Branding in a new era of journalism

Branding in a new era of journalism (iStock) When Joel McHale’s character Jeff Winger on the NBC show Community spouts some dubious statistics in this week’s episode, he is promptly mocked by a friend who quips, “I think some of this research may have been done on Wikipedia.”  The user-generated encyclopedia gets its share of jabs from journalists, professors, and comedy writers alike, but that doesn’t stop 365 million unique visitors from happily trusting it as an information source every month.

This and other related topics were the subject of a SXSW Interactive panel last week titled “Process Journalism: Getting It First, While Getting it Right.”  Several panelists, including writers for the New York Times and discussed a new generation of journalism in which sites like Twitter and YouTube have become essential to breaking news stories.

Through a variety of case studies including stories about Steve Jobs’ health and a Seattle murder, the speakers illustrated a new triple-threat of resources that professional journalists now tap: Technology, Social Networks, and Citizen journalists. 

The general consensus reached by the panel was that these tools are positive as long as they are used responsibly– transparency about sources is still fundamental, and on a site like Wikipedia where any registered visitor can alter information at will, verification of facts is more important than ever.  In one especially interesting example of this, the New York Times’ Robert Mackey describes how he was able to confirm the validity of user-posted videos of protests in Iran by cross checking the signs in the backdrop with images from Google Maps.

One topic overlooked in the panel’s quest for professionalism is an exploration of just why there is such a growing exodus from traditionally “professional” and “balanced” journalism, towards “amateur” and openly partisan reporting. If the popularity of The Daily Show, The Colbert  Report, and Glenn Beck has taught us anything, it’s that many people crave a news source outside the mainstream that makes no bones about it’s point of view.

Despite the traditional journalist’s approach of building trust through balanced reporting, this shift in consumer behavior may ironically come down to a matter of personal trust.   People are increasingly interested in getting news from friends and peers, or from partisan bloggers and entertainers that come across as friends and peers.

In turn, associations with personal media outlets may have increasing appeal to advertisers over traditional newspapers.  Steven Colbert, in particular, has done a great job of cheekily creating branded entertainment for products like Doritos, Dr. Pepper, and Infiniti that works seamlessly within his shtick.

Perhaps there is a detachment inherent in impartial reporting that is less in vogue in a world of reality TV and social networking, where people are accustomed to personal connections and access.  For this reason, while the jokes made at Wikipedia’s expense may be on the rise, the number of the site’s users will also likely keep trending upward for quite some time.