There’s a Zen saying that goes like this: Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood carry water. It’s tricky to explain, but a little editing (read: complete rewrite) makes it clearer to the contemporary journalist: Before iPad, verify, verify, verify and don’t drink the Kool Aid. After iPad, verify, verify, verify and don’t drink the Kool Aid.
Technology is not the game changer that marketing experts want journalists and consumers to believe it is. Sure, news distribution and patterns of consumption have changed (or not, depending on how one interprets data from the Pew Research Center), but journalists must still hold themselves to the standards of their profession.
Take a look at technology’s impact on the way physicians practice medicine. Back in the day, doctors diagnosed disease with a quick look and immediately prescribed leeches as a remedy. Now they use CAT scans and MRIs and an alphabet soup of imaging techniques to diagnose the problem, and treatment usually consists of some sanitary pill or sterile injectable.
Yet most of today’s physicians have the same priority as their eye-balling, leech-loving predecessors, and that is to do no harm. Technology altered the ways in which they practice medicine, but their ultimate goal — to preserve life — has persisted over the centuries.
That goal-oriented zeal should be the same among journalists, but sometimes it’s not. There’s panic at the thought of online and mobile news distribution rewriting the rules and triggering further job instability or content dilution. But don’t blame technology for the journalist’s woes — blame the publisher.
It’s always been the publisher’s job to ensure a news outlet’s solvency, but too many of them ignored or even shunned innovative distribution routes and the possible revenue streams they posed. For years, they hung onto the advertising model and passed on online subscriptions. (Shout out to the Wall Street Journal, which has had its head on straight since day one.) Now publishers must depend on the likes of Apple’s iBooks or (even worse) Amazon’s content-distribution system for a pittance of the online and mobile market.
Technology did not cause this financial pallor in the newsroom. Don’t expect technology to cure it, either. Instead, technology should be seen as another tool in the craft of journalism. It can do good. It can do bad. But it all depends on if and how one uses it.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user tizzie.