Raising the ante

How has the Internet changed journalism? Can journalism survive in a world where there are no longer any “gatekeepers” and if so, what will it look like? I’m at a symposium in honor of Phil Meyer, author of Precision Journalism, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where these big questions and many others are being discussed.

Scott Maier of the University of Oregon believes journalism will survive because editors will become “navigators,” finding news in different places and helping people discover it. They need the same judgment skills journalists have always needed, Maier said, but they also have to understand that the definition of credibility has changed, because accuracy is in the eye of the beholder and many people seek news that favors their point of view.

Mark Briggs of the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., said today’s audience decides what kind of journalism they want, not the old gatekeepers, so a navigator’s most important role is to facilitate a discussion about the news. What the audience wants is interactive, immediate and transparent, Briggs said, a lesson re-learned in the past week when his paper’s comments section went down. The newsroom was flooded with angry calls and emails from people who wanted to participate in the news as a conversation, but couldn’t.

Briggs also talked about how reporting and delivering the news have changed. Some reporters are now “beat blogging,” forming social networks around their beats to develop stories and engage people who are not involved in news otherwise. [Here’s an example I discovered a few weeks ago from a New Jersey newspaper reporter.] A well-connected reporter is obviously going to break more stories, but Briggs says that today’s well-connected reporter should take source development public. As for news delivery, Briggs says the linear narrative has given way to short bursts, like SMS text messages. How will news organizations communicate to these consumers? What is journalism today now that the construct of the narrative has broken down? Is journalism writing code, like everyblock.com?

Whatever it is, it’s not going to be easy work. “Some wag once said that journalism is the place where the best of the second class minds go,” said Gil Thelen, former publisher of the Tampa Tribune. A navigator has to be a talented reporter, analyst, convener and multimedia “super-journo.” And students are asking who’s going to pay them to do all that. “I tell them they have to be entrepreneurial and there is a grain of truth in that,” Thelen said. “All journalists are going to be working in non-bureaucratic organizations. We’ve got to do some serious work to answer the question, ‘How am I going to make a living in a new media world?'”

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Faked out (again)

The Los Angeles Times has apologized for a recent story that it says was partly based on fake documents. The story quoted records obtained from the FBI as saying that associates of rap producer Sean “Diddy” Combs set up the murder of Tupac Shakur. But the paper’s editor, Russ Stanton, now says the documents appear to have been fabricated.

We published this story with the sincere belief that the documents were genuine, but our good intentions are beside the point. The bottom line is that the documents we relied on should not have been used. We apologize both to our readers and to those referenced in the documents and, as a result, in the story. We are continuing to investigate this matter and will fulfill our journalistic responsibility for critical self-examination.

The fraud was unmasked by the Smoking Gun Web site, which said the documents seemed to be phony, in part, because they looked like they were written on a typewriter, not a computer, something that wouldn’t have happened in 2002. Does this sound familiar? It should. In 2004, CBS News relied on apparently fake documents for a 60 Minutes story about President Bush that eventually led to the departure of anchor Dan Rather.

These incidents make clear that journalists need to do to more to authenticate documents before broadcasting or airing stories based on them. And the LA Times report raises another concern. As of this morning, the original story was still online with no indication that it’s wrong or that the paper has apologized. It’s since been taken down. In today’s media world, a corrections policy that doesn’t cover the Web immediately is inadequate, to say the least. [NOTE: An earlier version of this entry appeared to suggest the murder was in 2002, when in fact it happened in 1996. The bogus records were obtained in connection with a 2002 lawsuit. We regret any confusion and have changed the entry to clarify.]

UPDATE: The Times retracted the story over the weekend [April 7, 2008]. The newspaper says it has concluded that the “FBI reports” it relied on were fabricated and other sources used did not support the story.