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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Long Distance Mom: Solving Journalism's Mess
March 19, 2009 - 1:25am

 

Journalism is in crisis. Or, to be more specific, the funding for journalism is in crisis.

What does this have to do with being a long distance mom? Not much, except this crisis is part of what I think about when I am away from my kids. Plus, my son Nick wants to be a writer, so I worry about careers with writers in them.

Is the all-digital Inside Higher Ed going to put the Chronicle for Higher Education out of business? Or will IHE just lead the Chronicle down the online road faster? As many journalists attest, competition within a corporate environment can improve journalistic standards, but, when the system is off-kilter, it seems to weaken them.

Does writing for a blog contribute to the downfall of professional journalists? (I ask myself sometimes…) Bloggers are cheap. They lower the costs (and some say the standards) for news, information, analysis, and particularly for opinion. But bloggers also contribute to the national debate and blogs with good public commentary on them can be interactive problem solvers. (Besides IHE blogs, check out Jay Rosen’s Pressthink blogs.) As many journalists have pointed out, though, the interactive power from citizen journalists is not the same thing as professionals with an understanding of media ethics — an important point.

Many of you know the story by now:

 

 

News outlets are doing their best to stay alive while converging with each other, continuing to print on paper and producing news shows throughout the day. A digital future seems pretty certain. Unfortunately, not every news reader has access to a computer and the internet. The digital divide is still a class divide. But satellite technology is changing the field rapidly. Traditional journalism is slowly adapting to mobile devices and updating their news delivery systems to twenty-four hours a day, instead of two to seven times per day. But the transition isn’t over yet…

For educators in this market the question becomes, “What is the responsible way to teach journalism to students?” The lively discussion on IHE to this question suggests that there is not one simple answer.

Recently, I attended a rather bleak conference in Chicago — a “Journalism Town Hall -- that brought together top city journalists in print, radio, television and the Internet with academics in journalism to try to think collaboratively about a solution to the crisis in Chicago journalism. The Chicago Tribune, owned by Sam Zell, continues to bleed staff and filed for bankruptcy in December. The more populist Chicago Sun-Times, recently owned by the new convict Conrad Black, is expected to close its doors any day now. Radio and television are also firing staff in large numbers. New online entities, such as the Chi-Town Daily News, a 501(c) 3 charity, are starting to grow.

After chairing a Communication department that contained Journalism, Communication, Advertising and Public Relations programs, I would occasionally witness the Ad/PR director teasing the Journalism director about how it was advertisers who really paid the salaries of journalists. The Journalism director would usually respond to these comments by saying, “A PR man's job is to serve his clients. A journalist's job is to serve the public.” There’s a little truth in both observations, but insisting on requiring good writing skills for students is what we all should have been talking about…

A multi-pronged financing approach may be what journalism needs now, but this is a complicated problem that involves many partners in order to solve it. (Similar to the current economic crisis.) Collaborative problem solving between schools, government, business and the community is certainly in order. Academic expertise — from computer scientists to historians -- needs to be brought in to try and solve these big problems, particularly with the shifting sands of journalism.

Other solutions are out there for journalism. For instance, universities and foundations are both institutions that could help to support the time-intensive work of investigative journalists without forcing these researchers to worry so much about the number of stories filed or profit margins. But it seems that every time the importance of investigative journalism to a democracy gets mentioned, another great investigative journalist gets laid off. We have not found the solution to this labor problem yet.

Universities can create interdisciplinary classes devoted to problem solving and get the students directly involved in the details, as my university has done for solving environmental problems. In one class students built a biodiesel lab together, starting fueling my VW with it, and then they worked on “sustaining” the class -- writing business plans for the costs of equipment and labor; creating documentaries to post on the web; writing bills in order to lobby state politicians for biodiesel benefits; initiating new experiments with algae to replace cafeteria oil. The class did a lot of collaborative problem solving with the faculty, and the students loved it…

Collaborative problem solving is difficult to accomplish. Initial meetings, as in the Chicago journalism town hall, often consist of familiar complaints being repeated aloud—e.g. 'Online journalism sites get such large numbers because of the 'theft'” of material' or 'We should not be giving away so much news for free on the internet.' None of these ideas were ‘news’ for anybody at the Chicago discussion. A few young audience participants stood up to note that online journalism is much cheaper to produce without expensive real estate, or they wondered why there weren’t any advertising executives on the panel... Then everyone got depressed.

Creativity, whether in advertising or in rethinking the delivery system of news to audiences, seems to hold the keys for a new journalism. We should not rule out anybody for helping to problem solve at this point. For instance, why not ask college students more directly for their insights? Or even high schoolers? (I joined Facebook because my son practically ‘lives’ on it. Now I ‘get’ it…) The preferences of the young will shape the future of the new media.

Are blogs or social networks very different from collaborative town hall meetings for problem solving? Frequently, individuals need to express their anger in these contexts first, and then the forum can settle down to the ‘business’ of the day, whether solving global warming or planning a birthday party. As long as the “experts” and the journalists continue to participate in blogs, then we should continue to understand them for what they are — public meetings full of opinions, knowledge, information, and yes, problem solving venues.

Actually, my divorced family sits down together at a table to do collaborative problem solving whenever one child is in trouble. My kids get to see that mom and dad are on the same side of most problems, even if we aren’t in the same house. Nick and Katie are free to express their frustrations — by making “but Mom said…” or “Dad lets me do it” kinds of statements. Then my kids watch their mom and dad work out their differences in front of them.

The Chicago journalism town hall is working on organizing another meeting on their log. Now the participants seem ready to tackle some real problem solving, even if the next meeting occurs online. Let’s hope they can keep the conversation going this time.

 

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