Jeff Jarvis over at BuzzMachine raised a very interesting question to the media Reporters: Why are you in Tampa? His primary thesis is that it is a waste of the precious dwindling funds in newsrooms across America. He’s arguing that the money would be better used if it was directed towards more local, and citizen centered stories. I picked this up following listening to the latest Dan Carlin Common Sense Podcast: This is DNN, where he pleads to be put in charge of CNN so he could turn it into an effective news source by firing the current “talent” and bringing in reporters that will doggedly ask questions and will not allow the standard evasive non responses fly. Both of these pieces point to an essential problem with our current set of journalist; what we have is a bunch of groupies, what we need is a bunch of critics.
Sycophants and Toadies
Much of this is a result of our disintermediated media. We literally have thousands of options competing for our attention. This has only been accelerated by the birth of the Internet. This competition when it comes to news has resulted in a media that breathlessly pursues access to the smallest minutiae of exclusivity. The theory goes something like this, exclusivity begets necessity, and necessity begets authority. “Stay right here because we are the only ones who will be able to bring you the latest on story x.” The surest way to achieve exclusivity is to be the first to report the story. The hope I imagine, if I were to be kind to modern news, is that as long as they break the story their audience will stick around long enough for them to get around to providing things that actually matter like context, subtext, and perspective. If I’m being unkind, I’d describe them as the virtual equivalent to the useless idiots who post first in the comment sections of blogs.
The problem with this quest for exclusivity is that it perverts the process of how something becomes news. News becomes more about what you have access to regardless of its importance. This happens a lot on tech sites surrounding Apple products. Because there is such a dearth of information out of Cupertino reporters search and scavenge for anything that could be possibly related to the next big Apple announcement. As a result there is a cottage industry around making up fake news about Apple products. But rumors and speculation is almost benign compared to the real harm of the exclusivity quest. The real harm comes from the lengths to which journalist are willing to capitulate in order to gain access to important people, or information. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney put draconian conditions on any interview preventing reporters from asking any questions that the candidates would rather not discuss that day. We accept that our government (of the people mind you) has millions of secret files that even if we are “granted” access to will be heavily redacted to obscure and confuse.
Where Reporters Get Their Power
The consequence is that reporters are trying to sell themselves to the news like a strung out streetwalker. It is time for reporters to gain a bit more self-respect, and for them to realize how much power they actually wield. A good reporter is an amplifier. By the nature of their craft they are able to draw greater attention and scrutiny to things that really matter. What reporters need to realize though, is their power does not come from the stories for which they cover, but from the audience with which they share it. This vastly changes the nature of the access conundrum. Reporters are no longer granted access to important people and information, but rather people and information are granted access to what is truly important the audience through the reporter. It’s not hard to imagine a situation like this, in practice this is already done with advertisers. Advertisers seek out content creators with audiences matching their products, and conscientious content creators realize they must not sell out their audience to the whims of their advertisers to retain them.
Context not Content is King
Once reporters acknowledge their power comes from their audience and not their content it becomes easily apparent their role in providing news. Its journalism 101, provide context and a broader understanding of why this story matters, how it affects not just our daily lives but our lives in the future. We could easily set up a computer to scour the internet and spit up the breaking news stories and latest press releases. Alternatively there is a reason I follow Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, and Matt Yglesias on twitter. While they rarely have “exclusive” information, they provide valuable context in their discussions. I read them not for their access but for their insight. This also solves the problem of competing with the increasing number of sources of information. Reporters would no longer compete in the arena of access where victory is granted to those who grovel the most to VIPs. Victory would now flow to those who provide the most understanding.