EVERY day, with everything they do, the key question for journalists and news organizations in these tight - that is, more efficient - times must be: Are you adding value? And if you’re not, why are you doing whatever you’re doing?
Sitting in a hotel room, cruising by CNN the other day, I caught a behind-the-scenes segment that wanted to show us just how cool it is to be a reporter dashing from story to story. It did the opposite for me. I was disturbed at the waste.
The correspondent - I won’t pick on him; it was just his turn to play show monkey - stood in front of the new Mets’ stadium to tell us that there’s controversy about naming it after a sponsor. It was just a stand-up. There was no evidence of reporting as he was standing alone in a parking lot. The knowledge was a commodity. Anybody could have read it. But they wanted to scene and invested a correspondent and crew to get it. Then he dashed to the UN because there was a vote happening. But he didn’t run to report. He ran to the bureau to do another stand-up with another background. Again, what happened in the vote was commodity knowledge. Anybody could have read it.
So there is a reporter not reporting. But, of course, that is hardly unique to CNN. How much of the dwindling, precious journalism resource we have - on national and local TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines - goes to original reporting, to real journalism? How much goes to repetition and production?
Journalism can’t afford repetition and production anymore.
Every minute of a journalist’s time will need to go to adding unique value to the news ecosystem: reporting, curating, organizing. This efficiency is necessitated by the reduction of resources. But it is also a product of the link and search economy: The only way to stand out is to add unique value and quality. My advice in the past has been: If you can’t imagine why someone would link to what you’re doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. And: Do what you do best and link to the rest. The link economy is ruthless in judging value.
The question every journalist must ask is: Am I adding value?
Look at a service such as PaidContent. They have a small (though growing) staff and they choose carefully what they do, whether it’s worth it to send someone to a conference, whether they can add reporting to a story that’s already known, how they can curate links to the best of coverage that already exists. They fire their bullets carefully, economically, to contribute maximum unique value. PaidContent doesn’t - and can’t afford to - record stand-ups or rewrite others’ reporting for the sake of rewriting it or waste money on production and design niceties.
That’s the way that journalism will have to be executed in the future: efficiently.
I’ve been wanting to get funding to perform an audit of the journalistic output and value of the entire legacy structure of news in a market. It’s not that the current state of news should be the model for the future but it is where the discussion begins: ‘How do we make sure we’ll maintain this level of reporting?’
Once journalism becomes efficient, I think it can do much better than maintain what we have now. When we cut out all the incredible waste - those standups and rewrites and frills and blather - and when we have an ecosystem that rewards unique value, as the internet does, then I think we could end up with more journalism, more reporting.
Bloggers have had to learn that, too. Just linking to and commenting on others’ reporting won’t get you much attention. Every blogger who does original reporting and tells the world something it doesn’t know but wants to know learns that this is how to get links and audience. Arianna Huffington told Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in London months ago that she was hiring reporters because their stories get more traffic; it’s enlightened economic self-interest. This is a lesson we teach our journalism students at CUNY, when we have them add reporting to the conversations that are going on online.
Whether you’re a blogger or a new form of news organization, you’re going to have to ask with every move whether it will add value to the news ecosystem. If it doesn’t, you shouldn’t do it.
In the link economy, the value given to original reporting will rise. The ability to waste money on old practices of egotistical journalism will plummet. And what is left standing, I think, is more efficient and valuable reporting.