Journalists must re-evaluate their role in society

Tom Rosenstiel is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research organization that evaluates the performance of the press, and vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, an initiative engaged in conducting a national conversation among journalists about standards and values.

The news about the news of late has sounded dire.

Newspapers such as the Boston Globe and Star Tribune of Minneapolis have lost half their value in the past few years, according to their own accountants. Network news has lost audience for a quarter century and continues to do so. And when major news companies such as the Tribune Co. and Knight Ridder are put up for sale, the potential buyers are scant.

The reasons are myriad and complex, but technology, economics and culture are the key ones. All who want to can now be their own journalist, their own editor or their own advertiser. Trust in journalists to play that role professionally continues to decline. And consumers have many more choices for how to spend their time -- be it on news, game playing or social networking.

So the question becomes inevitable: Is this the end of news? Or at least of professional journalism?

From the perspective of someone who studies the news business, worked in it and now also consults in newsrooms, the answer is no. But for journalism to survive -- and I believe it will in some form -- it must change dramatically.

Three changes in particular are worth noting.

The first is that journalists will no longer be gatekeepers. The gatekeeper metaphor was the dominant one for understanding the role of the press for most of the past 300 years. Journalists were the ones gathering the news. They decided what was important and what wasn't. And if they did their job with skill and professionalism, they also did what they could to decide what was true and what wasn't.

They passed on their best judgment about truth and significance to the public. They stood by the gate and determined, in other words, what the people would know.

That metaphor no longer works. People can increasingly find out what they want from many sources. Journalism is no longer a prepared lecture. It is more of an open mike dialogue. So what is the role of journalists?

They will still be watchdogs. Blogging and social networking will still not replace the skilled investigative reporting that takes time, money, sourcing, refined skills and institutional leverage to perform consistently.

But the bulk of what journalists do must be reimagined, or replaced by new metaphors. The two that I find most descriptive are that journalists as "sense makers" and "forum leaders."

The journalists of the 21st century will help citizens make sense and derive meaning from all the other information they are processing from many sources. And they must structure forums for people to consider and debate issues. Letters to the editor are not enough.

The second major change is related, but worth more deeply understanding. Citizens are becoming their own editors. When we search the Internet -- or Google something, in the newest verb on the planet -- we are no longer passive consumers of news. We are now searching out an answer to our specific question. We are not reading stories. We are hunting through them for our answer. We are scanning and moving on. We are on-demand consumers, looking for what we want, when we want it. That means the journalist's job is now to help citizens in their quest, to empower and enable them, not be threatened by the fact that journalists are no longer in control.

The third major change may be the most difficult of all for journalists. We are fond of thinking that journalism is storytelling. Read my wonderful narrative. Aren't I good? Telling stories was how we imagined we could convey the world to our readers.

Journalism in the 21st century is more than narrative. We must provide people with documents, backgrounders, timelines, slide shows, raw video, archives and forms of information still yet to be invented. A traditional newspaper story can have six elements: a narrative, a headline, a picture, a graphic, perhaps a sidebar, and maybe a highlight quote. By my latest count, online coverage of an event could contain 46 different elements. But narrative storytelling is still only two of them -- the main story and sidebars.

This all may seem threatening to traditionalists. But if we remember that the purpose of journalism is to make information more transparent so that people can be self-governing, none of this really changes our fundamental role. It changes only how journalists fulfill it. And I daresay, it enriches it.

Is this the end of news? No, it is yet another turn in a journey toward a more informed public that began with cave drawings, was propelled by the printing press and continues to evolve.