Journalism means balancing the silly, serious

Posted: March 8th, 2010 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , | View Comments

Anyone who knows me can tell you there are a few topics I love talking about, regardless of the circumstances. There’s beer, of course, and my belief that The Fifth Element is one of the best sci-fi movies of all time.

But at the top of the list, much to the chagrin of all my friends, is journalism.

That’s why I’ve been so thrilled to be a part of two different panels over the past year on the future of journalism. Even more than talking about journalism, I love learning about journalism, and panels like these never fail to teach me something new, whether the audience is filled with PR professionals or college journalists. It proves that the intellectual weight at any of these discussions is always heavily skewed toward the audience.

The two most valuable points I took from a recent panel at the Society for Collegiate Journalists‘ 2010 Biennial Convention came from UNC Chapel Hill Professor Paul Jones.

One point provides some validation, the other requires a change in my vocabulary.

As a Web producer at News 14 Carolina, I’m part of a team that’s constantly working to figure out how to include viewers into our news gathering and news distribution.

As a “serious journalist,” I’d like to tell you that means forming such a good relationship with our audience that they keep us constantly informed on their surroundings, helping us share that information accurately and effectively with the larger community.

But more often than not, it means helping them share photos of their pets in silly hats.

I had some reservations about this when I first started working at News 14.

Is this really journalism? Couldn’t our time be better spent? And why do dogs look so universally pitiful when they’re forced to accessorize?

Being fresh out of college, I soon learned those questions were purely academic. I began to realize that this content was fun. Our viewers and users loved it, and we certainly got plenty of laughs out of it.

But even though I knew content like this was bringing us closer to our viewers, I wasn’t quite able to articulate why. On Saturday, Jones did so eloquently.

Small talk, he said, leads to big talk.

In other words, entice your audience with photos of pets, and they’ll be more willing to listen to vital community information that will inform their decisions.

Jones pointed out that Toastmasters teaches a similar principle with regard to good speeches: Try to open with a joke.

Balancing the serious and the silly isn’t just recommended, it’s damn good journalism.

But there’s another piece of Saturday’s discussion that’s closely related and essential here — and it requires a fundamental change in our vocabulary.

Jones says when it comes to the news, it’s no longer about delivery — it’s about engaging in conversation.

I’ve thought a lot about that point in the past, specifically with regard to social media. I’ve used it in my presentations to our news executives and my explanations to reporters, anchors and producers about how and why we should use services like Facebook and Twitter.

Jones’ comments made me realize that for the most part, I was paying lip service to the concept of the “news conversation.”

The conversation is no longer limited to our social media presence. It applies universally to our stories, whether they’re online or on the air.

The press is no longer delivering content, it’s participating in a discussion. At times, we initiate that discussion with breaking news or an investigative piece. Other times, as was the case with protests in Iran, we help open the ongoing discussion to a wider audience. And sometimes, adorable photos of animals provide some idle (but endearing) chatter.

Good conversation takes quality information, respectful interaction and comprehensive follow-up.

This isn’t just a metaphor — it’s a guide to good journalism practices.

By no means were these the only two valuable points of information during this panel. When you gather that many passionate people in a room, you’re bound to come away with quality ideas — especially when those people are college journalists.

With regards to the future of technology, for example, I think fellow panelist and NCSU Student Media tech guru Fred Eaker said it best.

“Hold on to your hats.”

UPDATE: Andria Krewson penned a great post at Innovate This on 2007 on this very topic.

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