Monday, April 23, 2012

Some thoughts on modern journalism

This post is going to be very different from what I'm used to writing. But it's something that I've been thinking about (but has probably been elaborated on somewhere else).

I used to intern for Charlottesville Tomorrow, which is a non-profit news organization that reports on local politics, transportation, and community design issues in the Charlottesville area. For such a small organization (now three full-time employees, and one intern), it does some very impressive things when it comes to local journalism. For one - they manage an online wiki for all things Charlottesville, that contains user-generated information on everything from candidate bios and transportation projects to local restaurants and show venues. They engage with readers through Facebook and Twitter to get more involved in local affairs. And they often invest in visualizations of big transportation projects, so that citizens understand what's happening in their community.

Towards the end of my time there, I did a bit of reflecting on organizations like Charlottesville Tomorrow and the current state of journalism. Many people are lamenting over the dwindling budgets of professional media outlets as more and more people get their news from blogs, social websites, or other "informal" news outlets. It's a product of the information age! Today we get information from everywhere! Why wouldn't you expect the information specialists to go out of business?

Well I would argue that journalists are probably as important today as they've ever been - provided that they adopt a few new skills.

While we live in the age of information, some would say that we live in information overload. A lot of people haven't developed an effective way to sort through what's important and cast away what is just hollow ramblings on the internet. One important aspect of this is in the world of data. Open Data has been growing considerably since the Obama Administration started an initiative soon after taking office. "Big data" provides us with such valuable information, and has so many untapped opportunities.

And yet, in our lifetime, most of us will not (either through lack of time or lack of ability) interact with this open data movement, or use for our benefits. How would anyone even know where to begin?

This is where modern day journalists can come in. There is still a need for specialists to decipher and find important pieces of information for wider society, but it could be that finding those conclusions are just harder to find. Journalists' research can't just be confined to interviews, they have to dive into databases and other sources of "hidden information." Journalists need to start behaving like public researchers, and less like pundits. 

And that's the basic idea. I'd love to hear other thoughts on this, though.

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