A digital journalism revolution with strings attached

Bring more than a thousand journalists together, many of them young and most of them brimming with skill in handling today’s most dazzling information tools, and you’d expect feverish talk about producing the kind of reporting that moves nations. Apart from dropping names and looking for jobs, that’s what journalists do in their off-hours—they talk stories, they talk opportunities to do the kind of work that matters.

And that’s what I expected when I rejoined the Online News Association, the premier organization of digital journalists, and went to their recent annual conference in Boston.

Boston did have some of that, notably sessions on the Arab spring, on telling in-depth stories better, and on the largely overlooked history of racial and sexual diversity in the digital revolution—which was fomented, as it happens, by lots more minorities and women than the standard fable of white boys in the garage might suggest.

So the rising generation of journalists didn’t seem wholly indifferent to the needs of a world that the rest of us hope they’ll dedicate themselves to serving, if not saving. But the conference sessions that generated the most buzz, and which had people sitting in the aisles and clustered at the doorways, weren’t about rooting out corruption or feeding the hungry.

They were about entrepreneurial journalism, which isn’t some new catchphrase for street-smart, down and dirty reporting. It’s a term for turning news and comment into a perpetual hustle. They were about transforming yourself into a “brand,” a recognizable label that can be monetized, thanks to the online traffic successful brands draw via New Age social media. They were about “cooking up tasty apps,” which is tech-speak for clever new interactive feeds that slice the informational customer base in novel ways.

And throughout the conference was the hip, deft, never-heavy hand of the affable lords of the online world. On the panels, at the booths, on the podiums were representatives of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, even Microsoft, which sponsored the first-night reception. They were welcomed as authoritative guides to the sophisticated, market-savvy journalism of today. They were envoys from colossal corporate enterprises, but they were embraced as ambassadors of a revolution—not because they know anything about news, but because they tend the meadows where the customers browse. Continue reading “A digital journalism revolution with strings attached”