separate the pros from the interloping amateurs.
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A sub-anecdote: the French Press Card comes with a small tax break (a flat deduction of “professional expenses”) and petty perks such as free entrance in public museums. Amusingly, the tax break triggered questions among the more legalistic American news organizations: How do you feel when reporting on public affairs while getting a sweet tax deal from the government?  A valid point, one I can’t help but connect with French news organizations’ never-ending requests for government (I mean citizens’) money.  Direct and indirect subsidies account for 10% of the sector’s total revenue.  Many news organizations have built big websites entirely at taxpayer’s expense.
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Back to 20 minutes: We quickly settled on one cornerstone of our credibility: a strong professional ethics charter. We aggregated the French bill of rights of journalists with rules from other publications such as The New York Times Policy on Ethics in Journalism. We added elements from our past experience such as forbidding anyone to cover an organization s/he had a relationship with. Sounds obvious but, internally, we gave this provision the name of a famous reporter who was also the unofficial but very efficient communication advisor to the NGO he followed.
Nothing revolutionary, but the charter was slightly more stringent than others in the French media. The document was annexed to the employment contract and we made it clear any violation would lead to termination. Outside, our reporters where happy to brandish their charter in their condescending colleagues’ faces. And, along with the day-to-day work of the newsroom, the charter helped the 20 minutes crew and its standards gain recognition among initially skeptical peers.
Remember, I’m writing this in a country where many TV political reporters — all proud bearers of the Carte de Presse –  are fattening their paychecks by providing video training for the very same politicians they will feature in their show.
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Why am I recounting this for? Ethics and principles should constitute the prime consideration in determining what journalism is and isn’t. This applies to bloggers and to all forms of user-generated content as well as the oxymoronic (I must resist moronic) “citizen journalism” — would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon?  It applies also to so-called “professionals” who carry the press card as a proof of their craft and ethics but are in fact spokespersons of commercial brands.  Just go to the magazine section of any newsstand: you’ll se plenty of periodical PR material parading as “press”, legally labeled as such.
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2.  Practices
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Good practices in journalism revolve around such notions as thoroughness, fairness, practiced care for a contradictory and balanced approach. A good definition could be Bob Woodward’s “Best available version of the truth…“, to which we could add: “… with the means and tools available at the time of the reporting”.  This last nuance because urgency often reduces quality.  That goes for news reporting (gathering and editing) as well as analysis.
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Twenty years ago, the best practices in journalism where likely to be found in well-branded newsrooms. Now they can be everywhere. Take blogging. As in many social groups, you can have the worst and the best. It ranges from the guy barking up in frustration from his basement, to the expert in a field, an individual likely to be way more knowledgeable than the traditional news organization’s in-house specialist. This is true for topics in science and technology, economics, political science. Many of these contributors are actually complying with the most stringent rules of journalism. By doing this, they deserve to be unearthed, either by their own efforts or by a proactive action from the news outlets.
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Actually, some pure players news sites are becoming quite good at harnessing the intellectual power of the blogosphere (e.g. Politico’s Arena, The HuffingtonPost for politics or even The Guardian for business). That’s Necessity’s Law:  by and large, pure players cannot afford to have in-house specialists in any field, therefore they dig into the Internet. And very often, it works.
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As for user-generated content, there have been many attempts to create global “crowd powered” information systems. Some, like NowPublic wanted to become the “People’s Reuters”. Other have followed. Some of them even hired seasoned editors from major media outlets to improve output. No compelling successes, so far (except, maybe in photojournalism with sites like Demotix). One reason is scale. From a pure practical standpoint, a set of three top editors cannot train to standard practices of good reporting a group of 800 “citizen reporters” scattered all over the world. To be efficient, this process has to be performed on a much smaller scale. An economics editor will unearth an excellent specialist of business cycles… Or a foreign editor finds a smart political science student in Islamabad. This cannot be achieved by merely throwing around a set of twenty rules on how to make a good story. In both instances, things will work out as long as a fairly close relationship is established between a news organization (an Internet pure player or a well-known newspaper) and its contributors.
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3. Training
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All of the above leads to one simple idea: there is no longer a one-size-fits-all set of skills, but rather a multitude of journalistic tasks and specialties, each one requiring dedicated training. The journalism profession should consider two major evolutions:
- changing the perception of aspiring journalists,
- And developing permanent training along one’s career.
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Journalism schools must kill — or at least downplay –  the idea that there is only one “royal path”, that is writing for Le Monde or The Guardian, preferably on major issues. This enviable genre will shrink dramatically as news organizations will have a much harder paying for it. Sad but true, refusing to face it won’t help.  Therefore, it is misleading to entertain the idea that high profile news reporting on foreign affairs or politics is the only noble goal (or exit) for a journalistic career. Otherwise, we’ll end up producing legions of bitterly disillusioned newspeople.
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Looking at the upside: there is a wide array of opportunities as the news industry migrates to digital platforms and therefore becomes more technical than ever. Granted, the primary goal for a journalism student will still be to grasp the basics skills of the trade:  writing, reporting, managing sources and developing a mental agility to quickly deal with new and complex issues.
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But that’s no longer enough: today, young journalists must become fluent in the ways search engines detect their production. This is becoming a vital skill: 30% to 60% of readers will come from search engines. At the same time, the new-generation journalists will be required to understand the basic structure of an efficient web site, or how to “curate” past stories in order to enhance the readability of their current production by creating relevant and rich context.
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The same applies to news “packaging” — I know, this is an ugly word for those who see themselves as heirs to Joe Pulitzer or Albert Londres.
The young audience is notoriously more inclined towards nice news packages with infographics and video than to lengthy stories. Journalists must be able to render news in a multi-dimensional way. They don’t have to know coding in Flash, but they have to understand the potential of a Flash presentation for their news material. They must be taught how to deal with a different but indispensable species: specialized programmers who translate their journalistic insight into high-end graphics. Any doubts? Just see this multimedia treatement of the debt problem in the US made by The New York Times, is it compelling? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Definitely. Is it a journalistic work? The hell it is.  Have our journalism schools embraced such concepts and did they create specialized options to address it?
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The list of new editorial specialties is long. Take audience management for instance: again, some pure players are very good at using the audience’s intellectual firepower as a way to increase the granularity of their coverage. Other than properly trained journalists, knowing their beat, who else can channel such public expertise? The same goes for adapting news contents to a variety of platforms. More than ever, this leads to separating the news gathering process from the news treatment. The Anglo-Saxon press has been doing this for decades.
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The second evolution is permanent training — something news organizations are usually bad at. Journalists will have to be more adaptable than ever. Cliché but true: the pace of change is getting faster and the newsroom is not following. In most of them, the level of ignorance among the senior staff is alarming. (Unless such ignorance is viewed as good for upstarts planning to eat their lunch.)  As always, responsibility lies with top management, a group that is notoriously resistant to change. An ironic trait in the “news” industry.
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We are just at the beginning of a major evolution in journalism. Most of the old romantic dimension is vanishing. But the excitement remains: new platforms for new audiences are emerging. They still require the basic qualities of the trade. At the same time, new tools require new skills, which will have to be taught, not ignored or disdained. –FF
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