The gatekeeper days of journalism were fun. But they’re over. And they weren’t as good as we remember them.
I replied: “Jack, no one abandoned the gatekeeper role. It became irrelevant when the fences blew away.”
Jack asked me to elaborate:
If journalism and journalists are no longer gatekeepers, then what ARE we? Nobody I know of has made a cohesive explanation of what our role is any more in society.
I initially begged off, saying I might blog about gatekeepers in a week or two. But another gatekeeper discussion on Jack’s Facebook wall and an exchange of private Facebook messages prompted me to blog now.
I used to be a gatekeeper, the person who decided which of the many potential stories my reporters at the Des Moines Register and Kansas City Star and Times could do would become news back in the 1980s and early 1990s. As editor of the Minot Daily News, I had the final say on every news story for our North Dakota town (and let’s be honest: beyond breaking news, a newspaper editor largely is the gatekeeper for local TV stations, too). Keeping the gate was a serious responsibility: We got to decide what was news and what wasn’t, what was front-page news, what was an inside brief and what wasn’t worth our readers’ time at all. We had to decide when a story was vetted and verified enough to make it through the gate.Those were great jobs and I think I was a responsible gatekeeper. I honor and value those days in journalism. But for better or worse, as the fences blew away, journalism has changed forever. We don’t compete with just another newspaper or two and a few local TV stations. People can get their news from a seemingly endless selection of blogs and social media accounts, some of them from independent journalists with the same standards we have, some from newsmakers trying to cover themselves (some to spin the news, some to provide legitimate journalism in areas we traditionally undercovered), some of them from the general public.
In a February address to the Canadian Journalism Foundation, John Paton, my boss, explained the realities that Digital First Media if facing:
We have accepted we are no longer the old-fashioned agenda-setters or gatekeepers of information for our communities.
Jack and his Facebook friends, including a number of journalism professors who messaged him privately, lament the change, and they expanded the discussion beyond gatekeeping to agenda-setting. They may be right that gate-keepers and agenda-setters were better than the cacophony we sometimes have today. But nostalgia is not going to lead us to a better future.
I will describe the value that I think journalists provide shortly, but first I want to address an example that shows how the fences have blown away (and how traditional journalists weren’t doing such a good job of minding the gate anyway):
One of the biggest news stories of this year, the death of Trayvon Martin, was initially ignored by the gatekeepers of traditional media, as Kelly McBride documented for Poynter. This was the sort of story journalists pride ourselves in: an apparent miscarriage of justice, a possible instance of racial prejudice by police and a vigilante, a misguided law being misused. As the gatekeeper role worked in our memories (though perhaps not always in reality), this is the kind of story that a watchdog press would call to the public’s attention, placing it on the front page, assigning investigative reporters to find out what went wrong and improving our community by shining a spotlight into a dark corner.
But the story rated only a brief initially in the Orlando Sentinel, the local newspaper. It was the Martin family and bloggers who drove this story into the local and national consciousness. The traditional media played catch-up. So let’s not romanticize or idealize our job of keeping the gate and setting the agenda.
You want more examples of lousy gatekeeping and agenda-setting? How about the New York Times (and all national media except for Knight-Ridder, which no longer exists) failing to shut the gate on bogus stories about weapons of mass destruction, and instead setting the agenda for a war based on lies? How about the failures of traditional media to sound the alarm (or set an agenda for reform) as we were headed to the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s, the Enron scandal of 2001 or the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008?
I recall an overt effort by the Des Moines Register to set the agenda for Iowa in the 1980s (I think it was in 1980, trying to set an agenda for the decade). It was called something like “An Agenda for Iowa.” I haven’t checked back (and I won’t, but if someone wants to check, I’ll publish their results), but I’m pretty sure all we did was fill newspaper space. Iowa elected conservative Republican Terry Branstad as governor in 1982 (and re-elected him three times, then returned him to office two years ago) and I’m pretty sure his agenda differed from that of the liberal Register. He didn’t accomplish all of his agenda (Iowa still doesn’t have capital punishment), but I bet Iowa followed his agenda more than it followed the Register’s.
I’m not dismissing the value of old-school journalism. My newsrooms did set agendas and improve our communities. And we upheld high standards, ensuring that stories were accurate and fair before they got through our gate. I think we were a responsible gatekeeper most of the time. If wishing could bring those days back, I might join you occasionally in wishing for them. But I’m too busy trying to shape the journalism that comes next.
So I’ll address Jack’s question: If journalists aren’t gatekeepers, what are we? We are:
- Watchdogs. We still need to keep an eye on the powerful institutions and people of the community. But we’re not the only watchdogs. When we fall down on the job, blogs, interest groups and citizen advocates will bark where we should be barking.
- Storytellers. Stories still help people understand their world and their communities. Again, we’re not the only people telling stories. And text isn’t the only tool for telling stories. We can and should tell our stories with photos, videos, audio, animation, games, maps, databases, timelines, data visualization and interactive graphics (and probably some tools I forgot to mention.
- Fact-checkers. Our best way to stand out from
themall the sources of information available today is to be the most reliable source. We need to be diligent in verifying the facts in our own reporting, in statements by public officials and in verifying and amplifying truthful reports from other sources in the community.
- Aggregators and curators. The Facebook discussions included shots at aggregation and curation as “buzzwords” of digital journalism that Jack and other journalism professors see as signs of decline. Maybe it would help them to understand if they just view the Associated Press as a longtime aggregator and think of curators as modern-day wire editors. By identifying the most valuable and reliable reports from blogs, social media and other professional media, we can still be a valuable source of news for our community. We don’t ignore that cacophony of voices. We listen and highlight the most reliable and meaningful voices.
- Investigative journalists. Jack was distracted by John Paton’s bluntness about the failure of newspaper executives to develop a successful business model. So he might have missed this important passage from John’s address in Toronto: “However, it is the re-establishment of an investigative reporting unit – a victim of cutbacks in local newsrooms a long time ago – which can add the greatest value.” By the way, John was speaking of the New Haven Register newsroom, whose investigative story about the scrap metal business spurred Sunday’s discussion on Facebook. Newsrooms have endured severe cutbacks and we need to reorganize and re-prioritize. But investigation should remain an important distinction of journalists and newsrooms.
I’m sure that’s just a starter list. The transformation of journalism is a work in progress, and I presume it will be for the rest of my career and longer. I believe professional journalists will continue to provide value. But we will do that looking forward, not backward.