Journalism is on the comeback trail. It is dawning on everyone that great tech without great content (read: journalism) doesn’t get you there. Standing out is what really matters, especially in a world where the supply of “content” is nearly infinite. Volume doesn’t create value — quality does. Tricks and tropes work for a while, but eventually original reporting, great storytelling and indispensable information win. That’s journalism.
Nothing captures the zeitgeist better than the hit movie of the year. Spotlight honors the heroism of spreadsheets. It’s the foundational story. The most important technological advance in journalism was and still is shoe leather (although it’s sometimes virtual now!). Journalism takes courage. But it also takes perseverance and the support of colleagues and organizations.
The old content companies are rallying. The Washington Post and The New York Times, after years of internal struggle, have resumed their healthy competition to be the best and most widely read “national newspaper.” Gannett and public radio are working hard to leverage their network of local news operations (newspapers or NPR member stations) to offer distinctive journalism with deep community roots. The energetic if disorganized sector of not-for-profit journalism is honing in on the twin problems of distribution and sustainability. And new media organizations, as we used to call them, are making real strides in establishing serious standards and disciplined journalistic process. Original reporting has become a part of their operations. It isn’t enough anymore to just crib and reshare in an echo chamber.
We will have arguments, of course. Like whether characterizing Donald Trump as a “mendacious liar” is name-calling or connecting the dots (I vote name-calling, Ben Smith says the facts support it). Those are the healthy debates of a robust news ecosystem where independence includes being independent of each other.
Most exciting, the digital natives are moving into leadership positions in journalism. My generation’s struggle to integrate new ways with old values will pass from the scene. They will inherit from us the continuing struggle to build sustainable ways to support journalism and engage with our consumers. But in tackling this challenge there is new hope (to reference another hot movie strand of the moment). The evidence is overwhelming that the millennial generation is consuming more news and information than earlier generations at this point in their lives. Demand for journalism is not our challenge.
The great platforms continue to exercise great power, of course, siphoning both revenue and audience connection. But each in their way is searching for ways to make first-class journalism available to people who want it. The collapse of some legacy news orgs will continue. But it’s clear now that this creative destruction will not kill journalism. It was two freelance reporters who forced the release of the autopsy and then the video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Where were the big news organizations, one of them asked? It’s a good question.
One of the major challenges to legacy newspapers and broadcasters is memory. In many newsrooms, clinging to what once was is standing in the way of what can be. The world, however, is moving on. Some legacy organizations are stepping up to the challenges of today’s journalism. Those who can’t will find that others — from new news organizations to freelancers, local public radio, universities, and not for profit groups — are ready to step in.
Michael Oreskes is senior vice president of news and editorial director of NPR.