We need to keep experimenting in journalism

This photo from the high school science class I really wish I'd taken.
This photo from the high school science class I really wish I’d taken.

Any good scientist will tell you that not all experiments succeed, but it’s important to keep at it.

It’s sad to hear that Digital First Media in the U.S. is closing its Thunderdome shop and selling some of its papers. There were a lot of quality journalists working on the team to centralize news for all DFM news properties.

Steve Buttry, one Thunderdome’s many talented journalists, has written this completely honest post on the demise of the project. In it he writes:

I knew the risks in 2011 when I went to work for a company owned by hedge funds. And I knew the risks in 2012 when I turned down an attractive offer from a family-owned newspaper company to stay with the company owned by hedge funds.

All this makes the j-school students I teach, the journalists of the future, nervous.

‘What jobs will be there for me when I graduate?’ a group of first-year students asked me one night at an info session in their residence hall.

‘I don’t know,’ I told them. ‘And that’s fantastic.’

And really, it is. There are journalism jobs that exist today (community/social media managers, mobile editors, are some that pop into mind) that didn’t exist five years ago, I told them. And there will be jobs five years from now that don’t exist today.

I hope they were as excited by that thought as I am.

Journalism is evolving. It’s exciting, and it’s tumultuous. And yes, it’s also scary.

 

Thunderdome was an experiment. As was TBD, a hyperlocal news site that served the Washington, D.C. area. Buttry stated that TBD and Thunderdome weren’t failures – they didn’t get a chance to really get started, to prove themselves.

Anyone who says Thunderdome failed is wrong. As I said about TBD, you can’t fail unless you were given a chance to succeed.

Canadians are experimenting too

You might remember OpenFile in Canada, an experiment in news that allowed readers to pitch/assign and dictate which stories were followed. It mission was altruistic, it was lauded in Canada and the U.S. for its unique approach. But even as founder Wilf Dinnick was declared newsperson of the year by J-Source*, a website run by the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

Abruptly, OpenFile closed shop. Freelancers began a public campaign for money they were owed. After such a public and promising start, the experiment is over.

Wait, it’s not all bad

And then, a couple of weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Jesse Brown, who has carved out a niche as Canada’s only media critic. His site, Canadalandshow.com has regular podcasts that provide insight into what is going on in media.

Brown broke the story of CBC’s Chief correspondent, Peter Mansbridge, accepting cash for a public speaking engagement at a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers event.  His latest podcast is a discussion with former Globe and Mail employee Ann Rauhala about what is going on inside the news org after John Stackhouse, its Editor in Chief was recently fired.

Brown’s site has a sponsor, he has niche content and a dedicated audience. His experiment is off to a good start.

While he has never worked as a full-time employee in a newsroom (though he has written columns for publications such as Maclean’s, National Post, etc and produced radio docs for CBC), Brown told me that many of his friends who work in newsrooms have asked him how comfortable he is taking this risk of ‘going it alone.’

“I’ve got to be honest. I don’t know what’s riskier: going it alone, or dedicating 15 years of your life in a traditional newsroom.”

Touche, Mr. Brown, I thought. Touche.

When he said this to me, it was a month to the day since I had been laid off from a major/traditional news organization. I have spent the past 15 years working on the digital side in three of the country’s top newsrooms.

Now I hate the clichéd ‘time will tell’ ending. But really, we’re in the middle of it. And we don’t know how it will end.

Yes, some journalism experiments will fail. Others will succeed. (Looking at you, Winnipeg Free Press News Cafe). The unfortunate thing is we don’t know the winning ideas off the top.

But the truth is: People will always need journalism, and journalists. Journalists serve a purpose in society, as any J1000 student can tell you.

Me, I think it’s worth giving these experiments in journalism a go, and enjoying the ride. Who knows what we’ll develop.

 

*Full disclosure: I am the education editor for J-Source.ca

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