Friday, July 24, 2009

Local news value = 0? Not exactly, but ...

Vin Crosbie, who like Clay Shirky has a pettty good track record with his observations and predictions, is out with a column on Click-Z that suggests local news as it is practiced now has little value to the local audience.

Now, pay attention to the italics. Shirky isn't arguing that components of local news aren't important, but that the way we present them are. Essentially, as I read it, he's taking the path forged by Adrian Holovaty, Dan Conover and others who say the story as the building block is much of the problem -- that when it comes to the "factual expositions" we tend to do as "story," all people really want is the data, the info (as Holovaty's Everyblock tries to present it, or Pegasus News in Dallas).

Crosbie kind of buries the lede in his last graf:
Investigative stories are worthy and always need to be done, but newspapers and local news broadcasters must first give people comprehensive information and data -- including access to all the source data, be that the town government's reports or each restaurant's daily menu. Only then should local journalists consider writing stories.
I think we are coming to a serious crossroads on this, and this also means a serious crossroads in journalism education -- and, frankly, I'm not sure how we approach it.

J-education (as is journalism in general) is much too tied to "writing." In that it sends the wrong message -- that it's all about writing, when it isn't. What distinguishes journalism is that it's all about gathering and hunting and finding out -- and then wanting to tell people about it. Yet, what is the first real "skill" class most students get? Writing. And so we send that signal, that it's all about writing. And then others say, well, we do writing, too, so it can't be that hard. And then off we go into all the debates.

(BTW, I would debate whether writing is a "skill" as we really tend to use the word -- I think it's much more than that -- but that's for another time.)

Most journalism schools are not set up to teach a truly data-driven form of journalism. I don't know if they ever will be. It requires some finesse to teach a dual-track (or perhaps better described as a "crossover") discipline - when to do data and when to do story-- at least as accreditation standards and hours limitations currently exist.

Interestingly enough, it seems that more people examining and commenting on journalism, its business models, etc., are coming roundabout to the same conclusion. Michael Shapiro, for instance, in his comprehensive look at the free/paid debate so far for Columbia Journalism Review, suggests that what we might be able to sell are those turn-of-the-screw, process details we have largely eschewed in journalism in the past three decades in favor of "story" (only most of those attempts still were not the kind of "story" Crosbie refers to). The process is what has value to a select group of people who have to react to every change.

And Holovaty and others repeatedly have said that what we really are collecting daily is a large database - auto accidents, births, deaths, zoning disputes, crimes. The sorts of things that, say, lawyers might be willing to pay for as they prospect for clients.

You may or may not shudder at that as unsavory, but I suspect we'll have to confront the reality before long.

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