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David Nordfors

David Nordfors

Posted: December 6, 2009 12:38 PM

Journalism Needs a Business Model for the Truth

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Journalism's first obligation is to the truth. So begin the principles of journalism. Discussions about Truth and Objectivity in journalism often become questions of journalistic ethics and the trustworthiness of individuals and brands. These are good things but increasingly inadequate in backing up a story.

Convincing people the news is true by saying "because I told you so" is not working as well as it used to. The Internet is making it harder. Today people can read almost any news publication on the Internet, or check the sources of journalistic stories.

Some trusted news brands and individuals have experienced major scandals in recent years. The New York Times suffered from the fake star journalist Jayson Blair. Iconic anchor Dan Rather of CBS’ high-profile investigative journalism show "60 Minutes" tripped with the fabricated Killian documents, and was brought down by blogger Charles Johnson.

How can professional journalism maintain its reputation for truth and objectivity?

The truth is often elusive. Events can have many explanations. Other circumstances are not what they seem. What we believe to be true today may be in doubt tomorrow. And then, of course, there has to be a news angle.

Physicists deal with the truth as closely as anyone can come to it. In science, models that can't predict are discarded and non-repeatable experiments dismissed. When scientific researchers write an article, the reader must always be given enough information to be able to repeat the observation. Otherwise the article should not be published.

Journalistic stories are much less accountable.  A journalistic story rarely supplies readers with knowledge and references that lets the readers confirm the story. Links to information sources central for the story, even public ones readily available on the Internet, are omitted. Unlike bloggers, old-style journalism does not use links and references.

Journalists and news outlets committed to the truth can make it into policy to link to important sources, and to write the news stories such that audiences can see how sources and assumptions were used to build the story. If readers reconstruct the story this way, they can add their own research. They can discuss the value of the sources, suggest other sources that were omitted,  etc.

Traditional news organizations have never let that happen, because links lead readers away from their site. In their ‘attention’ business model -- attracting eyeballs to pages and selling them to advertisers -- the site needs to be sticky. Instead, the blogosphere is leading the way in developing the culture of linking to sources, because it depends less on ads.

Unfortunately, professional journalism has deeply rooted traditions. I was invited recently to a conference with the World Economic Forum, where we discussed the role of journalism in society. When I suggested that journalism should link to sources, a world-leading news organization chief commented that they wanted to do it and had tried, but their business did not allow it. For many journalists, that ends the discussion. But this is not where the discussion ends. Instead, it is where the discussion begins. We need to ask: "What are the business models for the principles of journalism?"

Societies that care about improving their collective ability to make priorities and informed decisions, need business models that promote journalists to link to sources, so that both readers and other journalists can check the stories and use them for continued research.

Professional journalism is not finished, it can not be replaced by citizen journalism or social interaction in social networks.  Professional journalists have an incentive to represent their audience. Who knows which incentives unpaid journalists have, or who they have their mandate from?

Professional journalism is needed as much now as ever before. With the Internet, peoples’ worlds of information are transforming from silent rural isolation to the bustling cacophonies of the metropolitan street. Journalists who focus public attention on issues that interest the public, working in the interest of and with the mandate of their audiences will be powerful. They will focus public discussion enabling people to improve society. The key for that is in the business model -- journalists need the right incentives.


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