The Campaign 2008 discussion at GW’s School of New Media and Public Affairs earlier this month covered a lot more than just the importance of video in the Obama online machine: among other topics, the panel of experienced journalists couldn’t help but also consider the role and future of news outlets themselves in the political process.
NBC’s Chuck Todd put it most dramatically when he described how the press corps felt “outmanned” by the political campaigns, since they had fewer resources than before to cover more of everything — bigger campaigns, more states in play, more videos, more spin emails, more citizen activists, etc. The good news is that citizens demanded more information and better information on the political process, but the bad news is that the news organizations haven’t worked out a business model to make money off of that demand.
Tom Rosenstiel with the Project for Excellence in Journalism agreed, adding that in 2008 the traditional press became both more passive and more reactive than before, functioning as more of a conduit for the campaigns than as a check on them. With nothing like the kind of in-depth investment news organizations made in digging up background on Bill Clinton in 1992, for instance, less of what the candidates don’t want us to know got into the media stream. In exchange, cable news in particular has allocated more of its space to surrogates and pundits — essentially political spokespeople semi-masquerading as journalists. He did note that the press tried to assert itself by fact-checking in this election cycle, but the problem he sees is that they were often looking at the “literalness” of a campaign’s claim rather than on its broader truth in context (i.e., we need “truth-checking” more than “fact-checking”).
With these observations in mind, Chuck Todd described what he sees as a need for professional news organizations like his to move out of the “breaking news” business and more into the “breaking analysis” business — with online newswires putting out headlines by the minute, what does it matter if, say, NBC gets a story five minutes before CNN? Rather than each news organization trying to “do everything,” he sees a need for the press corps to work together to make get at the truth, particularly since government is only going to get more active over the coming years, but the traditional news media will have fewer resources to cover it (perhaps the collaborative nature of much of the distributed journalism in the blogosphere is a model?). Along those lines, he predicted that many current news organizations are likely to merge, either with each other or with other online publishers (Google/CNN/NY Times, anyone?).
He encouraged the aspiring journalists in the audience to specialize in a field and learn as much as they can about it — for instance, to get an economics degree rather than a journalism degree. Journalists with specialized knowledge will “last longer,” meaning that the media machine will have more use for them over the long term. Conversely, the panel also encouraged young reporters to develop as many different kinds of publishing skills as possible, since someone who can both write AND be on camera (for example) will be more valuable than someone who can only do one of the two.
A fascinating discussion overall — and I have to agree with most of what they said (for instance, when I was looking for online communications interns in my previous job, I wanted liberal arts majors, not “communications” majors). One other personal note: in a previous incarnation of my professional life, I designed and built a website (the long-defunct Hotline Scoop) for Chuck way back in 1999 when he was at National Journal. It’s fascinating to see where people end up, and it’s also yet another reminder that none of us really knows what we’ll be doing ten years from now. My advice: learn as much as you can about as many things as you can, ’cause you really can’t predict what you’ll be using down the road.