Everything Old is New Again

I have spent a good deal of time recently looking at two new trends in journalism – the tendency toward journalism collaborations, and the increased emphasis on community engagement. Obviously, neither of these ideas is “new” in the sense that they’ve never been tried, but the rate at which they are being adopted is a clear sign of some fundamental shifts in the way reporting is done.

Recently, however, a few bits of information came my way and reminded me that everything old is new again.

Community Engagement, Commenting, and Sharing

Some of the hottest debates at conferences I have attended recently have been around how news organizations can build affinity with their audiences and deepen their engagement with local communities. A key part of this debate surrounds policies related to commenting and how to encourage (or restrict) sharing on social networks.

These seem like contemporary debates, brought on by recent advancements in technology, but then a non-journalist friend sent me this note:

I’m reading “A Short History of the Printed Word,” by Robert Bringhurst, and I just came across something you might find interesting:

“The first American newspaper was not attempted until September 1690, when Publick Occurences Both Forreign and Domestick was published in Boston by Benjamin Harris. It was small in format, 6 X 9 1/2 inches (15 X 24 cm) when folded, and consisted of four pages. The third page was left blank in case the purchaser wished to write in a news bulletin before passing it on.”

So, basically, the first newspaper in the U.S. was designed to encourage community participation in journalism. And it’s not hard to imagine that blank page being used for “commenting,” too. Sort of like internet journalism.

I couldn’t agree more. Even though the technology has changed, the impetus is the same. Jay Rosen may not have coined the term “the people formerly known as the audience” until a few years ago, but clearly the publishers of Publick Occurences understood the value of crowdsourcing and made space for people to be a part of news creation.

Journalism Collaborations

At the recent Future of News and Civic Media conference at MIT, I led a discussion on journalism collaborations. Scott Rosenberg, the co-founder of Salon, captured the tone of the conversation well: “There is a professional transition in the field from an environment where competition was the dominant mode of interacting with other organizations to an era where dividing labor and sharing might serve the public better.”

Indeed, I have been trying to capture evidence of this shift in my ever-growing inventory of journalism collaborations, and this summer I’m working on a few case studies. However, it was recently brought to my attention that collaboration was a key element in launching the New York Times.

Matt Schafer, fellow researcher, writes:

In 1848 a political organizer by the name of Thurlow Weed suggested to New York banker George Jones and New York politician and journalist Henry James Raymond that an endeavor of “journalistic collaboration” could have great advantages for the city of New York. In 1851, Jones and Raymond’s collaborative effort created The New York Times.

Obviously, the newsroom collaborations we are exploring now are of a different nature than this, but the fact that the New York Time’s founders thought of their endeavor as even remotely collaborative is interesting. In developing the idea for the Times, they each brought specific resources and talents to the table that made the it a success. That’s one of the defining principle regarding how we talk about collaboration between newsrooms today.

In thinking about the rise of new newsroom collaborations it is useful to think about how a newsroom itself functions. Journalism is seldom done in solitude. Journalists, sources, editors, copy-editors, printers, web-designers and others work together to see each piece through. In thinking about what lessons we can learn from these new journalism partnerships across organizations, we should also be aware of what we can learn from the collaborations that happen within newsrooms as well. They are just as messy, complicated, and rewarding as many outside collaborations.

Aggregation – Journalism’s Oldest Profession

Finally, earlier this spring I was at Harvard Law School for a conference on the legal and policy debates shaping journalism. Josh Benton from the Nieman Journalism Lab gave a fantastic talk on the history (and future) of aggregators. News aggregation is, of course, another hotly debated issue within journalism. Some argue that aggregators help bring context and clarity to the 24 hour news cycle, while others claim that aggregators are little more than leeches getting rich off of other people’s work.

Benton reminded us that, in fact, journalism is the original aggregation. Journalism has always been about pulling together information from diverse sources and helping make sense of it. More specifically, Benton pointed out that in the early history of the press in America, postal rate policy allowed newspapers to exchange copies of their papers with those in other cities at no cost. Why? Because it was key to the distribution of news. Papers would regularly “cut and paste” news from papers around the country into their local editions, aggregating the news of the nation and reprinting it locally. Benton also offered many other examples of how aggregation in its many forms has been a part of journalism in America. Watch the whole video here.

Community engagement, commenting, sharing, collaboration and aggregation. These debates are as much about the history of journalism as they are about its future. It’s worth looking back as we move ahead. There are lessons to be learned from the past – both in how these ideas were implemented at the time, and in what has changed since. We are undoubtedly facing uncharted territory as we imagine journalism in the digital age, but the fundamental values that inspire our concern for the information needs of communities and democracy remain the same.

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