Stuck in the Middle With News: When Professors Report and Technologists Aggregate, What’s Left for Journalists?

Two opinion pieces that were published yesterday have been getting a good ride in the discussion about how to save newspapers. Jonathan Zimmerman’s opinion piece on The Christian Science Monitor proposes that professors play a role in creating free content, an idea that’s getting panned even though it’s already happening. David Carr’s piece on The New York Times puts a nefarious sounding twist on his proposal for media co-opetition that’s going to happen naturally.

It’s important to understand that Zimmerman’s article is not suggesting that professors practice stenographic/surveillance journalism — the important watchdog element of beat reporting. He’s suggesting that professors do analytical reporting — looking for patterns and structures that help us understand the whys and hows behind the whats and whens.

Second, academics are already the source for a lot of the analysis that appears on air and in print. They are highly trusted by journalists and the audience alike because of their perceived detachment, independence and expertise.

Third, let’s be honest about why the best academics write and publish. It’s because they (we?) want influence. They want to see the world think differently about their area of expertise because of something they discovered. I think that’s pretty much the same primary motivation for the best journalists. And it doesn’t matter whether that desire for influence is altruistic or egotistical. This kind of analytical reporting is good for the public either way.

Finally, the idea of more closely tying journalism and universities isn’t economically naive. Universities already pay professors to create new knowledge. They even seem to prefer influential knowledge. And, as I think Phil Meyer can tell us, advertisers like influential content.

The criticism of Zimmerman’s piece seems to believe that he is trying to get something for nothing — not an uncommon content strategy among news publishers these days. And it does seem odd to me that he seems to be saying that since nobody will pay for content, we might as well find writers who already create content for free.

That leads us to Carr’s piece, which begins with the gripe about not charging for access to Web sites. That gripe from newspaper people illustrates how many of us still don’t understand what business we are in.

First, I don’t think anyone ever paid for content that didn’t save them money, help them make money, protect them from immediate (and I mean immediate) danger, or entertain them. People now pay for aggregation and delivery, which is what they’ve always done. It’s just that news companies ceded that revenue stream to technology companies like Google and Time Warner.

(Has anyone seen research that would indicate how much of a newspaper’s subscription or advertising rates are tied to the reporting vs. the editing/layout vs. the delivery? In the radio industry today, is it better to own a local station or to be a company that creates syndicated content? )

The prize is going to go to the organizations that figure out how to get the right info to the right people at the right time. Here are some companies trying to do that:
* Google
* Apple
* Amazon
* Facebook
* LinkedIn
* Inform
* Calais
* Apture
* Evri
* MyWebPost

Some might argue that newspapers then should charge Google to spider their sites. Or charge Time Warner to deliver the content. That’s unlikely to work until Google requires bloggers to pay to have their sites spidered, or until Time Warner charges them to deliver the content. In other words, unless the cost of publishing is increased significantly and as long as there is someone who wants to influence other people’s decisions there will always be content to aggregate.

So who needs a meeting in a smoke filled back room? News organizations that survive will naturally become more symbiotic and less competitive — each filling its own niche to the best of its ability and creating further value by aggregating links to the niche-expertise on other sites.

And that leads us back to the academics — perhaps the best niche experts — such as Boston University’s Adil Najam, the founding editor of All Things Pakistan. Najam sells advertising on his site. But he’s also a (presumably unpaid) source for stories on National Public Radio.

Journalism, it seems to me, is essentially the clinical arm of the social sciences. The decline of in-depth reporting seems to be a wonderful opportunity that the most enterprising colleges and universities could turn in to their advantage — perhaps by creating some sort of rapid-response group of “clinical” professors in everything from anthropology to zoology in order to protect the intentionally ponderous and deliberate pace at which society also needs academics to work.

Meanwhile, technology companies will continue to work on solutions that help get the ideas of these niche experts in front of the right people at the right time.

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1 thought on “Stuck in the Middle With News: When Professors Report and Technologists Aggregate, What’s Left for Journalists?”

  1. Hello, Ryan.

    You’re absolutely right.

    I’m responsible for the UNC Health Care System’s news strategy.

    We are doing precisely what you propose in your next-to-last paragraph. We use blogs, YouTube and Twitter to respond to breaking news (most famously about fruit flies). We had a Web cam interview about an important arthritis research paper up, on YouTube, within hours of the embargo’s lifting. We had a Flip cam interview of our dean/CEO (he worked in two presidential administrations; he’s a legitimate source) responding to Obama’s press conference. We’re preparing video packages for embargoed material.

    Why? Mostly because there are too few reporters to cover our news.

    I was a newspaper reporter. It’s painful to see the industry crumble. But let’s face reality and get on with the news.

    In medicine and science media relations we face an especially difficult dilemma. Academic researchers (clinical and basic) create the news — discovering new therapies, influencing policy — with federal and state money, largely. We have a responsibility to report the outcomes. But medicine and science are among the beats that have been most badly chopped (CNN’s cutting it’s science desk, for example). So we report the news.

    Of course we have a bias. So do news media (in your 4th graph). Academic PR people need to adopt more journalistic standards — asking tough questions, including objective (or at least removed) sources. We’re starting to do that.

    Still, we draw the ire of “real” reporters.

    One reporter recently argued that we’re not pitching her great stories. Back in the day, say, 2000, 2001, reporters didn’t wait to be pitched, they worked their beats.

    We do, and we report it here: unchealthcare.wordpress.com, uncsom.wordpress.com, YouTube.com/uncmedicine and Twitter.com/unc_health_care.

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