Networked Journalism Education

Why should J-schools teach “new networking” habits?

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The word “networks” gets thrown around a lot (including in the title of this blog). In terms of journalism, one could argue that journalists have always been about networking. We network with sources, subjects and readers and use that networking to our advantage when finding and writing stories.

“Social” networking in this age, however, means something different. A recent post on the Harvard Business Review by John Hagel III and John Seely Brown had a powerful description of the difference:

In the classical networking approach, the game is about presenting yourself in the most favorable light possible while flattering the other person into giving you their contact information. This approach quickly degenerates into a manipulative exchange where the real identities of both parties rapidly recede into the background, replaced by carefully staged presentations of an artificial self. These staged interactions rarely build trust. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect, putting both parties on guard and reinforcing wariness and very selective disclosure.

A learning disposition leads to a very different approach. Now the effort focuses on understanding the needs of the other, with a particular focus on understanding the biggest issues others are wrestling with. This requires intense curiosity, deep listening and empathy that seeks to understand the context that other person is operating in. It also requires willingness to disclose vulnerabilities, since it is often hard to get the other person to share their most challenging issues without a sense that you are willing to do the same.

Much can be learned simply by exploring the experiences of the other person, but even more can be learned by finding common ground — identifying common issues that you both face. This provides a context to work collaboratively in addressing particular challenges or opportunities that draw out the experiences and knowledge that you both have and end up creating new knowledge. Now we are beginning to tap into not just flows of existing tacit knowledge, but generating flows of new knowledge.

Journalists may have always hoped to be engaged in ‘social’ networking as described here, but calling sources to extract perfect quotes in an already conceptualized story is the opposite of “a learning disposition.” Getting people to divulge information while developing a contrary story angle, assuming the worst from politicians and bureaucrats, playing up partisan divides for easy story lines makes for a very particular kind of journalism — the kind being rejected by millions, regardless of what device it appears on.

In j-schools, we’ve been really good at drilling AP style and the importance of meeting deadlines, at teaching the craft of 500-word stories and headline writing with verbs. Some of these skills are still needed, obviously, but if we don’t set our sights much, much higher in many ways and address the type of networking Seely Brown describes here, we’ll not be meeting the needs of our students, our discipline, industry or the public.

If we want people to read our journalism, to interact with the issues we feel so deeply about, to fix corrupt government and respond to community problems, we can no longer operate in a vacuum, networking at our own convenience. We have to understand how our roles have changed and what place we have in already existing networks.

We can’t afford to not be “generating flows of new knowledge.” That’s where we could excel and contribute as journalists…and how we could produce a “journalism that matters.”

Written by Donica

January 30th, 2010 at 9:29 am

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