The More Journalism Changes, the More It Stays the Same

May 23, 2017


As I write this, we are 4 weeks into the new presidency. It’s fair to say the press has played a central role in the early days of this administration. We have seen that even while journalists’ jobs are shifting—thanks to new technologies and distribution channels—the fundamental skills needed to be a good reporter remain the same. And those skills have been on display lately, much to the chagrin of the new president.

In an interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at the Code Media event, The Washington Post editor Marty Baron was asked by Swisher what skills he thinks a modern journalist needs to have, and he made clear that the traditional skills are still paramount, even in the age of the internet. “First of all, they need to be good at all the fundamentals. They have to know how to report. They have to know how to write and how to be good with the language, all of that.”

The job is essentially unchanged in that regard, and it’s important to keep that in mind. Journalists still shine a bright light on the government, even when the people in power are unhappy about that. As Baron told Swisher and Mossberg, it’s not personal. “We aren’t at war with the administration, we are at work.”

Even while the job has essentially stayed the same, the ways in which we tell and distribute the stories have changed. The internet is obviously the driving force behind that change, something Baron recognized—pointing out that it has caused the press some fundamental problems by undermining the advertising model and, to a large extent, the readership model. Publications have been struggling to catch up with those changes in the last decade.

At the same time, the web has also given these outlets access to the biggest distribution system in the world, and they are taking advantage of it. It works for and against everyone in equal measure. That said, Baron also believes the web is a different medium, and journalists and the outlets they work for have to recognize that.

The distribution systems have shifted from paper to social channels, the web, mobile, and even devices such as Amazon Echo, which The Washington Post and other news outlets have started using to deliver short bursts of news called a Flash Briefing. All of this has changed the way we present and deliver the news, and it has added to the list of skills journalists need to have in a modern context.

But even for all of that, the nature of the job—of exploring the facts, talking to sources, and disseminating the truth-—remains the same. As we have seen, simply doing the job of holding the government accountable has drawn the considerable ire of the president.

As Swisher pointed out, this is not the first administration to be openly hostile to the press. The Nixon administration had a vitriolic relationship with the fourth estate too. In fact, Nixon’s VP, Spiro Agnew, called the press “nattering nabobs of negativism.” At one point, he also complained about “the trend toward monopolization of the great public information vehicles. …”

The irony is the internet made it possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to distribute information. It has put the power to deliver information in everyone’s hands, including the president, who tweets regularly to his followers. At a February press conference, in which the president heavily criticized the press, he vowed to take his message directly to the people and bypass the press—something he can do precisely because of the internet. But this access is available to everyone: the press, the president, and ordinary citizens.

All of these factors are changing the nature of the news. When anyone can broadcast an event on Facebook’s Live or share pictures on Instagram, it changes ideas about news, but it doesn’t lessen the need for journalists. Surely, even while the president can tweet and citizens can broadcast live, journalists still play a key role in uncovering what others can’t—or don’t want you to—see. It still requires a tenacious desire to follow the facts wherever they lead and inform the public.

It seems the more things change in this job, the more they stay the same.


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