May 30, 2007

Berkeley's Neil Henry Takes On New Journalism Reality

Though only a near-decade removed from my time of studying for a Mass Communications major at UC Berkeley from 1995-99, there are precious few professors who I can recall having made significant impact. In the mass communications department, a pair I distinctly remember was the dynamic duo of Neil Henry and Thomas Leonard, who teamed up to teach a number of the core classes to the major, and helped shed light both on how today's media has been shaped through history, and where they expect it to go.

Today, Henry's name gained significantly more recognition around the Web, as he penned a editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle focused on what he termed "The decline of news", set in motion by a massive reduction in advertising spending with newspapers, which in turn eliminates funding for reporters and investigative media. Instead, money has moved online, to sites powered by robots, he says, and that this move, amid reduced professionals in the newsroom, in favor of amateurs, will be significantly damaging, resulting in "a world where the craft of reporting the news fairly and independently is very much endangered; and with it a society increasingly fractured, less informed by fact..."

Old media is in a state of crisis today. Readers are leaving in droves. Newspapers and magazines are folding. The money isn't there, and media is not always financially rewarded for a job well done. Henry raises the alarm bell that with fewer trained journalists, or "trained watchdogs", as he puts it, those creating scandal could get away with it. While he admits that the millions of blogs online offer a new source of news, he doesn't believe the quality to be on par with those who have studied the craft and gone through journalism school.

Most controversially, Henry says that companies like Google, who have risen the top as new media leaders, should accept responsibility for media's future, and they should support journalism schools, even as their algorithms serve to replace more traditional methods of collecting the news. But here, while I respect Henry a great deal, and enjoyed his classes, I have to disagree. Google as a business has no new edict to save an industry under assault. The industry itself as a whole needs to change to survive.

It is worth noting that Henry took a very old world approach to his perceived crisis. He wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper, albeit one with a strong technology foundation. Yet, even though he went the old world route, I found it not through a printed copy of the Chronicle, but through new media - the blogosphere. While bloggers do read the online version of the Chronicle, it is the new media which is spreading his message.

Other bloggers who are quite one sided in their own views of the argument, like Mathew Ingram, Scott Karp and John Battelle, champion continued evolution in media, as I do.

Some of my biggest frustrations with the Mass Communications course content at UC Berkeley was the slowness to pick up on the Web's sure impact on media. Though it was in a class taught by Henry and Leonard where I first learned about The Drudge Report and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the attention to the Web was little and far between. When in another course, the professor's idea of a new media lecture was to show a video on the founding of Yahoo!, after I had offered to help prepare a more in-depth presentation, I simply stopped attending her lectures for the remainder of the semester out of pure frustration.

A decade ago, the onus for change in journalism was there, and those calling for adaptation by the new leaders to help out those left behind simply missed it right before their eyes. It is not Google's obligation to bail out the Chronicle or to train the journalism students at UC Berkeley. It is Google's obligation to make money for its shareholders, and continue to improve its products, period. They are not a charity organization. If a generation of journalists finds the road ahead hard, then personal decisions will have to be made, and companies will have to make adjustments. That's business.

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