Online news undergoes a reprofessionalization

By Ed Wasserman

Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley

For more than a decade now, a steady refrain in the online media has been that the traditional practice of journalism was dying, the victim of technological advance and cultural insurgency.

It wasn’t just the economic collapse of the legacy press. The most widely followed online news sites were increasingly populated by articles, pictures, and audio tracks selected not by living editors but by continuous, automated samplings of user behavior and mathematically ingenious hunches about reader interest.

News itself was being reimagined as no longer mainly the job of salaried reporters. It was more and more the work of impassioned civilians equipped with handheld devices and driven by curiosity and a commitment to public illumination.

As a political matter, that meant the day when a newsroom elite superintended civic awareness was over. News consumers would now rely on their social media pals for guidance on what to pay attention to, and the power to create and sustain networks of attention was now in the hands of ordinary people.

This was all thought to be a very good thing, since it not only universalized a hugely expanded population of people as news sources. It also spread the net much wider so that realities that might have escaped notice became news. “Journalism gets better the more people who do it,” as one writer put it, paraphrasing New York University media theorist Jay Rosen.

The outlook was buoyant, even euphoric, and it was tempting to overlook what might be lost in the rush to the online news millennium—accuracy and taste, for starters. More troubling, where was the quality? Even with a decade of citizen mobilization behind us, it’s hard to point to genuinely good journalism that was truly attributable to this turbo-fed democratization, no matter how lavishly admired it has been.

Now, that’s not to say that great news tips and evocative videos haven’t come from civilians with the right tools, in the right place, at the right time. We’ve seen that in the past year in the awareness of police killings of young black men in this country. Nor is that to ignore instances of exuberantly successful mass mobilization – such as when some 20,000 Britons scoured the personal spending of their parliamentarians in 2009 under the auspices of the Guardian newspaper.

But by and large, the most dramatic impact of the digital explosion on journalism has been to widen the world of sources, not to transform the rituals of newsgathering. Quality journalism has remained, defiantly, a professional practice. The value of meticulous attention to accuracy, of careful confirmation, of sifting competing claims about truth and significance, of respect for privacy, of concern to avoid harm where possible—these cornerstone principles of traditional journalism (however often they’re violated) have not been replaced in the millennial rush to a digital populism.

So it comes as welcome news that some of the most successful web-based news operations are surrendering the algorithms that they’ve been using to make editorial decisions, and will now, as Wired magazine reports, “use real, live humans to curate the news, entertainment, and content they’ll deliver via their platforms.”

Apple, according to the magazine, is hiring editors for its Apple News app—candidates should have five years of journalism experience—and Twitter will use flesh-and-blood editors to select materials for its news feeds.

Snapchat is hiring “content analysts” with journalism experience to assess the pictures submitted to it. Google-owned YouTube has engaged Storyful, which culls worthwhile content from social media, to provide with editorial support.

Elsewhere we learn that Upworthy, a strong news site with a progressive tilt, has created the position of “editorial director,” instead of “curator,” and filled it with a widely respected conscript from the New York Times.

Huffington Post has widened its commitment to original reporting by partnering with other media organizations on their “Evicted and Abandoned” examination into the World Bank’s failure to protect those who have been displaced by work it underwrites.

These are significant developments, and the picture that emerges is of an online news industry that is rediscovering the value of news professionalism, and is deepening its commitment to the venerable skills and values that distinguish journalism from the many other ways that people have developed to share their understandings of what’s happening around them.

I am, admittedly, biased, in that I spent many years as a news person and have for more than a decade been in the business of training journalists. So I’m glad for further evidence my graduates will be in demand.

And while I’m mindful that the legacy news industry has, and continues to have, much to atone for and much more to explain, restoring to center stage the values and skills of journalism still seems like an excellent idea. The online news business has been enriched by an unprecedented openness to an expanded array of sources, and technology has sensitized it to the demands of its users. Now it’s reaching back to reprofessionalize itself, so that it benefits not just from the new but from the old.

Edward Wasserman is the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. This column was originally published on 13 July 2015 on Ed Wasserman’s blog.

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