Churnalism as new media literacy

29 06 2009

In his now widely cited Why journalists deserve low pay lecture (.pdf, blog post, CSMonitor), Robert G. Picard examines how traditional (i.e. Media 1.0) journalists create economic value primarily through the distribution of the knowledge of others:

In this process three fundamental functions and related skills have historically created economic value: Accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying  it effectively. Good journalists possess secondary skills, of course, but these three constitute the core value-creating functions and skills.

Picard is not breaking new ground here: media-source interaction, news judgment and news writing have been on the journalism studies research agenda for years. And deservedly so.

Further down, Picard talks about how the digital revolution has de-skilled professional journalism. Source access is no longer exclusive; everyone with an internet connection has become a potential news source. Likewise, source selection has also become a public good, thanks to Google (here’s to you, Jeff Jarvis). Lastly, software like the one I’m using to write up this blog post has allowed ‘the people formerly known as the audience’ (heads up to Jay Rosen) to publish information and comment on events as they please.

This leads Picard to conclude that

If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable by and relevant to their audiences

This is a conclusion I can dance to. Let me explain why. Churnalism – the  practice of churning news from press releases and news agency copy – is often seen as the nail in the coffin of print journalism. However, in an online environment, I see churnalism becoming capital – a form of new media literacy if you will.

Online, news is a process (rather than a finished product). This renders the practice of churnalism visible and hence turns it into a yardstick. We can now gauge the added value of this transformation. What did the author add/substract/change/edit?

My point is this: online, churnalism becomes transparent. This opens up the dreaded side-effects of churnalism – reproduction of corporate spin, falsehood and distortion – to public scrutiny. Crucially this (source) transparency enables reporters to really show their mettle by providing information and knowledge that “is not readily available elsewhere” to quote Picard’s conclusion once again.

Crucially, the skills involved churning information fast, efficiently and effectively boil down to appropriation (“the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content“, aka re-entextualization or, more fashionably, retweeting), a crucial new media literacy skill. I see a market for beat reporters who shed their light on events as they happen.

If I was an (online) journalist, the main question I’d ask myself is: here is a piece of information that will get picked up instantly. What can I add to this piece that goes beyond merely reproducing? In short, how can my professional expertise and knowledge contribute to the news production process?


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10 08 2009
Writing and marathon training are one « Tom Van Hout

[…] 2009 After my long distance debut in Brasschaat, I took a month off from training to regenerate, work on my PhD, organize a press conference, travel to lovely Melbourne to network and conference with linguists […]

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