Earning the ‘i’ in ‘journalism’

Posted: January 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , | View Comments

In a lot of ways, my mother and my soon-to-be mother-in-law are two ideal sounding boards for my thoughts on journalism.

My mom subcribes to the paper, watches local news on TV and reads stories online. My fiance’s mother is a former newspaper reporter and columnist.

They represent two vastly different interests in the world of media — the producer and the consumer — that hopefully want a lot of the same things.

So it’s always interesting to sit down with them to discuss changes in the industry (especially when there’s pie and coffee — and there always seems to be pie and coffee).

This holiday’s discussion centered on the idea of journalists building their own brand.

There’s a lot of great advice floating around on how to do that. The ever-helpful Mindy McAdams has some excellent tips, as does Vadim Lavrusik over at Poynter.

But my family and I spent a lot of time talking about what the move toward the “individual journalist” means for the journalism industry as a whole — namely, the effect of rebuilding credibility from scratch.

Credibility at one point was largely a given for the industry. Surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press show 55 percent of participants viewed the press as accurate in 1985. That number dropped to 29 percent by 2009.

A few decades ago, mastheads said, “trust us,” and the public complied.

But for whatever reason, news organizations over the years squandered that public confidence, eroded their credibility and overspent their trust capital. Now they’re paying for it — and they’re in the hole deep.

This might not be all bad. John Temple, former editor of the now defunct Rocky Mountain News, wonders if the credibility decline might be the result of smarter, more savvy readers.

… there’s much that can be done to build public trust. And that work is essential for any individual organization. But at the same time, it might be good that readers are critical of journalists’ work and treat it skeptically. Perhaps that will lead them to read more widely and to interact with journalists to pressure them to improve the quality of their work.

There’s evidence to show that might be the case. The concept of the personal branding, although not necessarily new, has begun to emerge as an almost required strategy for those in the field. And consumers are responding to it, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2009 report.

But what these journalists are doing is more than just clever personal marketing. Divorced from the assumed credibility of the masthead, they are establishing trustworthiness all on their own.

And the market incentives for building that trust, brick by brick, are good. Their reputation, their career, their livelihood — they’re all on the line with each published post, comment and assignment. For the skeptical public, a sharp decline in an individual journalist’s value is just a Google search away.

This also poses a problem for traditional news organizations, especially as journalists get better and better at establishing their own street cred. Larger, complexly layered and less nimble, organizations have a much harder time maintaining complete and total control over their reputations.

Self-described Newsosaur Alan Mutter said it best in a New York Times article last week.

One of the problems is newspapers fired so many journalists and turned them loose to start so many blogs. They should have executed them. They wouldn’t have had competition. But they foolishly let them out alive.

If we do it right, “The Age of the Journalist” might be a great thing. If we’re forced to earn our own credibility again, we’ll have a better grasp of its value.

And maybe we won’t let it slip away this time.

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