The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Please, let’s not hear it for Groundhog Journalism

How do you spot an online journalist? This week it was easy – the likely suspect was staring off into the distance in obvious pain. If they snapped to life only to dash to the nearest keyboard to fire a retort to Roy Peter Clark, you had them.Extension Clyde

Clark, the Poynter Institute’s guru of writing and style, wrote an eloquent call to eyeballs on the Institute’s online journalism discussion board. He reminded us that print products still pay for most journalism and that reading a print newspaper each day was our “duty.”

I don’t recall ever seeing so much activity from my online peers. The original Poynter list blossomed, but the discussion spilled over to scores of blogs and other discussion boards.

It was a fascinating conversation for a newsie-turned-academic to observe, as it moved from shock to outrage to pontification to heart-felt question. But while posters often quoted each other, there was precious little research cited in the discussion.

We are a bizarre breed of professionals. Lawyers, physicians and engineers look to the their scholars as both the guardians of truth and the trailblazers knew knowledge. By and large, the move from newsroom to classroom is a step down. Despite your battle scars, even students doubt you are a “real” journalist anymore.

But while that can be personally troubling, the lack of recognition given to all that research that leads to that “professor” title is maddening. Our profession’s mascot is surely the groundhog, as we relive and reargue each day as if there was no past.

And that gives us no future.

The current debate on the preference of print or digital readership is a rehash of scores if not hundreds of dissertations, conference papers and journal articles. My own dissertation in 2000, for instance, showed that pure habit influences the media choice of about half the readers and is a primary driver for about 15%. Lifetime habits take a lifetime to break.

The United States has 107 communications doctoral programs that mint about 550 new Ph.D.s annually. All must conduct significant research just to get the suffix and then produce much more to keep their jobs. Then there are the hordes of undergraduate and master’s students performing real research for courses or special programs.

A small number of “crossover” journalist/academics huddles at conventions to ponder how to bring together our siblings on both sides of the fence. We talked the International Newspaper Marketing Association into giving a prize for profession-oriented newspaper research. And you’ll find Doug Fisher, Frank Fee, John Russial and kin on most of the profession’s discussion lists.

But it’s not simply a matter of communicating research results. Researchers put their faith in validity and reliability. Journalists thrive on gut feelings and quick wits. That’s not exactly a marriage made in heaven.

The prime challenge to journalism’s successful evolution is more likely intellectual rather than technological. Academia must concede that life moves faster than a semester at a time and that folks in the field feel the results of new trends long before they are published in an ill-read journal. Professional journalists, in turn, must look to J-school as much more than job-training factories.

I hope that, before the blight sets in, we can adopt the win-win attitude of our friends in agriculture: Let’s ask the news extension agents for a hand.

October 18, 2007 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

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