Highways And the Nature of Journalism
Will its values and methods still be needed?
By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.
Journalists, media executives, securities analysts and cyberspace travelers are all talking about convergence and divergence. Often they just mean linking different kinds of equipment (computers, fiber optics, cable, broadcasting).
Convergence-divergence is about the highways and byways of information, but it is also about values, professional identity, methods of using the tools of information and something we could call purpose. In this non-technological, humanistic sense, it is about who will be a journalist and whether journalists as we know them will be needed in the future, as opposed to information processors of some other kind.
AJR has been regularly inquiring into convergence and divergence as they appear in changing delivery systems and other technology-driven phenomena.
We have had recent major articles on newspaper companies' plunge into electronic publishing, their own TV news programs, and partnerships with cable and telephone companies (even as we analyzed their profit levels, hiring patterns and centralized management).
AJR keeps examining how technology has cost the older networks their dominance in TV news, and what is emerging; how small newspapers, not just big ones, are manipulating technology to their advantage; how reporters are and will be changing the ways in which they assemble news; what kinds of Mom and Pop journalism, such as "zines," have been given birth by desktop publishing.
We look at legal, ethical and societal questions raised by our new ability to manipulate images and gather data on individuals; the import of all-news local cable and its connections with print; and abuses of technology by TV "news" magazines that buy, de-professionalize and sometimes fake the news.
We confessed Divergents do not deny the reality of technological convergence. We do know it doesn't mean that journalism is dying and will rise from the dead only through a great convergence in which the journalists of the past are not recognizable in the future.
People want journalism, not just information, to enable them to make critical decisions on how to survive, says my faculty colleague John Newhagen, who studies attention, memory and psychological aspects of how people relate to news.
He believes the need for people who "do news" will increase rather than decline because of information availability and complexity. They will be needed to pursue, understand and deliver certain kinds of information in their own peculiar ways. They will not be dependent upon the success of any particular technology. "Don't think about who they work for, or what kind of machines they use," he says.
In cognitive psychology, people are "information processors." But, Newhagen notes, news is unique and it is not just information. It arises from its own methodology and is gathered and conveyed by a group ("call it a cult") that will be clearly identifiable in the future by its methods and underlying values.
AJR considered this recently as it pondered its future readership and its own role amid the convergence. It will continue to be edited for journalists, focusing on the practice and standards of journalism, a unique calling that is described sometimes as a profession and sometimes as a cult. l ###