The journalism we need is changing, but can journalists make the transition?

There’s no question that the journalism industry is in upheaval — not just because the business model underlying it has been disrupted, but because the whole way we create and consume information has been changed by social media and the internet, and the democratization of distribution they have created. Publishing used to be an industry and now it is a button, as media theorist Clay Shirky put it, and tools like blogs and Twitter allow sources to “go direct,” which has altered the traditional balance of power. Unfortunately, media economist Robert Picard says he believes many journalists may simply not be able to adjust to the kind of value-added journalism the market requires now.

Picard is the director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, a former fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government and the former editor of the Journal of Media Business Studies and the Journal of Media Economics. In a blog post on Sunday, he said that news organizations “need to move away from information that is readily available elsewhere” and focus on adding value by telling readers things they can’t find out somewhere else, adding context and analysis, and so on. But Picard says he is not sure some journalists are ready for this new role:

“Most journalists spend the majority of their time reporting what a mayor said in a prepared statement, writing stories about how parents can save money for university tuition, covering the release of the latest versions of popular electronic devices, or finding out if a sports figure’s injury will affect performance in the next match.

Most cover news in a fairly formulaic way, reformatting information released by others: the agenda for the next town council meeting, the half dozen most interesting items from the daily police reports, what performances will take place this weekend, and the quarterly financial results of a local employer. These standard stories are merely aggregations of information supplied by others.”

These kinds of stories used to serve a purpose when newspapers and other journalistic outlets were the only source of information, Picard says, but now this kind of routine content “has little economic value” because the original providers of it have their own ways of distributing it — some of which are just as effective if not more effective than sending out a press release. This is a phenomenon that blogging pioneer Dave Winer has described as “the sources going direct,” and Om has also written about how it is changing the landscape for media of all kinds. Picard goes on to say:

“To survive, news organizations need to move away from information that is readily available elsewhere; they need to use journalists’ time to seek out the kinds of information less available and to spend time writing stories that put events into context.

Unfortunately, many journalists do not evidence the skills, critical analytical capacity, or inclination to carry out value-added journalism. News organizations have to start asking themselves whether it is because are hiring the wrong journalists or whether their company practices are inhibiting journalists’ abilities to do so.”

That last question is one that media entities of all kinds need to answer if they are going to make the transition that Picard is talking about. And while paywalls may look like a solution, as Dean Starkman at the Columbia Journalism Review noted in a recent piece, they don’t do much good if the content that is behind the wall isn’t really worth paying for.