Journalists hate few things more than buzzwords. Many of us regard ourselves as guardians of the language (as if protecting the First Amendment and being watchdogs of the powerful weren’t enough guard duties). Buzzwords feel to many purists as some kind of assault on the language.
Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton writes scornfully of my pursuit in his column today:
This is what “engagement” — the buzzword of media theorists and marketers — is all about. It’s using Twitter and Facebook to build a tribe or family of followers, even disciples, who will keep reading you.
I won’t try here to set Pexton straight on what engagement is all about, though my earlier post explaining community engagement might educate him a bit. What I want to address here is the widespread dismissal of new terminology by my fellow veteran journalists.
(No, I’m really not deliberately picking on the Washington Post here, though last month’s exchange with Gene Weingarten gave my blog a nice boost in traffic. I had a draft of this post in the works for a while and Pexton’s shot today just spurred me to finish it.)
Update: At my invitation, Pexton responded. His response is in the comments (comment from me; he responded by email).
I regard the introduction of new terminology and new meanings for old terms as evidence of the robust nature of the language. From Beowulf to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Poe to Hemingway to Angelou, our language has always evolved and I don’t want it to stop now.
Life is always changing, and journalism is certainly changing swiftly. Why should we use inadequate and inaccurate old words and phrases to describe the changes? I’m willing to let pica poles and -30- fade into the Newseum and learn some new terminology.
I’ve already written plenty about branding and I won’t revisit that here, but a significant part of the objection of Weingarten and others to the word is a visceral reaction to its emergence as a journalism buzzword. It’s been a marketing term for years and journalists hate to sully their hands with marketing (though somehow they see writing page-one headlines as a valid journalistic pursuit).
Weingarten’s column that started this discussion also included complaints about content and users as buzzwords. I’ve heard complaints recently about curation, too. The New York Times resists use of tweet (another topic I won’t revisit). And more.
I will confess to the same initial reaction when I heard most of those terms. I remain an old-school journo at heart, and the old-school ear hears fingernails on a blackboard when new jargon enters the lexicon. (Old-school classrooms had blackboards, not dry-erase boards.)
But doesn’t an old-school journalist value accuracy above all?
Community engagement. I’ll cite a favorite tool of the old-school journalist: the dictionary. Definitions of to engage include “to involve (a person or his attention) intensely; engross; occupy;” “to draw (somebody) into conversation” and “to take part; participate.” Yep, that’s what I’m doing with the community. Call it a buzzword if you want; it’s dead-on accurate. Yeah, it’s nice if engagement builds a following, as Pexton said, but engagement is about doing better journalism, not about marketing. Pexton frets that increased use of Twitter and Facebook will result in a “diminution of quality” with “less time for thinking and traditional reporting.” Effective community engagement will improve reporting and expose reporters to broader circles of thought.
Curation. A museum curator does not create the art works or artifacts in an exhibit. She studies an issue, gathers materials from multiple sources (her own museum, other museums, private collections), authenticates the materials, groups related items together and provides context (perhaps videos, plaques or an audio track for visitors being guided by headphones). A journalist performs all those functions in assembling digital content for publication on her own site, so curation is the accurate and precise term.
Content. Weingarten complained: “Narratives that disclose news or express opinion used to be called ‘articles’ or ‘columns’ but are now universally referred to as ‘content.’ It is as though all our words have become gauzy filler material, the pale fluff inside decorative throw pillows.” Actually, articles and columns are subsets of content. News sites include lots of not-necessarily-gauzy stuff these days: articles and columns, sure, but also interactive graphics, lists, interactive databases, videos, slideshows, timelines, comments, tweets, audio clips, embed codes, box scores, calendars and lots of other things. Content is an accurate and inclusive word, better than stuff.
Users. Weingarten again: “In the new lexicon, ‘readers’ have somehow become ‘users,’ as though, in an effort to habituate people to our product, we’re lacing it with crack.” Well, you do hear some people referred to as “news junkies.” Seriously, though, again we need a word larger than reader if we are going to describe our relationship accurately. Yes, people still read our stories, but they also view videos, take quizzes, vote in polls, upload photos and comment on stories. User is a broader word, describing the full experience we present online. I’m not opposed to reader, and I might welcome a different word that’s broader than reader but not as vague as user. But user works fine for me.
