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article imageNieman Lab founder Joshua Benton on the future of journalism Special

By David Silverberg     Nov 13, 2010 in Internet
The Nieman Journalism Lab has become the one-stop hub for news relating to the evolving journalism landscape. Digital Journal interviewed director Joshua Benton to learn what news trends are making headlines today.
A crowdsourced copy editing project. An equation to track a news site's user engagement. How "public-interest news can be more valuable to publishers than traffic bait." These are some of the issues analyzed by Nieman Journalism Lab (NJL), born out of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation. Just over two years old, the website tracks news in the evolving journalism industry, offering stories on how old media adapt to the digital era and what new projects are emerging from tech trailblazers and start-ups. What makes the Lab tick and what new ideas are exciting media observers?
We spoke to NJL director Joshua Benton, who says the Lab has expanded immensely since he joined as the sole writer after nabbing a 2007 Nieman Fellowship. Now staffed with four full-time writers, NJL has welcomed more than 80 writers to contribute content to the site, some steadily and some freelance.
A former reporter for the Dallas Morning News, Benton says NJL stories are designed to look at how journalism is maturing in today's digital era. "In this journalism revolution, lots of people are doing lots of interesting things," he said in a phone interview. "Some are happening deep within news organizations and others in one-person start-ups or within tech companies. We’re the common point of conversation for all those people."
NJL tends to investigate stories you won't find in your local daily or magazine. For instance, writer Justin Ellis profiled MuckRock, a site which aims to make FOIA requests effortless; an interview with a computer science professor looked at digital forensics and photojournalism; and Benton wrote an insightful post on the economics behind news site paywalls. NJL also features sections with news from around the Web relating to media and journalism trends.
Benton says the stories on NJL should help journalists and editors "inform their judgment" on the volatile media space. NJL's purpose is altruistic, Benton notes. "Our goal is to do our part to help journalism evolve and succeed."
NJL doesn't track what a media site such as Poynter's Romenesko would follow, such as layoffs and paper closures. Instead, their writers analyze how new startups or media projects will help journalists adjust to the new realities presented by social and digital media.
"Traditional news organization want to increase the size and loyalty of their online audience," Benton says. "When you look at news outlets with substantial online audiences, the numbers aren't analogous to the loyalty of having a daily newspaper delivered to your house every day."
Benton says editors have to rethink how they value online relationships with their readers.
What trends excite him and NJL? Benton said the burgeoning mobile space is positioned for major growth and he believes there's great potential in news apps which create a "walled garden around content compared to the Web, where the competition is just one click away."
Benton also says he supports user-generated media, which he views as part of the news ecosystem. That said, he believes large news organizations will still produce the lion's share of journalism in 20 years. Also, Benton believes "amplification" is the biggest obstacle for citizen journalism and user-generated content. "If someone writes something journalistic he needs to find a way for that work to reach an audience," he says.
When asked about printed media's role in the future of journalism, Benton says printing a paper is still a money-maker for many outlets but he's not sure what newspapers will look like in 10 or 20 years.
"People who are 50 today aren't going to give up their newspapers anytime soon, but in the future it won't be the ideal tool for mass media distribution," he says.
Benton would like to see a balance between the players in the tech world who believe they will learn nothing from old-school media, and newspaper executives who think the Net is one big crowd of "know-nothings."
"Both those point-of-views are equally wrong," he says.
Looking at the future of Benton's own workplace, he hints the Nieman Journalism Lab will soon be getting into hosting conferences and may also look at creating "centralized resources or databases" but he was mum on details. And as NJL's site programmer, Benton also points out there may be a redesign or a few tweaks coming in the near future.
For more information on news, journalism and media, visit our sister site, Future of Media.
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