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Nov. 7, 2008, 6:49 a.m.

Value vs. values and rejecting perfection

The panelists at last night’s Centennial Conversation on the the Future of Journalism, hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, identified two dichotomies at the heart of online news media: “value vs. values” and “perfection vs. good enough.” Though both issues are endemic to journalism in any medium, they seem particularly important as the industry proceeds with its cumbersome transition to the Internet. So let’s take a look at each concern.

Value vs. Values

News organizations have “inherited an artificial but powerful divide between the concern for value and the concern for values,” said Douglas K. Smith, executive director of the Sulzberger News Media Executive Leadership Program. Value, as in the bottom line, and values, as in good journalism. They may not be oil and water, but they certainly aren’t peanut butter and jelly.

That reminded me of a question recently posed by Geneva Overholser: “Did journalism’s business model distort journalism’s social mission?” But, actually, that wasn’t quite where Smith was going. He argued that media companies should tear down the “Berlin Wall,” as he put it, between their journalists and business staff because the divide is no longer sustainable, a luxury of the industry’s boom times. Smith would like to see more general managers — not just publishers — with a hand in both operations:

It’s actually quite rare to have one person who saw both sides and linked them together. So we also have a broken leadership and management model. That, actually, from my perspective, is the most important broken piece.

After the panel, I asked Smith what he thought about the non-profit model for journalism, which would appear to address some of the divide between value and values. He was all for charities getting involved in the news business, but he stressed that non-profit shouldn’t mean unprofitable. “Even if you have a well-endowed non-profit situation,” Smith said, “you still have to find and keep an audience” in order to make an impact and sustain the operation. “And if that’s possible on the non-profit level, then it should be possible on the for-profit level, too.”

Fair enough. But I would also add a line from Larry Summers, the former and possibly future Treasury secretary, who said this in reference to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: “It is hard in this world to do well. It is hard to do good. When I hear a claim that an institution is going to do both, I reach for my wallet. You should too.”

Perfection vs. Good Enough

The other dichotomy was put forth by Sree Sreenivasan, head of the new media program at Columbia University’s Journalism School. He said:

One of things that I emphasize is the battle between good enough and perfection. And what do I mean by that? This business, this institution, this enterprise that we’re in now is about perfection. You have dozens and dozens and dozens of people whose job it is to get perfect, as close to perfection as possible….The new technology is mostly about good enough. That means: “Is it OK? Let’s get it on there, and let’s get it there fast.” And there are some of us who think it can only be perfection, and what I’d like to recommend and what I do recommend for people is not to lower our standards…but to learn from these new tools and these new ideas and see how we can import some of the tricks of “good enough” and marry it with perfection.

As an example, Sreenivasan said he has recently been recording video of his five-year-old twins on his Flip camera and quickly sending the footage to their proud grandparents. The quality isn’t great, but on the other hand, “They blow out the candles, and in 30 minutes, [the grandparents] saw video of the candles blowing out.” That, Sreenivasan said, is preferable to constructing a nicely polished documentary that could never be delivered as quickly.

Moving Forward

There will be video of the panel on this page sometime today, and you can also review the Twitter notes and accompanying chatter.

Surprisingly, there was very little mention of the Monitor’s recent announcement that it would stop publishing its daily print edition. That could have been a good jumping-off point for a discussion of the future of journalism, which was, after all, the event’s title. But the panelists spent most of the time explaining the fundamental — and well worn — problems facing the news business. So as long as we’re breaking down old models, may I suggest that we also do away with the “panel discussion” format? Last night’s event featured five experts who each, I’m sure, have important things to say about journalism in the Internet age. But panels are always less than the sum of their parts, and yesterday the speakers spent so long agreeing with one another that they never really got anywhere. The refreshments afterwards, however, were delicious.

POSTED     Nov. 7, 2008, 6:49 a.m.
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