When Jane Singer stood up in front of last week’s Digital Editor’s Network and suggested that reporters stopped doing some of their current routine bread-and-butter work and handed that responsibility over to others, there was a palpable wall of cynicism from some quarters.
Allowing users to contribute routine community information? Publishing the police force crime releases ‘in the raw’? Letting companies post the press releases of their activity? Whatever next!
Yes, the bright-eyed academic had just put the elephant in the room.
Ms Singer went on to say that, in these times of limited newsroom staff resources, perhaps the journalists’ job was no longer to simply provide information or facts – after all a whole raft of people are perfectly capable of doing that – think community group leader, marketing manager, head teacher or publicly paid press officers in councils or the emergency services.
She wanted to see journalists freed up to do the things users don’t have “the time, talent or training to do: investigate, analyze, contextualize, and explain.
“Their primary role is no longer to provide information but to help people make sense of it” she said.
It’s certainly an appealing argument – no more tedious press release rewrites and the opportunity to get out of the office again. Hurrah! Who wouldn’t want that?
As Ms Singer put so well; “Pursuing the stories behind the information and telling those stories well, whatever the medium……isn’t that the real job of the journalist?”
So where’s the rub?
The debate seemed to reveal that some didn’t feel there would be same quality of information if it wasn’t worked into traditional article form and some felt that the newsworthiness of a piece of information could only be properly assessed by a professional.
Listening to some of the points you could be mistaken into thinking that all of us in regional media are busy breaking stories of such importance to the nation that they couldn’t possible be dealt with by anyone else!
But, with a quick reality check, what would be wrong with a local events listings created by the organisers of those events? The appointments section of the business pages updated by companies themselves? A daily or weekly listing of “mis pers” provided and updated by the police? Planning applications uploaded by the council and geo-tagged onto a map?
Would the non-journalese language of the content undermine its usefulness/interest?
Personally I think that’s unlikely and, considering most of the items mentioned above are difficult to find (or absent) on most regional news sites, just having the content would be a good start to better community information provision.
These sort of objections to community collaboration really go to the heart of a larger issue – what is news and what is the role of the news organisation? Is it merely to present information which is likely to attract the widest and biggest possible audience (i.e. the old mass media model)?
I think not .
Surely our role as journalists is now to seek out information which is important to people’s lives and that might mean ”small” items having “big” significance for smaller groups or an individual.
Ms Singer’s thought-provoking presentation was a timely reminder of that shift in consumption with some provocative suggestions on what could be done to supply that demand.
* The discussion which rounded off the day at the Journalism Leader’s Forumalso turned, inevitably perhaps, onto the role of the journalist in today’s news organisations with The Guardian’s Kevin Anderson among others urging us to get out with our laptops are re-engage with the community.
Read Laura Oliver’s summary here.
See Joanna Geary’s streaming video here.