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Knowledge-Based Journalism Is Not an Oxymoron

• April 14, 2010 • 9:25 AM

The blandly titled Journalist’s Resource sits on the Web, ready — with a little help from Harvard’s Kennedy School — to throw substantive story ideas onto reporters’ desks.

Early in my career, I attended a daylong court hearing that focused on a court challenge, pursued by large retailers in a major American city, to a so-called “blue law” that kept most stores closed on Sundays. The lawsuit was big news. This city was largely conservative and fairly religious, and the retailers were normally aligned with the right-leaning establishment. All the same, the retailers wanted to make money on the Lord’s Day, politics be darned. The case was God v. Mammon, but with a twist, and so it was catnip to the news media.

The run-up to the hearing included weeks of news accounts quoting business, religious and legal experts from both sides. Was the blue law a legitimate attempt to ensure that working folks had at least one weekend day off, as the government claimed, or an unconstitutional joining of state and religion to improperly restrict commerce, as the retailers averred?

When it came time to argue in court, pack journalism was on full display; newspaper, wire, radio and TV reporters and photographers sat through hours of detailed testimony about every aspect of the blue law (a term that has an unclear etymology but may relate to the unforgiving morals of the extremely religious, i.e. bluenoses). The hearing did not end until well past 5 p.m., meaning that TV reporters, in particular, would have to put their pieces together quickly for the early news. The judge in the case was a good one, and he wanted reporters to be sure of their facts. Although it represented anything but normal procedure, he called the pack to gather before his bench and ask questions.

As the journalistic mob plowed forward, a well-known television reporter barged her way to the front and, before anyone else could speak, thrust her microphone upward at the judge and asked in full, television-baritone seriousness, “Your honor, just what is the blue law, anyway?”

No, the question was not rhetorical. The reporter had sat through an entire day of a hearing about it, but she did not know a blue law from a blue sky.

The Front Page days when reporters put press passes in fedora headbands and thrived without college degrees are gone and buried under mountains of HTML code. Although I can fill several hours with stories about clueless reporters I have known through the years, nowadays most mainstream journalists aren’t blank-slate, blue-law ignorant of the subjects they report on. Longtime beat reporters can become near expert in their areas (if they don’t burn out on the subject first), and in the last decade or two, it has become increasingly common for journalists to have advanced degrees from prestigious universities. For many of them, however, that higher degree has been a master’s in journalism focused on journalistic training and technique, not acquisition of knowledge in other subjects. In some sense, it is reasonable to say that mainstream journalists today are often highly educated, without being deeply knowledgeable.

Since 2005, the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education has tried to broaden the knowledge base of students at major journalism schools. The initiative — which started with five and now includes eight j-school “incubators,” with another four “associate” schools participating — attempts to connect journalism curriculums to experts and subject areas across their universities in a variety of ways. They range from seminars in a specific subject area — say, national security — that might serve as a prelude to a national security reporting project to joint-degree programs that link journalism and relevant subjects, among them public policy, business, law, the sciences and the arts.

As reasonable and worthy as these efforts seem, I can sense, as I write about them, the rolled eyes of hard-boiled reporters across the land. Working reporters don’t need no stinkin’ seminars; they’re engaged in a daily wrangle with wily, ruthless sources, trying to beat other reporters to bits of hot information that can be cobbled together and spit out almost immediately as news stories suited to the 24/7 deadlines of the Internet. Journalism is a competitive, results-oriented craft, and in my experience, at least, most journalists look down on do-good efforts that don’t bring quick, real-world results. I’m not making a value judgment here; it’s just my observation that when imperfect utility and the unrealized ideal do battle, journalists go with what works. They have to; they’re paid to produce, not theorize.

That’s why I’m impressed with a relatively new part of the Carnegie-Knight effort, a Web site that comes out of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Although the name isn’t catchy — the site is called, simply, Journalist’s Resource/Knowledge-Based Reporting — the thinking behind the site is innovative enough as to be elegant, and the result is practical enough that real live journalists might even use it.

Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Kennedy School, said his idea for the site grew out of “a pretty good seed bed” prepared by other Carnegie-Knight programs aimed at producing more thoughtful journalists and journalism. But those aspects of the initiative primarily benefited journalism students and teachers at the 12 lucky universities funded by the Carnegie and Knight foundations. “How can we make this a more general thing? That’s where the thought about the Web site originated,” Patterson said.

Journalist’s Resource provides journalists, journalism students and journalism teachers — really, anybody with a Web connection — access to authoritative research reports and papers in four wide-ranging, policy-related subjects: economics, the environment, society and government. The emphasis here is on the word “authoritative.” The database of research offered through the site leans toward meta-studies that identify the overall direction of research in a particular area and, of course, toward peer-reviewed studies, Patterson says. So far, he says, he’s been identifying most of the research offered on the site. Ultimately, though, the plan is for a body of expert advisers to make sure leading research in their fields makes it onto Journalist’s Resource. “The idea,” Patterson says, “is to put really state-of-knowledge pieces up there.”

Ideas for fancy new Web sites are one thing; the concrete utility of Journalist’s Resource is another, and it’s impressive. The “economics” area of the site, for example, offers interesting/important/authoritative research in three areas: finance, cities and corporations. Just the finance area offers up a dozen studies that might form the basis for or deepen a news story. One such study is a quick summary of, and then a link to, the paper, “Sports and the City: How to Curb Professional Sports Teams’ Demands for Free Public Stadiums,” from the Rutgers Journal of Law and Urban Policy. The paper can be downloaded, for free.

For thinking reporters, it’s like having a team of research experts inside your computer, ready to throw substantive story ideas onto your desk.

At present, Journalist’s Resource seems aimed primarily at university-level journalism instruction. The area of the site that includes a link to the sports stadium paper, for example, also includes teaching notes, with suggested student assignments that take off from that research article. Patterson says he’s developing syllabi for courses that would use the Journalist’s Resource site; he hopes to put those course plans out to journalism programs across the country. “Part of it is just to simply socialize students into thinking, ‘Here’s one more resource for reporting that I ought to be thinking about,’” Patterson says.

Aside from a few Web ads, there hasn’t been a concerted effort, yet, to push the site to practicing journalists. But Patterson says the eventual goal is for Journalist’s Resource to feature research that’s “a little ahead of the curve” of current events, so when news breaks, journalists can use the site to counter or at least dampen the he-said/she-said battle of political spin that dominates much of today’s news universe.

When he talks about Journalist’s Resource, Patterson is reserved, downplaying the likelihood that it will make a quick and significant impact on the practice of journalism. He calls the site and other Carnegie-Knight efforts “kind of drops in the bucket” that could eventually fill up and represent an improvement in the thoughtfulness and substance of the journalism of our day. I’m more enthusiastic; the only reservation I have about Journalist’s Resource involves my wish that it had been my idea, so I could take credit for — rather than simply extol — its seemingly effortless usefulness.

Early in the 1990s, I proposed a research project based on the hypothesis that major U.S. news media routinely fail to deal with the complex problems that pose the most significant threats to the country — until it is too late. For several reasons, I never got past the initial stages of the project and so cannot make the quantitative case that American media walk blithely past enormous threats that are complicated to report and explain, only to focus enormous resources on black-and-white teapot tempests.

Still, I believe the hypothesis would prove out. The $125 billion savings and loan bailout of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the millennium-starting dot-com crash that erased trillions of dollars in U.S. stock market value, the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction that provided impetus for an invasion of Iraq that cost the country thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, the recent credit panic that put another multitrillion-dollar hole in the U.S. economy — all of these complex threats went insufficiently remarked by the press until they had already blown up in America’s collective face.

Amid this long-standing failure to perform and a digital revolution that has put tens of thousands of journalists out of jobs, the new and old media have been conducting a running debate about the future of journalism. Much of the debate involves a questioning of whether the personnel-heavy, expensive form of journalism that dominated the last three decades of the 20th century can ever be supported by Web sites that now bring in only tiny percentages of the revenue that print publications and television networks once did.

