At a time when the information world becomes increasingly shallow, journalists ought to join forces with experts. The alliance would bring deeper knowledge to journalists and sharper story-telling to eggheads.
Last Friday, at the Global Editors Summit in Barcelona, we awarded the Startup for News prize to SourceRise.org, a tiny New York company. Its goal is to “connect journalists to non-profit sources from all over the world.” As explained by its co-founder Caroline Avakian in her five minutes pitch, widespread budget cuts in Western newsrooms undermine their ability to go abroad and report. At the same time, there is no short supply of crises. Climate change-related disasters, pandemics, wars, and political upheavals that throw thousands of refugees on the road, or worse, at sea (so far this year, almost 2,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, 18 times as many deaths as last year)… These have strained NGOs’ resources, large and small. On the ground, the two trend lines cross: fewer journalists, more volunteers. The latter, often experts in their own field, could make valuable sources for newsrooms.
I was part of the four-person jury that awarded the prize. One of the issues we debated was what the consequences might be of giving the award to a startup that, unbeknownst to its founders, could find itself caught in the communication agenda of activist organizations. We decided to bet on SourceRise’s ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. If its team is able to rigorously select the best work, SourceRise’s initiative will have a dual benefit: It will assist (not replace) journalists by providing first-hand, reliable accounts, and it will keep otherwise forgotten humanitarian crises and disasters in the news cycle.
This is but an example of the evolution of journalism. Today, the work of many people could qualify as journalism, even though they do not belong to a news organization, and haven’t been trained as journalists. This applies to a wide range of experts, analysts from corporations, or scholars willing to forgo the stylistic dryness of academic writing.
More than ever, expertise and journalism are tending to merge. The website The Conversation provides one such example—it is a hybrid web creature whose motto is “Academic rigor, journalistic flair”; its charter professes editorial freedom, openness, transparency, and accountability; it could (should) be endorsed by many news organizations.
What I find interesting in this global venture (currently producing from the UK, USA, Africa, and Australia, with more to come), is it embodies the rapprochement between expertise and journalism. And the connection’s impact has been quantified: According to The Conversation’s own stats, 80% of readers are from outside the academic world, revealing a wide general audience. And The Conversation’s usefulness to the journalistic community is a proven fact: 60% of authors are contacted for a media follow-up. The Conversation is a great tool for newsrooms. (As for its general audience reach, a more engaging layout wouldn’t hurt.)
I’ve often toyed with the idea of creating a newsroom filled with true experts in a range of disciplines—economists, scientists, sociologists…—and supported by a staff of great writers and editors (in addition to multimedia graphic designers, photo editors, videographers etc.), all able to extract the best from the experts. Making complexity accessible is at the core of journalistic talent.
When I’m approached by students who want to become journalists, my first reaction is, “Yes! Don’t hesitate, go for it; it’s a fantastic job! Ignore pessimists and doomsayers, don’t listen to those who rant endlessly about the profession’s past luster and who predict its extinction.” But I also tell students to embrace the transformation of journalism by entering it from the top. You must become good (preferably great) at something; own your field for good; you can always acquire the craft of reporting and writing later on. Conversely, I tell them to start building their reputation right now, with a blog that will become their resumé’s best component. In a country like France, there are now about 40 journalism schools compared to the five in existence twenty years ago. The market will be crowded by young and energetic people mastering a broad range of tools, but devoid of deep knowledge on anything—rendering them barely able to establish a bridge between experts and readers.
Teaching the ethical aspects of journalism is also critical. Any media needs to operate under a solid sets of rules. That is likely to be another key differentiator of quality journalism from the click-bait driven fodder—the information “noise”—that saturates the digital world.
And finally, a connection between expertise and journalism also requires a search system that will help bring great content to the surface. This loops back to the question of finding a way to ensure the emergence of quality and trustworthy content on the web (see here and here for previous posts discussing this challenge).
The tie between knowledge and the editing craft carries immense potential. It’s a key component of the future of journalism.
This post originally appeared at Monday Note.