Winter 2010: Coda

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The Real New Journalism

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By Mike King

It was in the mid-1990s—the kids and their friends were teenagers, as I remember—when I summoned them upstairs, all Clark Griswold–like, to the family’s fancy, new desktop computer. The goal was to demonstrate that their dad’s newspaper could produce a story online within hours of the high school football game all of us had just attended.

As we watched the 54-k telephone modem slowly screech out a grainy photo from the game one line at a time, the kids got restless. Still, they were fascinated by the new technology—how, in essence, they were getting an advance look at what was going to be in the next day’s paper.

About then my wife casually observed: “You realize that if that thing ever gets faster, you’ll be out of a job.”

That “thing” not only got faster, it transformed the communications industry and left the newsprint-and-ink business in what best can be described today as hospice care.

I write this after one year of “retirement” from newspapers, having been put out to pasture by a business model that tried, but could never keep pace with the high-speed transition society was making from the print to digital age. Do I miss the old days of my thirty-eight-year career among the wretched masses of print journalists? Absolutely. But I also have to acknowledge that I’ve got more access to news and information today as a consumer than I ever had as a journalist.

On the twenty-seven-inch, high-definition monitor in front of me right now, besides this Word document, are a bunch of open web pages. There’s a site I rely on to give me minute-by-minute updates on health care reform—including vital links to dozens of publications following the issue. On another page is the New York Times, where I go whenever I have a spare moment. On yet another is a blog that I edit and manage for a Georgia health advocacy group. And, of course, there’s also Facebook and two separate email accounts. All of this is virtually free and at my fingertips, and increasingly much of it is available even on my mobile phone. Amazing.

At any time, day or night, I can read, edit, create, and instantly distribute the news that interests me and that I might want to share with others. That’s a journalist’s dream, working without an editor or publisher or a delivery truck in sight. (Then again, if I were the publisher, I’d have to figure out some way to get readers to pay me for this service.)

I recognize other ironies too, like the fact that many of you are reading this on pages bound together and painstakingly assembled for maximum impact. Enjoy it while you can. There is a lot to be said about the tactile feeling you get when turning pages; about the magic of discovering a heartwarming story or brilliant photo that an editor strategically puts in your path through a magazine or newspaper. By digitizing “content” down to headline-only links on a web page, we will no doubt lose some of the serendipity associated with many of the printed products we have come to love.

Yet I worry less about that than I did a year ago. In my new life as an online consumer of news and information, I’m in charge of selecting stories about the people, places, and topics that interest me most on dozens of sites I routinely visit. But hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive several emails or find links posted by my Facebook friends touting something they’ve read and consider worth sharing. The link is right there, the reward instantaneous. That’s a good thing, and it almost makes up for the missed surprises that come to you by leisurely paging through printed publications.

Still, there are hazards to becoming our own editors and relying so heavily on information so easily obtainable. Some of it will be flat wrong. A lot of it will be misleading. And, unfortunately, many mainstream news organizations—including the one I used to work for—have found it easier to leave readers to sort out for themselves which of the viewpoints they publish are demonstrably false and which might actually be true.

It is on this battleground where real journalists will eventually make their new stand. Readers who need the explanatory expertise of a journalist and value their independent research and clarity of expression will summon them back to work, I’m convinced of that.

More important, many of these readers will even be willing to pay for it.

At least I hope so.

Mike King, a retired reporter, editor, public editor, and editorial board member of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a private consultant in media affairs.

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