So long, “Wizard of Oz” journalism. Let’s make margaritas!

Consider traditional journalism as a scene from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” There’s a hint of some journalists I know in that statement. Don’t worry, audience. We know what we’re doing. We know what’s important, and we’re putting it out into the universe for you to consume and enjoy. Transparency, if we claim to practice it, too often means a weekly column from an editor, not processes that are truly open and viewable, and able to be participated in.

“Count yourself lucky,” the Great and Powerful Oz says. We’re here to serve you, but only in the ways we deem acceptable. We’re a bit afraid to ask what you want, because we’re afraid you want entertainment coverage. So instead we’ll use our professional judgment to tell you what you should know. “The Great Oz has spoken.” Too often, we’re proud of being uninfluenced — by sources, certainly, but also by consumer desire.

The arguments against letting users into the process of journalism are largely the same today as they were during public journalism conversations 10-15 years ago. Jay Rosen laid them out beautifully in 2001’s “What Are Journalists For?” Just a few of them: If anyone can do it, why are we here? Don’t we have a responsibility to set educated priorities and not pander to audience whims? Won’t it hurt our credibility if we’re seen as partnering with sources? Wouldn’t that turn us into advocates, not objective observers? Isn’t journalistic independence more important than anything else?

I wrote in my last post about how much time we’ve spent cultivating separateness rather than connectedness. We’ve fostered an objective stance — one of observer, not participant. I’m not here to argue that that’s always wrong, and that journalism never benefits from it. I’m not here to say that all journalists need to change.

I’m here to shed a light on a new breed of journalists who see themselves as participants and work to build authenticity by opening up about who they are and where they come from. By standing for something, even if it’s just their community. By meeting people where they are, and participating in conversations they didn’t start. By making margaritas. (Know some engaged journalists I should talk to? Drop me a line on Twitter or email.)

Yes, margaritas.

Journalists are used to throwing their own parties. They work out how to cover something and put that coverage on their own websites. They’ll tease it from their own home page and using social media, which is the equivalent of putting a sign in their own yard. They try to keep out the crazies and dictate how the conversation will go and what the topics will be. Consider that like hiring a bouncer. They put out some chips and salsa and hope people — the right kind of people — show up and start dancing.

What if we were to go to other peoples’ parties? Figure out where conversation is happening in our communities, and go there? Enrich those conversations with information and context, making ourselves and the other participants smarter along the way?

That’s the margarita machine. It’s portable, so journalists can use it at their own party and take it around town on the other days. Margaritas make people happy, loosen tongues and encourage bonding.

And who doesn’t talk to the person who brings the margaritas?

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.


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