June 24, 2011

Journalism and the social media revolution

Jolie O'Dell
Jolie O’Dell of Mashable at “Journalism and Social Media.”

JD LasicaLast night I attended a nice gathering at the San Jose Mercury News, organized by Social Media Club Silicon Valley, called “Journalism and Social Media.”

The organizers put together a powerhouse panel made up of:

• Kym McNicholas, anchor/reporter, Forbes Video Network.
• Jolie O’Dell, reporter and editor, Mashable
• Chris O’Brien, business columnist, San Jose Mercury News
• Julie Watts, award-winning consumer reporter/anchor, CBS5
• Brian Shields, online news manager, KRON 4

I got a few nice photos in this Flickr set, though in general did a poor job with the settings on my new Canon 5D. (And a disclaimer: I’m friends with several of the panelists.)

And much of the discussion was intriguing and noteworthy, if thematically scattered. For instance, it was fascinating to hear Jolie O’Dell, the social media rock star who’s a journalist with Mashable, take down the recent trend toward opinion-driven news reporting. She went on to say, “Sharing is the wrong way to judge social media news content. The trashy lame content gets the most shares.”

Still, I came away disappointed, for a few reasons. First, because I’m giving a keynote in Santiago, Chile, in August to a group of journalists running the new media programs of Chile’s major news organizations and wanted to get some insights about where this is all heading.

And second, because I’ve moderated or participated in many panels like this one over the years and wanted the conversation advanced. Instead, we were moored in misplaced conventional wisdom and rivers of meaningless generalizations about “bloggers” as people who only spout opinions — a 2002 cartoon caricature of what bloggers are all about.

What the conversation could have been

But poor framing by the moderator, and an odd decision to rely on Twitter questions rather than the audience right in front of her, sidetracked what could have been a deeply thoughtful conversation about how social media is transforming journalism as a craft and as a business. So we got a half-hour discussion about press releases (are you kidding me?) instead of delving into the really key issues of the day:

• How is the increasing emphasis by some successful sites on making news reports shareable, bite-size and formulaic (Top 10 Everything) affecting news reporting?

• Where was the discussion about the real-time Web (there’s even an entire conference devoted to the topic!) and how it’s affecting journalism?

• There was only a passing reference, by Brian, to the need for news consumers to learn how to differentiate between trusted, credible sources of news and information vs. rumor and misinformation.

• I don’t remember hearing the term “citizen journalism” used once throughout the evening.

• While the Mercury News should be congratulated for launching the well-done Bay Area News app this spring, are news organizations putting too much faith in the prospect of subscription revenue falling from the pockets of Steve Jobs? I think so. Do the panelists? We don’t know. It was left to me at the end to point out from the audience, “It’s as if the Mercury News didn’t know there was a social media revolution.” In fact, in my presentations at the Online News Association and elsewhere I hold up the Mercury News site as an example of what news websites will not look like in the future. So why are so many news organizations clinging to an online news model from the 1990s when they’re losing mindshare — and respect?

If you took a half dozen of the paper’s most talented writers and set them loose to create their own news site on WordPress, they’d have a better news presence than the Mercury News within 6 months.

I’ll go far as to say that if you took a half dozen of the Mercury News’ most talented writers — starting with Chris O’Brien, who was on last night’s panel — and set them loose to create their own news site on WordPress, they’d have a better news presence than the Mercury News within six months. And perhaps more readers.

• While CoverItLive is showing its age, there was no discussion of how journalists might use Foursquare, which hit the 10 million users mark this week.

• No mention of Demand Media and the rise of a new breed of dumbed-down article writing that’s manufactured

• No mention of Groupon and its imitators, which are hiring writers and journalists to create inviting little review capsules of deals of the day, which millions of people are now finding in their in-boxes each day.

• And a personal opinion: While Jolie and other panelists smartly suggested that aspiring journalists start a blog, even while still in college, several of the panelists — prompted by the moderator — said that, yes, they would encourage students to attend J school (graduate school) to study journalism today. Really? I can’t think of a bigger waste of talent than to roam the hallways of academe when young people could be learning skills to give them a leg up in the new media workforce, like Jolie did by returning to school to study Java and object-oriented programming in 2010. Create a WordPress plug-in. That would impress me more than a J-school degree from Columbia. And, yes, we’re hiring journalists over at our sister site, Socialbrite.