Aggregation. The debate over this buzzword is not over whether we should use the word, but whom it covers and whether it’s an evil or innocent pursuit. We’ll shift here from WaPo to the New York Times. You remember Bill Keller’s first column for the Times Sunday Magazine, All the Aggregation That’s Fit to Aggregate? He whined: “Too often [aggregation] amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.” He specifically singled out Arianna Huffington as the “queen of aggregation.” Actually, the Associated Press is the royalty of aggregation. AP built a business model based on aggregation a long time ago, only in that model, news organizations pay great sums to be aggregated (and get the aggregated content fed back to them). The Times itself is a longtime aggregator. I can’t count how many times my colleagues at various newspapers wrote stories that later became the basis for Times stories (always with some fresh Times reporting mixed in). As a regional reporter based at various times in Des Moines, Kansas City and Omaha, I did similar aggregation as I followed up stories broken by smaller Midwestern papers. Huffington was merely updating a long-established journalism practice, but it sounds so much more sinister when we call it aggregation.
Entrepreneurial journalism. This is a topic I have taught for both Georgetown and American universities. Among other places, it has been described as a buzzword by AJR. Well, the fact of the matter is that for most of my career, journalists labored in newsrooms with a strong church-state separation between editorial and business concerns. That wall wasn’t as high at small mom-and-pop weeklies where the publisher might sell ads as well as write stories. And editors occasionally went over to the dark side to become publishers. But journalists working in the comfort of metro newsrooms fancied ourselves as above all those filthy business concerns. Well, many journalists now have to launch their own businesses — or launch new ventures for legacy organizations — to earn their living. We need to be entrepreneurs, and the phrase describes this growing pursuit accurately.
Crowdsourcing. This term appears to be gaining some acceptance, perhaps because it so accurately describes the technique: seeking sources from the crowd (by engaging the community).
I’m not just pro-jargon, though. I don’t like or (often) use the term hyperlocal. Beyond being overused (which you might be able to say about some of the phrases I defend above), I question its accuracy. The dictionary defines the prefix hyper as “implying excess or exaggeration.” As a standalone adjective, it means over-excited, overstimulated or fanatical. I don’t see any of those definitions as an accurate fit for what journalists call hyperlocal. TBD was frequently described as hyperlocal, when we were a regional website (we did try to tailor your home page, offering a block of “news near you,” based on your ZIP code and our geotagging efforts).
If hyperlocal is an accurate term for various efforts to rethink local journalism, it’s sort of in a vague way, synonymous with “very local.” Much of the discussion of hyperlocal journalism focuses on covering news at the neighborhood level. For a while, the poster child for hyperlocal journalism was Loudoun Extra, covering a county of more than 300,000 people (larger than St. Paul, Minn.).
If we’re using hyper to mean very, Mark Twain’s advice might fit here: ““Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Does hyperlocal really mean anything more than local?
I’m seeing some use of microlocal (368K Google hits, compared to 2.4 million for hyperlocal), but I’m not in love with that. Clearly it means smaller than local, but since local is so elastic itself, I don’t see either word really improving on local. That said, I’d rather spend my energy trying to make local journalism successful than debating what to call it.
Another buzzword I don’t feel strongly enough about to attack or defend is citizen journalist. It doesn’t quite fit what it describes. Most professional journalists are citizens, too. And journalism is not a licensed profession where it’s easy to separate us from the citizens (especially if we’re engaging the community effectively). I’ve worked with journalists who were former lawyers, ministers, an adman and a former country music songwriter and foosball parlor operator. I’ve also encountered people doing what we call a new brand of journalism who don’t call themselves any kind of journalist, citizen or pro. They are sports fans or community activists who happen to share their passions with publishing tools.
Again, I don’t feel strongly about this buzzword either way. I can’t defend it on the basis of accuracy the way that I do community engagement, content or curation. But if it helps you understand a new role in the news ecosystem (watch it, there’s another buzzword!), go ahead and use it.
I, too, am a journalist who considers himself a guardian of the language. I like to protect it from people who think the language is too stiff or inflexible to describe our changing business or our changing world.