"The Way I See It" - Jeff Jarvis, Journalism Professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) - Reuters News Agency

“The Way I See It” – Jeff Jarvis, Journalism Professor at the City University of New York (CUNY)

In this interview series, we ask digital media professionals, innovators and commentators to share their perspective on approaches to comprehensive newsgathering.

Mar 2, 2017

In 2016, you wrote in Buzzmachine: ‘We must fundamentally reinvent journalism: its relationship with the communities it serves, the forms it takes, the business models that support it’. This might be taken to mean that the business salvation of the new journalism lies in its social utility – could you tell us more?

I do, indeed. In my book Geeks Bearing Gifts, I argue in favour of a relationship-based strategy.

What the net killed was the mass media business model and with it mass media (not to mention our concept of the mass and the institutions that depend on it).

We must deliver greater relevance and value to people, shifting from journalism-as-product to journalism-as-service. The only way to give you greater relevance is to know you as an individual or member of a community.

The only way to serve you well is to listen to you, understand your needs, and empathize with those needs. For the service of journalism will be about helping you meet your goals. Thus, empathetic journalism. 

My book looks at how to implement such a strategy. It also inspired the creation of a new degree here at CUNY in Social Journalism, which starts with communities rather than content. 

By trying to import the mass-media business model into digital media, we corrupted journalism. ”

Do you think news values and monetization are aligned or in conflict with each other?

By trying to import the mass-media business model into digital media, we corrupted journalism. The mass model worked in a scarcity-based market, when you controlled distribution and audience. In an abundance-based market, the value of any interaction, and thus any ad, will tend toward zero. So what do we do? To paraphrase the old joke, we make it up on volume: cats and Kardashians and clickbait candidates take over. Now I’m not saying that advertising dies; I hope not for our survival. But media as we knew it must be based on greater value and impact and we must develop many revenue streams based on knowing people better: higher value targeted advertising, commerce, membership, events, services, data, and so on.

What 3 (other) things should news do to survive and thrive in 2017 and beyond?

Well, that list has changed now. In 2017, our first job is to keep our heads above the flood and make sure we follow our prime mission: to watch and report on the powerful. Second, we need to experiment with creating new services and products for specific communities: the relationship strategy. Third, we need to develop more revenue streams: events, commerce, membership, advertiser services, and so on.

You’ve blogged calling for cooperation against fake news, but while Google and Facebook potentially profit from fake news[1] why should they reform?

To the contrary, our (media) interests and the platforms’ are aligned here insofar as we all want to create better, more valuable and reliable services for users, for the public. It is not a good experience to begin typing a query into Google and being exposed to hate. It is not a good experience to be bombarded by – and be embarrassed by passing around – lies and propaganda on Facebook. Their business suffers as their experiences suffer and they know that. We are seeing earnest action from both platforms on these problems, though they have more work to do. The next target we need to think about is the ad networks, which don’t appear to care about experience or credibility, only about money. They are the ones who are supporting fake news and who need to cut it off.

We cannot all continue to report the same news; that is just a commodity. We must instead learn how to deliver unique value to individuals and communities.”

In light of this, do we need a ‘search engine of record’?

Do you mean an official search engine? God, no. Just as I believe it is folly to think that Google should strive to be ‘neutral’. That is a fool’s errand, just like ‘objective journalism’ is.

I have also told Google and Facebook lately that they can no longer hide behind the notion that they merely reflect society, warts included, when society is now manipulated to game them. That is why it is important for Google to get rid of hate speech in search autocomplete and Facebook fake news in its feeds – because it is a manipulation of the platform.

But they should never be expected to be the censors of the internet and the world, to be the official deciders of what is true and false, fake and real. They do not want that role and I do not want them to have that role, nor do I want governments to force them into that role.

What do you think of Google’s Digital News Initiative (DNI), the collaboration between Google and news publishers to support innovation and quality in journalism?

The Digital News Initiative has accomplished much good. It has brought Google and publishers together, creating better understanding among them. It has hatched efforts of real value – especially Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) and the new YouTube player; these can provide real benefit to media companies and to users.

Most important is that it is bringing peace in the kingdom, a reduction of hostility from publishers (and their political agents) against technology, particularly American technology companies. Some of my graduates have received DNI grants, I am grateful for that and proud of them.

Having said that, I am less enthusiastic about the platforms being pushed to give away money and much more enthusiastic about them giving news organizations real, lasting strategic value – including data about users that can help media companies serve them with greater relevance and value and lessons in how to build relationships with the public we serve.

You have made reference in the past to news commodification. Can you explain what you mean by this when news has always been for sale?

I return to the mass-media business model. Every media organization on earth rewrote that story about the two-coloured dress (what colours are they?). Why? Because the business model forces them to fill their own page with their own content to get their own page view for their own ad to get their own pennies.

That we rewrite each other just to manufacture content rather than value is a terrible waste of dwindling journalistic resource. We cannot all continue to report the same news; that is just a commodity. We must instead learn how to deliver unique value to individuals and communities.

How do you inspire your students with optimism about the future?

When I have the privilege of speaking with all the entering students in our school each fall, I tell them that it is up to them to reconsider and reinvent journalism, nothing less. They should learn what we teach them then question it all, deciding what to keep and what to challenge and rethink. That is an exciting prospect.

This article does not express the views of Reuters. The views and opinions expressed are those of the interviewee.