Our disappointing journalism

Catching up with a crushing load of unanswered email, I wrote this in response to a query from a grad student who asked about contextualized journalism:

The unfortunate reality is that most of us who had the resources to take advantage of that opportunity have squandered it. Most of the journalism as practiced on the Internet fails to to take advantage of any of those capabilities. The writing is not significantly different from what you might have seen in 1955 -- plain text, little use of media assets. Linking is rare. Incremental developments are not placed in context. What little "audience involvement" exists is limited to story comments left by angry, anonymous extremists. There is little actual interaction between journalist and audience, or with news sources.

I am very concerned that people are detaching themselves from the civic conversation, attracted away by bright shiny entertainment, driven away by poor reporting.

News is a continuing story, Developments do not make sense without backstory, without context. We are not, in general, providing that context. How did we get here? What does this mean?

This is not a technology problem. It's entirely a problem with our performance as journalists. Technology gives us tools. I have, in my pocket, computing power that was unheard-of two decades ago, the equivalent of a TV studio, and a live connection to a global network. How do I use that to the advantage of people in my community? That is the question. Our answers, to date, are disappointing.


Hey Steve, I fundamentally disagree with your conclusion. I agree that the product that journalism produces does in fact very much resemble what has been produced for generations, but i disagree that this is purely a failing of journalists. It would be an abdication of a journalists responsibilities if they possessed additional content and sources that they were not linking to, or if it were the case that they had easy access that they could provide to readers/users to give them a better understanding, but that's not what's happening. You've pointed out that you have technological tools unlike what was available in the 50's. But simply having a piece of general purpose technology does not mean that you can bend that technology readily to your whims and workflows. I grew up on the web, i live as a programmer, in and amongst the tech, and i have worked to build a company that makes content collection and distribution possible, and what we've seen over and over again, is that developing tools and integrating external data sources to fit into the workflows of existing organizations is a serious challenge. Are there things that can be abstracted out of these processes for general use? Sure, but identifying them is a time consuming process that requires many man-hours and access to people and projects with real world needs, and that is neither cheap nor convenient to arrange. As such i really do think your pessimism is unwarranted. The scope of this problem is very large, and challenging. Does Journalism bear some responsibility for trying to ignore the problem? Sure, Journalists have been thrown totally unaware into this new world. But you know what? They're not the only ones to have been dragged into this. Look at the world of art history. 5 years ago, my alma mater's IT department did away with slide projectors. The art history department scrambled to digitize all of their slides, and i know professors who to this day, have no idea where pieces of content which they could have easily found in their slide collection have gone. Who's fault is that? The professors'? The IT department's? The slide librarians'? They're all responsible. The world changed around them, they were unable or unwilling to identify the problems they would face, or take steps to address the problems in a manner that would allow them to continue to function. Please, don't let Journalism's obsessive self-flagellation obscure the fact that their lot can and will improve, and that Journalists not only have a responsibility to improve it, but are critical to improving it.