How the Shift to Process Journalism Affects Ethics
What Would Google Do? By Jeff Jarvis. HarperBusiness, 2009.
Scenes from an editor’s desk, circa 1989:
Copy arrives in the mail. You do a first read-through, do some fact checking, call the writer for clarifications, edit, and send it off to the type setter.
Galleys come back from type. You read through quickly for major errors and send it off to proofreading.
Galleys come back from proofreaders with changes. You send marked galleys back to type setter for corrections.
Corrected galleys come back. You check the changes. If copy is clean enough, you send it to production for layout; if not, it goes back to type for another round.
Boards with layouts come from production. You check them over and send to proofreading for a final read.
Corrections to boards come from proofreaders. You type up a list of line changes and send to type setting.
Line changes come back from type; if correct, you send to production for line stripping; if not, you send back to type.
You get the line-stripped boards back from production, review them, and sign them off for printing. You’re done (except for the blueline, but enough of all this. . .).
In WWGD?, Jarvis makes a key distinction between old-style “product journalism” and the new “process journalism.” Now, reading the above description of old-style journalism (or “editing,” if you prefer), you might think, “Hey, processes don’t get much more complicated than that.” True, there was a long and involved process, but it was all behind the scenes–the product never emerged until it was fully vetted and, as much as possible, free of mistakes. Copy was read and processed by a multitude of people, over the course of several weeks. The time lag was a month and a half from writing to arrival of the article in the subscriber’s mail, but since you were the only source of the information, it didn’t really matter.
So much for the last century. For a blogger today, none of these steps exist–you write the copy and you publish it. But as Jarvis argues, this doesn’t mean that all those iterative steps have disappeared–they’ve just been transferred from behind the scenes to the Web. “Today, on the Internet,” he says, “the process has become the product.”
Traditional (“old school”) journalists and editors have major problems with this development. To many, it seems like an unquestionable assault on the journalistic ethos. But Jarvis argues that, ethically, we gain as much as we lose in this transformation. By opening up the process to participation by readers, we regain the continual improvement of the old process, with as many or more hands involved than before. Will we make mistakes? Sure. But Jarvis tells us not to focus on avoiding mistakes, but on making them well–that is, expect to make mistakes, admit them readily, and fix them swiftly. Does this make you look untrustworthy as an information source? Not at all, says Jarvis:
“Corrections do not diminish credibility. Corrections enhance credibility. Standing up and admitting your mistakes makes you more believable; it gives your audience faith that you will right your future wrongs.”
The point really is that even in the old system, we made plenty of mistakes, but we were loath to admit them, precisely because we had invested so much time and energy in trying to avoid them. The end product in both the old and new system may be pretty much the same, but Jarvis argues that the transparency of the process in the new approach gets us all closer to the truth, and more quickly.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could make mistakes well, but still take the time and resources to minimize or eliminate the number we make? Sure. But the days when we could do that are gone forever, like it or not.
Next: Part 4, Turning Cash Cows into Mini-Moos.