True journalism is not dead

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Around the world, leap years have of­ten been as­so­ci­ated with folk­lore and su­per­sti­tion (e.g. spikes in mor­tal­ity rates, er­ratic weather, dooms­day mar­riages) and as the Scots have been known say, “Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year.” But set­ting all that aside, no mat­ter where you live, your de­mo­graphic, ed­u­ca­tion, ca­reer, fam­ily sit­u­a­tion or po­lit­i­cal lean­ings, it would be tough to ar­gue against 2016 be­ing a tu­mul­tuous year.

From the on­go­ing war in Syria and the ~5M refugees it’s dis­placed, to the in­creased ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Europe and the Mid­dle East, from the shock­ing re­sults of the Brexit ref­er­en­dum to the jaw-drop­ping out­come of the Amer­i­can elec­tion, this past 12 months left me feel­ing like I’d be­come a stranger in a strange land. In the past, when things seemed to make no sense, many of us looked to the Fourth Es­tate to help us un­der­stand the re­al­i­ties of the world, so that we could put into per­spec­tive the truths that would help us make the best de­ci­sions for our lives, our com­mu­ni­ties and gov­ern­ments.

But sadly last year, too much of main­stream me­dia failed to give us those truths – of­ten choos­ing “be­ing first” over “be­ing fac­tual”, valu­ing clicks over en­gage­ment, aid­ing in spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion and, let’s be hon­est, ig­nor­ing events and peo­ple they deemed to be marginal­ized.

Mean­while they con­tin­ued to drive their news­rooms down the road to ex­tinc­tion through mas­sive lay­offs while in­cum­bent me­dia ex­ec­u­tives con­tin­ued to en­joy mil­lion dol­lar bonuses.

With the ram­pant growth of fake news, and to­day’s thinly-stretched me­dia’s lack of fo­cus on what was re­ally hap­pen­ing around us and scram­bling for head­lines by hop­ping on the band­wagon of the day, it’s no won­der that trust in me­dia hit an all­time low in 2016.

Now, it’s not like this all hap­pened overnight; we’ve been wit­ness­ing this de­cay for a num­ber of years as pub­lish­ers sac­ri­ficed their rai­son d’être for all the wrong rea­sons.

This led to a rise in al­ter­na­tive news sites, most of which are ex­treme in na­ture serv­ing the pas­sions and anger of the dis­en­fran­chised – the Bre­it­barts of the world. The pop­u­lar­ity of these news or­ga­ni­za­tions can­not be over­stated with mil­lions of read­ers/ view­ers flock­ing to their sites and YouTube chan­nels on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Many peo­ple think these out­lets are cre­at­ing a feed­ing frenzy of fa­nati­cism, but there is a large and pas­sion­ate pop­u­la­tion that truly be­lieves

al­ter­na­tive news sources de­liver le­git­i­mate journalism. It re­ally is in the eyes of the be­holder, but one mustn’t for­get what true journalism is, and isn’t, be­fore mak­ing any judge­ments one way or the other. We need to fact-check ev­ery­thing be­cause we can’t al­ways rely on me­dia to do all of it for us, given our grow­ing lack of time and ever-de­creas­ing at­ten­tion spans.

What true journalism is

Ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Press In­sti­tute, “Journalism is sto­ry­telling with a pur­pose” that “must bal­ance what read­ers know they want with what they can­not an­tic­i­pate, but need.”

Within this def­i­ni­tion lies a code of ethics that forms the mis­sion of the Fourth Es­tate as the guardian of truth, the watch­dog of power and the foun­da­tion of a demo­cratic so­ci­ety.

True journalism must re­port the truth. It also must re­port the whole truth to en­sure the sin (yes, sin) of omit­ting rel­e­vant facts does not sur­rep­ti­tiously sway au­di­ences. That’s not to say there is no room for opin­ion or anal­y­sis, but those flour­ishes to the facts must be ex­plic­itly ex­posed to en­sure the truth is not twisted to suit ed­i­to­rial bi­ases.

True journalism is unique and must serve to en­lighten, ed­u­cate and em­power the in­formed. And al­though many pub­lish­ers might not want to hear this, true journalism is not only pro­duced within the hal­lowed halls of tra­di­tional me­dia the way it used to be. Pro­pri­etor­ship is slip­ping through their hands as tal­ented and ded­i­cated free­lancers strive to up­hold the prin­ci­ples that form the foun­da­tion of a free and un­cor­rupted press.

What true journalism isn’t

True journalism is not a com­mod­ity prod­uct that pol­lutes the in­ter­net with repet­i­tive garbage that adds no value to peo­ple’s lives. It’s not hearsay, pla­gia­rism, pro­pa­ganda, nor is it, li­belous or sen­sa­tional.

Carl Bern­stein, in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and au­thor who helped break the Water­gate Scan­dal said, “The low­est form of pop­u­lar cul­ture - lack of in­for­ma­tion, mis­in­for­ma­tion, dis­in­for­ma­tion, and a con­tempt for the truth or the re­al­ity of most peo­ple’s lives - has over­run real journalism. To­day, or­di­nary Amer­i­cans are be­ing stuffed with garbage.”

