October 19, 2005

Rosen, Heyward and the Gang of Six

When Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, remarked at a recent meeting of bloggers and media executives that the time has come to rethink traditional news media's "illusion of omniscience," Jay Rosen saw a thread worth pulling.

Jay asked Heyward to elaborate. He did, and Jay posted his response on Pressthink. It centers on three points:

 There is not a "single 'discoverable' truth" to report.
 Journalists must "figure out a way to incorporate point of view."
 Television news must become more "authentic."

Jay invited six people to react to Heyward's statements: Terry Heaton, Andrew Tyndall, Susan Crawford, Mitchell Stephens, Ken Sands and myself.

I'm reprinting my contribution below (with slight changes). Go to Pressthink and read the others.

Movement in the Middle

When people like Andrew Heyward begin playing taps for journalistic omniscience and sounding reveille for incorporating point of view in the news, the sound of change is definitely in the wind - but how strong that wind is blowing and in which direction I can't yet say.

Heyward's comments represent a growing recognition at the highest levels of the traditional news business that reinvention - from the newsroom to the boardroom - is no longer just a panel topic for the annual conventions. It is mandatory for survival.

Last week, during one of those whither the future of news panels, Susan Golberg, editor of the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper forced to cut 15 percent of its news staff, agreed when I said the notion of journalistic objectivity was outdated.

And the other day, I wrote about an exchange between Jay Rosen, Melanie Sill (editor of the Raleigh News & Observer) and some readers. It happened on her blog and it was an extraordinary display of communication, albeit defensive at times, from within the newsroom that would have been unthinkable even two years ago. [Read: The News and Observer Communicator.]

We're witnessing news executives test-driving new ideas and reaching for language that can define new journalistic ventures that still retain what they see as critical values - fairness, completeness, accuracy. Hence, Heyward's distinction between facts and truth, and his stickiness about "core responsibility."

The journalists don't want to give up their journalism, but they're not yet sure how to remake it with a new set of parameters - questions instead of answers; context instead of competition; the best truth-telling possible instead of just facts. [Read: New Values for a New Age of Journalism.]

Change does not come easily to successful people, especially those in rigid businesses like news, which depends on a fixed hierarchy, identifiable rules and a predetermined set of players. Top executives like Heyward don't suddenly wake up one morning and refute the principles, practices and processes that made them successful. ("Hey, everything I know is wrong!")

If it is true that change begins at the edges, in Heyward's comments, Sill's blogging and Goldberg's questioning of objectivity, I see the middle beginning to move.

I am optimistic - to a point. This year, I tweaked the American Society of Newspaper Editors for not confronting the reinvention dilemma at its annual convention (and Rupert Murdoch reminded them of their oversight). Suddenly, though, the demise of the news industry is all the rage and you can't scratch a news executive without uncovering a would-be change agent. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.]

They've have gotten religion and the choir is forming. But this has happened before without noticeable impact. A 25-year campaign to diversify newspapers still lags its goals. A concerted effort at renewing credibility failed - 45 percent of American still believe little or nothing they read in newspapers (the number for CBS News is 37 percent).

I can guarantee that change, reinvention and innovation will be at the forefront of next year's ASNE convention. That's a beginning at least. What we need next is follow through.

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Posted by Tim Porter at October 19, 2005 09:02 AM