Value of journalism may lie in the art of listening

Posted on May 01, 2012 by Janet Coats

What value do journalists bring to the news?

Boiled down, that’s the question that newspapers, independent news publishers, journalism schools and individual reporters have been contemplating for the last decade.

Exactly what is it the news consumers have been paying for? And how do we keep people paying, so that reporters can keep reporting?

I’ve been focused on that question since I participated in a conversation at the Reynolds Journalism Institute last week. I was at RJI in my role as a Reynolds Fellow; last week’s RJI Innovation Week is the wrap-up event of the fellowship year.

This particular conversation was led by Mike Fancher, former editor of The Seattle Times and himself a past Reynolds Fellow, and featured Tom Rosenstiel and Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Since 2004, PEJ has released its “State of the News Media’’ report, perhaps the most comprehensive accounting of how the media has changed and adapted – or not – to the digital age.

This year’s State of the Media report focuses on “two trends in the last year (that) overlap and reinforce the sense that the gap between the news and technology industries is widening.’’

The trends at issue are the continuing proliferation of mobile platforms and social media and the efforts of technology companies such as Google and Facebook to consolidate their position as “makers of ‘everything’ in our digital lives.’’

So with the barriers to publishing news destroyed and the rise of companies that lack a journalism background as the gatekeepers of our digital experience, the question presents itself again: What value do journalists bring to the news?

As Mark said in last week’s conversation, we were all taught in journalism school that the value we bring to the equation is judgment. It is our skill at recognizing what makes news, at deciding what to put in and what to leave out, that people pay for when they purchase journalism – whether by buying a newspaper or supporting advertisers.

News judgment was always an elusive concept – the “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it’’ kind. If anyone ever really viewed this as the value proposition of journalists, they surely don’t now in an age when each person can assert their own judgment about what to put in and what to leave out of their daily news diet.

If journalists continue to bring value to the table, I would argue – and did last week – that it lies in listening. In our world filled with babble, the skills of the listener become ever more important. Listening with intention, with purpose, and with the intention of helping to connect the threads of conversation.

Just as the digital age has opened up all kinds of ways to broadcast and converse, it has given us powerful tools for listening. The best reporters have always been fantastic listeners, whether to a single speaker or to the dialogue at a public meeting. Putting those skills to work with social conversations, and marrying those results to in-person dialogue, is something darn few individuals or organizations are focused on these days.

So let that be part of the future of journalism – purposeful listening. In the New Media Journalism Initiative, we’re conducting our own experiment in building that capacity at the Journalism Accelerator. Lisa Skube and her team at the Journalism Accelerator are applying the art of listening to conversations among journalism’s innovators.

From this focused listening, Lisa and her team are developing a deeper understanding of the issues facing journalists and those who care about journalism. Beyond that, they are getting inklings of what can be done to make a difference to deepen both impact and financial sustainability.

Journalism should be about meaning – not just reporting what happened, but helping people as they try to sort through what the day’s events mean in the larger scheme of things. There can be no meaning without first listening.

I’m not sure if there is economic value to be had there, but there sure as heck is social value. And that is a step toward answering the question we began with: What value do journalists bring to the news?

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