Al­though I can’t dis­agree with his com­ments on the state of journalism to­day, I also can’t wholly con­demn pop­u­lar cul­ture for it. Long be­fore we’d ever heard about so­cial me­dia, pla­gia­rism, fab­ri­ca­tions, mis­in­for­ma­tion and cor­rup­tion by rogue re­porters were ex­posed in some of the most re­spected me­dia out­lets in the world, in­clud­ing Bos­ton Globe, and The New York Times. And in the past decade, they kept show­ing up in high pro­file me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions in­clud­ing Rolling Stone mag­a­zine, NBC and News Corp’s News of the World, to name just a few.

Is true journalism on the way of the dodo bird

In 2007, the to­tal news­room work­force in the US was 55,000. By 2015, it had col­lapsed down un­der 33,000. A year later, just over 27,300 are left, many of those still wait­ing for the axe to fall.

Some of the laid-off jour­nal­ists have moved over to the “dark side” of pub­lic re­la­tions and con­tent mar­ket­ing/na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing where salaries are higher, but there are still ded­i­cated diehards who are slog­ging it out as free­lancers be­cause for them, journalism mat­ters, de­spite the mis­er­able wages they earn.

To­day me­dia brands are be­com­ing less im­por­tant to those who want the truth. If pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tives con­tinue to ig­nore read­ers and sac­ri­fice qual­ity journalism for clicks, page views and the pres­sures from ad­ver­tis­ers and politi­cians, soon there won’t be much true journalism left in­side tra­di­tional me­dia at all.

Take a les­son from Medium CEO, Ev Wil­liams, who rec­og­nized that the com­pany had strayed from its orig­i­nal mis­sion and needed to re­fo­cus it­self on what was truly im­por­tant, “We be­lieve peo­ple who write and share ideas should be re­warded on their abil­ity to en­lighten and in­form, not sim­ply their abil­ity to at­tract a few sec­onds of at­ten­tion. We be­lieve there are mil­lions of think­ing peo­ple who want to deepen their un­der­stand­ing of the world and are dis­sat­is­fied with what they get from tra­di­tional news and their so­cial feeds. We be­lieve that a bet­ter sys­tem—one that serves peo­ple—is pos­si­ble. In fact, it’s im­per­a­tive.”

Beyond the at­trac­tive­ness of its sim­ple de­sign and ease of use, Medium has done a lot of things right – the best of which is at­tract­ing tal­ented writ­ers who at­tract qual­ity read­ers. As a re­sult, it has amassed a huge au­di­ence.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing that to­day’s dig­i­tal (and not just dig­i­tal) ad­ver­tis­ing model is bro­ken and walk­ing away from it was not easy to do; and Mr. Wil­liams de­serves ac­co­lades for tak­ing that im­por­tant step. But the fu­ture for Medium can­not be bright with­out the CEO and Board rec­og­niz­ing that not one, but mul­ti­ple sources of rev­enue are needed for sus­tain­able prof­itabil­ity. That in­cludes sell­ing sub­scrip­tions to the high­est qual­ity con­tent within its ecosys­tem, at­tract­ing spon­sor­ships that con­nect pop­u­lar brands to read­ers of the high­est val­ued con­tent, be­ing ubiq­ui­tous across all plat­forms and di­ver­si­fy­ing rev­enue streams beyond just con­tent.

True journalism needs cham­pi­ons

True journalism is a crit­i­cal pil­lar of a demo­cratic so­ci­ety and I feel blessed to be able to en­joy the free­doms that my coun­try af­fords me. Many around the world are not so for­tu­nate. It is for this very rea­son that I feel strongly about true journalism and its fu­ture in a volatile world rocked by changes in con­sumer be­hav­ior, tech­nol­ogy, pol­i­tics and the grow­ing pile of crap pos­ing as le­git­i­mate news.

A friend asked me how I would de­scribe what’s hap­pen­ing with news re­port­ing to­day. I likened it to a per­son drown­ing in an ocean and des­per­ately look­ing for the light that will di­rect them to safety. True journalism is drown­ing in a sea of too much ir­rel­e­vant/fake/ com­mod­ity con­tent — rub­bish that’s float­ing on the sur­face and through which very lit­tle light can pen­e­trate.

True journalism needs our help. It needs cham­pi­ons to sup­port both the em­ployed and free­lance re­porters and writ­ers who put them­selves at risk ev­ery year to help make the world a bet­ter place.

It needs fact check­ers to help sep­a­rate the wheat from the chaff so that qual­ity con­tent may rise above the drivel. And it needs fund­ing through new in­no­va­tive busi­ness mod­els to help fi­nance and sus­tain it

True journalism is not dead – not now, not ever.

2016 was a year many peo­ple would prob­a­bly want to for­get. But it’s im­per­a­tive that we re­mem­ber it, re­flect on it and learn from it so that we can re­fo­cus our ef­forts on re­viv­ing a more sus­tain­able, ef­fec­tive and in­clu­sive free press. Be­cause if we don’t, as Sir Win­ston Churchill warned, “Those who fail to learn from his­tory are doomed to re­peat it.”

Time is pre­cious; let’s not waste a sin­gle minute of it. If you free like I do that true journalism mat­ters and want to help, let’s talk.

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