A few highlights

I’m being overly harsh here, because there were lots of highlights, including:

Kym relating the incident where Diane Sawyer posted to Facebook (or Twitter?) asking for questions for Mark Zuckerberg — after her interview with him was over.

@juliewattsTV said, “I would get fired if I offended anyone” by posting to Twitter. The obvious follow-up questions — what makes you say that? there are hundreds of TV anchors tweeting today, why the reluctance at CBS5? — were never asked.

For many in the audience, the conversation seemed fine enough. And you can follow other reactions on Twitter at #smcsv to pick out some of the pearls from Kym, Jolie, Chris, Brian and Julie.

But I agree with Michael Sean Wright, who tweeted: “my frustration w/ discussion @ #smcsv this is old news and not how we can empower each other to use all tools to express our voices”

I left thinking, well, we’ll have plenty of other opportunities to continue this conversation over the next five years. I just hope metro dailies like the Mercury News have some breathing room, because their corporate owners’ approach to the changing landscape is not encouraging if they want to survive in the age of social media.

This is not an evolution. It’s a revolution. And it’s far too late for half-measures. JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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10 thoughts on “Journalism and the social media revolution

  1. JD,

    Thanks for attending. I appreciate your critiques – there were many, many topics to cover here – and I'm partly to blame for picking such a broad topic.

    Hope to see you at future events. Good luck with your keynote in Chile.



    • Brian, it was great meeting you! Thanks for giving up your chair. I did enjoy the event and the topic.

      Chile should be fun … Still have to do a lot of research before then.

  2. good summary. I would have loved to see a discussion on citizen journalism – i thought that should have been a key theme for a discussion on social media+journalism. the moderator wasn't that great – plus I didn't appreciate her bullying the young SJSU student with “a J-masters is diff than a j-bachelors. Columbia was so good … blah blah”

  3. Great article! Thanks a lot, I'm also quite interested in where journalism is heading with modern tools, sharing and inter communication! Good highlights of points that should have been discussed instead of rehashing the same new points over and over for the past years.

    I particularly support your opinion on Academe (although i don't discredit the idea that it teaches us to respect sources more than internet blogging/journalism does). I tend to believe that the support of an education system that is limited in scope and stuck in an aging framework does not help towards creating the best journalism…

    Anyway, I still enjoy reading a good newspaper or magazine (FT/Economist – IMHO).

    • Thanks for the comment, Harold. I frankly don't think a Graduate School degree in journalism was ever better than real-world experience. If you look at Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Sy Hersh, who among them had J School degrees? None, I'll bet.

      Hopefully there'll be enough of us to keep the print publications afloat for years to come.

  4. JD:

    As I said elsewhere, I don't disagree with you on a lot of this. I honestly walked in there without a clear idea of who the audience for this was going to be, what level of sophistication they would have on the subjects involved, and tried to bring a real world daily news grind perspective to the thing. I like Jennifer a lot as a person but I was also somewhat surprised by how the conversation went and the lack of actual questions from the audience.

    I would have loved to see the discussion include some of the things you mention including the real time web and services like 4square mostly because I don't have a clear grasp on the best ways to integrate them into our daily coverage and might have learned more than I did. I would be interested in your thoughts and those of your readers on those two subjects.

    Again I won't quibble with you that my spiel about the need for better education for news consumers on how to determine credibility in any source was more than a “passing” reference but I think that's something that can't be minimized. In any case it was a pleasure seeing you again and every time I see or read you, I learn something so thanks.

    Brian Shields

    • Thanks for the comment, Brian, well said.

      I thought your remarks about the new responsibility placed us as news consumers were dead on. Used the word “passing” because no one else chimed in, and it's such an important topic. How do we elevate the signal over noise in an age when millions upon millions of people turns not only to bloggers but to sources like Fox News, where facts just get in the way of what their audience wants to hear?