Wednesday, November 10

Future of journalism: interviewing by proxy?

When I started this blog, I intended it to be about both economics and journalism. However, the journalism focus slipped through the cracks, and this blog has evolved into, more or less, a behavioural economics blog. That being said, this post is solely about journalism.

When journalists hold meetings and bring in guest speakers, one of the most popular topics is "the future of journalism." I hate this topic. To me, it implies that journalism as it is can't survive without a major change, that newspapers will be extinct by the end of the year if they don't completely change what they're doing. The death of print journalism, I think, is over-hyped. Surely the Globe and Mail wouldn't make an 18-year, $1.7 billion commitment to their newly-redesigned product if they thought print journalism was on its way out.

But that doesn't stop all the prognosticating by media types about what they think the future of journalism will look like. So here's my stab at it: interviewing by proxy.

When I think about why I read the news, it's to get answers to questions about what's happening in my daily world. Thus, posing questions to newsmakers — interviewing — is at the heart of newsmaking. As a journalist, it is the part I enjoy the most. I remember being a volunteer at the student paper of the University of Victoria and the excitement I felt in anticipation of one of my first-ever interviews, with B.C. NDP leader Carole James. I followed politics in the newspapers and on TV, but the biggest frustration was that you got answers to the questions the media asked — not necessarily to the questions I was personally interested in. So I was stoked that I would be able to pose the questions I wanted to ask to one of the province's political movers and shakers. James was very patient and spent about 20 to 30 minutes answering a long list of questions I had prepared. I remember I had so much material that I wrote a 1,600-word article that my editor then had to spend about a couple hours cutting in half so it would fit on the page.

More recently, I was watching a Vancouver Canucks - Colorado Avalanche hockey game with friends, and I remarked on how it was strange that the American coaches were wearing poppies, given that poppies are a Canadian phenomenon. One of my friends suggested I investigate the matter and write an article about it, but I dismissed that option — it would be too difficult to get access to the American NHL coaches and find a news outlet interested in publishing the article. But there was another option: ask someone with access to the hockey coaches to find out for me. So, using Twitter, I posed my question to Dan Murphy, a broadcaster with Sportsnet Pacific. A few minutes later, I had my answer: the coaches wearing poppies are Canadian citizens, not Americans, and it was Dan himself who had supplied the Colorado coaches with their poppies. I wouldn't have access to hockey coaches myself, but through an intermediary such as Dan Murphy, I was able to get the access I needed to answer my question.

Similarly, there is a regular column that I enjoy in the Toronto Star where Ellen Roseman takes letters from readers, who typically have an issue with a large company. Usually, the company has jerked the reader around for months and hasn't resolved the issue. But as soon as someone from the biggest newspaper in Canada calls the company's spokespeople to get answers, the problem gets resolved in a jiffy. The individual customers aren't powerful enough to get the answers they want from the big companies, but by using Ellen Roseman as an intermediary, they have the access they need to get answers.

Historically, media has generally asked the questions they want answers to. Often, those are the same questions that readers want answers to — if they weren't, people wouldn't read newspapers. But being able to pose questions oneself is empowering. Modern technology is making it easier for readers to pose questions to newsmakers through journalists, but it still doesn't happen that often. But the more media can get answers to readers' questions, the more successful I think they'll be.