Thursday, October 15, 2009

Journalism and a helium balloon

Today's breathless television and Internet coverage of a runaway helium balloon while a boy "took a nap" in the attic exposes, yet again, the difference between journalism and pointing a camera at something and calling it news.

Journalism is an ideal – the proposition that there is a vocation consisting of people who sift through information in search of facts, perspective, context and relevance. Too many people are trying “fix” that. No database, computer algorithm, smart phone or HD video camera can replace a trained and conscientious journalist.

The question for journalists and the communities they serve isn’t whether journalism is still relevant, or at least it shouldn’t be. The question for newspapers is how to evolve from a simple one-platform business model – news and advertising printed on newsprint and sold to readers – to a more complex multi-platform business model.

For most newspapers – particularly those like the Post Register that serve smaller, somewhat isolated and self-contained markets – print is still profitable and preferred. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be pursuing ways to make our information and advertising products more compelling and relevant and to offer it in various formats. We should and we are.

While it's essential to update the business, however, it's equally essential to do it without compromising the basic values that have made community journalism a vital part of American life. We provide our definition of journalism on our web site, where we have listed our standards, adapted from the Society of Professional Journalists:

“We believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and a contributor to democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Working at the Post Register means sharing a dedication to ethical behavior and striving to follow this code and the connected standards of practice.”

It’s admittedly highfalutin, but what about that is no longer applicable, just because we can now deliver news and advertising on platforms other than print? The truth is that journalism is becoming the great differentiator between millions of nonsensical or opinion-based “information” sources and the comparative handful that adhere to sound ethical standards and that define news as the who, what when, where, why and how.

This isn’t to say that newspapers in print need to be protected at all costs. No, what needs to be protected at all costs is journalism, which can be provided through any number of platforms. But journalism is neither easy nor cheap, and it requires a commitment that few “content providers” are willing or able to make.

Journalism practiced by human beings isn’t a perfect process, but it’s better than all the rest.

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