The most salient characteristic of the debate may be its sneering tone. Mainstream journalists often portray new media types as untrained superficial bloviators who couldn’t report their way out of a paper bag; the digital evangelists often suggest, with blithe superiority, that legacy media (particularly newspapers) are losing readers because they’re boring, arrogant and, actually, not very good.

I have no idea how business models for journalism on the Web will eventually evolve. But I do believe I am beginning to be able to glimpse at least a small portion of the future of the new digital journalism and the new online journalist. In these past 15 years of transition from print to digital delivery, most Web journalism has involved commentary on and linking to news stories created by media organizations primarily based in the offline world. Attitude has tended to overshadow reporting.

But as journalism comes to reside increasingly on the Web, and social media like Facebook let anyone comment on and share the news with anything else, snappy two-line critiques that link to someone else’s news story will be seen less and less, I think, as anything professional or journalistic or even “cool.” At the same time, I am convinced the blandly written, shallowly reported, just-the-facts-ma’am reportage of yesterday’s events that still dominates many major daily newspapers is going to die a fairly quick and almost complete death, and soon. It’s just not good enough for readers who can access a global system of networked computers with the click of a mouse or a tap on a cell phone screen.

Even decades from now, I suspect, the Web will be full of content that pretends to be “news” but is really celebritized marketing, a glib con of indeterminate factuality meant to attract viewers with the least possible expenditure on hired help.

But as much as the World Wide Web enables TMZ and the Denton brand of “journalism,” it also allows the broad sharing of expertise. After all, the dissemination of research was the raison d’être for the creation of the Internet. Already, news consumers are increasingly realizing that they can get, on the Web, journalism not just as good, but better and deeper than what has been called quality news. Polling Web sites like Nate Silver‘s extraordinary fivethirtyeight.com restructured political reporting on the 2008 presidential election. Over time, this trend seems likely to accelerate, as readers and viewers realize that they can find unique content based not just on bare opinion, nastily formed, or even on traditional reporting alone, but on reliable, expert information — that’s to say, on content supported by the kind of “knowledge-based reporting” that Journalist’s Resource helps enable.

There has been a lot of talk about search algorithms and the wisdom of the crowd substituting for what trained journalists now turn out. As technology advances, a lot of the routine reporting that journalists have done in the past will be automated or done by on-the-scene amateur witnesses. Journalists will continue to lose their jobs for some time.

But where others weep for a dying craft, I see a future of journalism in which a new class of reporter — enabled by the reach of the Web, advances in artificial intelligence, worldwide crowd-sourcing and almost instant connection to definitive research — becomes expert in gathering, gauging and presenting expertise, using substantive sources of knowledge to warn society of impending perils before they become catastrophes and to deepen the storytelling by which humans have always hoped to understand their world. In a corner of the World Wide Web — a corner populated by The New York Times and other hybrid survivors of the quality legacy press, by small, Web-only organizations that specialize in high quality and narrow niches, by public-interest news nonprofits and by university-based efforts toward news creation and dissemination — journalism will ascend from well-meaning, hard-boiled craft to a true profession of street- and book-smart experts, one in which iPhones and the wireless Internet have already made reporters who don’t know the basic background of their stories as outdated as department stores that stay closed on Sunday.

Miller-McCune welcomes letters to the editor, sent via e-mail to theeditor@miller-mccune.com; via the comment sections of our Web site, Miller-McCune.com; or by standard mail to The Editor, 804 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

John Mecklin
John Mecklin was the debut editor-in-chief of Miller-McCune, serving from its birth through May 2011. Over the last 15 years, he's also been: the editor of High Country News, a nationally acclaimed magazine that reports on the American West; the consulting executive editor for the launch of Key West, a city/regional magazine; and the top editor for award-winning newsweeklies in San Francisco and Phoenix that specialized in narrative journalism. In an earlier incarnation, he was an investigative reporter at the Houston Post and covered the Persian Gulf War from Saudi Arabia and Iraq for the paper. His writing has won national acclaim; writers working at his direction have won a panoply of major journalism honors, including the George Polk Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors certificate, the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism and the Sidney Hillman Award for reporting on social justice issues. Mecklin holds a master's in public administration degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor's in psychology from Indiana University.

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