Tuesday, February 10, 2009

“I want conversation, I want collective intelligence, but I also want sound journalism”

Leonard Witt, a veteran of the public journalism movement (pdf 220 kb), has received a multi-year gift totaling $1.5 million from New York’s Harnisch Foundation to start a Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University, located in suburban Atlanta.

In this interview with Civic & Citizen Journalism Interest Group chair Nikhil Moro conducted via Skype messages, a self-assured Witt lays out his plans for the Center and elucidates some premises of sustainable journalism.

Moro: Congratulations. Do you feel like a star?

Witt: A star makes it sound way too individual. This is an age of collaboration. So I want to feel like an agent who makes others stars.

Moro: I don't know any other citizen journalism advocate who got a gift of $1.5 million! How will you prioritize? What will be the focus areas of your proposed Center?

Witt: The Center for Sustainable Journalism will work on two levels: 1. The Applied or Practical, and 2. the Academic.

1. The Center will be an incubator, economic engine and nurturer of new, sustainable models for high quality, ethically sound journalism. The goal will be to produce projects that will be spun off into stand-alone nonprofit or for-profit entities.

2. The Center will be part of Kennesaw State University where it will reflect the university’s educational mission of teaching, mentoring, coaching, service and applied research in a global environment. That includes working with undergraduates, developing new courses, building a graduate program and producing bodies of research and evaluative tools related to the projects developed and to applied media innovation and information economics in general.

Moro: How would you define "high quality" journalism?

Witt: Interesting question for which people have lots of answers. I look at the New York Times and Washington Post and say that is high quality, ethically sound journalism. However, that does not mean they are perfect in what they do. Today everyone has a point of view about what makes high quality, ethically sound journalism and the exchange of ideas really is improving the state of journalism. I want the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University to play an important part in that international conversation.

Moro: Is the $1.5 million to be a permanent corpus or the operating capital for the Center's first five years?

Witt: It is operating capital. In five years the Center itself has to be self sustaining. That's part of our incentive to do excellent work quickly. We have to be on entrepreneurial time, more than academic time.

Moro: Would you say that the value of the media industries is more social than libertarian? Starting with the 1947 Hutchins report and the 1956 work of Frederick S. Siebert, among others, we seem to have come to define media credibility by a norm of social responsibility.

Witt: You know I was a part of the public journalism reform movement, which basically said newspapers and the news media in general were not socially responsible enough. Now that the old models are falling apart it is a golden time to rebuild models that are more socially responsible and by that I mean providing the information that the public needs to make informed personal, professional and citizen oriented decisions.

It also means providing methods by which the public can use that information to have both vertical and horizontal discussions among themselves and with decision makers. Of course, the public via social media tools is taking care of that conversational part very well. So maybe if the journalists just provide in-depth information, it will be enough.

Moro: You have said your Center will seek new business models. Elaborate?

Witt: We will be hiring a Research Director and a Business Development Officer, who will help make informed decisions in identifying the best models and then we will be aggressive in trying to test them.

Moro: Does good journalism need an astute business model?

Witt: I believe if news has value, then people should pay for it, just as they do for most everything else that has value to them. That's my mindset.

Moro: It reminds me of Walter Isaacson's proposal. He thinks giving journalism away devalues it. Yet he doesn’t like advertisers. He’d rather have online readers support journalism via some sort of EZPass. Do you think his model is workable when media businesses are not just losing market value, but that value is moving to other businesses?

Witt: I have been saying similar things for a long time. What does it cost to do good, solid journalism? Not Britney Spears news. That will take care of itself. And not paper, just what does it cost to produce high quality journalism? The answer: The cost for that is doable. If each of us who buys news on paper now paid $2 to $4 a week for it online it would no longer be an issue. Indeed, we could invest in newsrooms and with the same $4 or so a week we could collectively own the best newsrooms in the country. So how do we get there? Stay tuned to the work of the Center for Sustainable Journalism!

That’s what the funder, Ruth Ann Harnisch, is investing in. Answers to meet a challenge that seems enormous but in the end, I believe, is solvable. We just have to stop wringing our hands, and attack it.

Moro: Is your proposal to offer a graduate program ready?

Witt: Nope, that will be what the Research Director and the faculty at Kennesaw State figure out.

Moro: Will your Center have a separate building?

Witt: We are in the process of determining the space needs right now.

Moro: At CCJIG we believe citizen journalism is worthy of study because (1) the collective intelligence adds value to information (more heads are better than one), (2) in a marketplace information from multiple non-experts may trump that from a singular source, and (3) adverse social effects of media consolidation may be neutralized by every citizen having his or her own soap box -- so what if it's a blog. Here’s your question: Could any of those premises guide us to restructure the mainstream media?

Witt: I like the idea of having information communities where everyone in the community helps share information and the journalist's reporting is the informational glue that holds the community together. However, one thing we are learning at our trial project at Locally Grown in Northfield, MN, is that some people don't want to participate, they just want the journalism and they see it as the journalist's job to be sure they have it.

Moro: Was the notion of representative journalism your response to their want?

Witt: My representative journalism -- now we are referring to our range of ideas as Community Supported Journalism -- was based on the premise that ads are decoupling from the news and will continue to do so. So journalism will have to pay for itself. Now I am trying to figure how to get that done via Community Supported Journalism. That will be the work of the Center.

Moro: To revisit the relationship between credibility and sustainable journalism, there’s the old question about whether bloggers have an incentive to check facts, to learn publishing law, to be ethical – or even to write well. After all, bloggers' value lies not in individual excellence but in their “collective intelligence.” Is such a status quo sustainable?

Witt: I used to worry that journalists were not reaching out to citizens. Now my primary worry is about the fate of journalists who produce in-depth stories and investigations that help us understand who we are singularly and collectively. Great journalism takes time and lots of hard work. No one is going to do that for free. So yes, I want conversation, I want collective intelligence, but I also want sound journalism to be a part of that mix. I think it is vital.

Moro: Excellent. Please list five specific ways in which you plan to achieve your academy of sound journalism.

Witt: 1. We will do research to determine best practices, 2. We will do trial projects to test those best practices, 3. We will collaborate and help others establish projects, 4. We will get students involved so they can see new possibilities for the future, and 5. We will nurture and launch what we think are models that will be sustainable.

Moro: Thank you for the good interview, Len. My best wishes to you and to your Center.

Witt: Thanks, Nikhil, for taking the time to do this. I enjoyed it.

Photo courtesy of Mike Schinkel
Also read: Witt gets $1.5 million from Harnisch

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