Considering the audience

How have the Internet and other digital media changed the audience for news? And how has journalism changed its view of the audience, if at all? Those were two of the key questions on day two of the Phil Meyer symposium at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Shawn McIntosh, director of culture and change at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said her biggest challenge is to make the newsroom become audience focused. She believes journalism educators need to take on that challenge, as well. “We have long been arrogant and journalism schools have fed into that,” she said. Instead of teaching journalists how to convince the public to “take their medicine,” McIntosh said, journalists need to pay attention to what the public wants. Change the teaching, McIntosh urged, and “change the mindset of journalists as they go forward.”

newsgarden.jpgSo what do we need to think about? Here are a couple of ideas. Think about how the audience interacts with and shares information from the news media. Mark Briggs of the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., is involved in a new online project that places local news stories on a map and invites community members to add other items. The “news garden” has been planted at The Bellingham Herald.

Think about how TV and newspapers have long rank-ordered news for the audience, by deciding what to lead with or what to put on the front page. Does that matter as much online? Not really, Briggs said. Less than 30 percent of the paper’s online users come through the home page, so what journalists decide to put front and center on the online “front page” may not be that important. What matters more, Briggs suggested, is how people get to those inside pages, via links sent to them by email, text messaging or social network sites like Facebook.

Journalists need to recognize the power of the audience as distributors of the information news organizations provide. As a 25-year-old told the New York Times this week, “I’d rather read an email from a friend with an attached story than search through a newspaper to find a story.” Does that mean news organizations should spend less time pushing the use of their primary product–like promos to “Tune in at 6”–and more time making it easy for users to pass along the stories journalists generate?

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Something strange and possibly dangerous

Technology has changed journalism in ways that journalists themselves don’t understand. Phil Meyer, known to many as the father of investigative reporting and a longtime leader in journalism research, says we’d better figure it out if we want to survive. Here’s the text of a speech Meyer delivered last night at a symposium in his honor in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Perhaps the most quoted line in Precision Journalism, is this: “They are raising the ante on what it takes to become a journalist.”

I used it to open the third edition, published in 1991. And now I have a confession to make. At the time I wrote it, I could not be certain that it was true.

It was time to raise the ante, sure enough. But the mainstream media were being painfully slow to keep up with the need for better and more skillful journalism. I guess I thought that if I announced that standards were rising, perhaps that might nudge the process along a bit.

An “ante,” of course is what you pay to buy into each hand of a poker game. It ensures that you have a stake, some commitment, before you see your cards. Putting time and money on the table for journalism education is the way that most people in newspapers and broadcasting make their commitment. And now, 17 years after I made that rash claim, the ante really is being raised. This time, I am certain. And technology is the cause. While we were worrying about other things, learning to do journalism got harder.

And it’s going to get harder still.

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