J-Lab's Schaffer: legacy media can learn lessons from community news sites

J-Lab executive director Jan Schaffer (pictured) told a crowd of USC Annenberg students and faculty on Feb. 24 that traditional media outlets can learn entrepreneurial lessons from community news Web sites that often better meet the needs of their local audiences. Full video of the talk will be available soon.

"While (news consumers) certainly need news, sometimes all they need is good information," said Schaffer, one of the world's leading authorities on citizen and community journalism and a Pulitzer Prize winner while at The Philadelphia Inquirer. "And while they want conversation and participation, they appreciate a level of connection that demonstrates an attachment and a caring about their community – not just detached, clinical observations. They want to know about issues, choices and solutions. But they’d also like to know where people agree and not just where they are shouting in disagreement."

Schaffer’s talk, titled "Citizen Journalism," was the second in a series of talks on Entrepreneurship and the Future of News, sponsored by Dean Ernest J. Wilson III. The speaker series is part of Dean Wilson’s Economic Literacy and Entrepreneurship initiative, designed to encourage USC Annenberg students to rely on the principles of economics and a spirit of entrepreneurship as they envision the future of journalism and communication.

“This series is part of our dean’s focus on economic literacy and entrepreneurship at Annenberg,” said School of Journalism director Geneva Overholser, who introduced Schaffer. “It is aimed at stimulating thinking about how we breathe life and vitality into journalism as the digital revolution continues to unfold.”

Schaffer said professional journalists need to re-examine some of their old habits and journalistic conventions to meet the information needs of their communities.

"To be a genuine media entrepreneur you need to have a comfort level with moving out of old lockstep ways of doing things and moving into what I call the 'squirm zone,'" she said. "You need to follow your gut, your hunches, your values systems and let them lead you to what you think makes sense. More often than not, what makes sense for you will make sense for your audiences. And that is certainly what citizen journalists are doing. No one taught them a right or wrong way of doing things."

She said professional journalists may embrace definitions of "news" that may no longer match news consumers' definitions.

"We have habits, such as our competitive streak, that are so ingrained, they may be difficult, if not impossible, to shed," she said. "We often think our ethics are unparalleled, even though the public keeps telling us they don’t share that view. I say we need to re-examine some of those habits and ask: Are they still safeguarding journalism or might they actually be endangering it?

"In an entrepreneurial environment, I believe that we can liberate the journalism itself, not just the delivery platforms and the news creators, and re-imagine it in ways that will improve its usefulness to our readers."

Consumers of news are not only looking to be informed, she said, but they are also looking to strengthen their connection and their involvement in their community.

"The lesson, I think, for us 'Big-J journalists' is this:  We need to pay attention to these clues because the community seems to find value here," she said. "I believe that we can still do good journalism, but we should try to do it in ways that turn our communities on, and not turn off." 

She also applauded some of USC Annenberg's new media activities.

"I want to tip my hat to your efforts at USC," she said. "We were pleased to help fund community news efforts like the South LA Reporting project. We applaud the Knight Digital Media Center for training new media entrepreneurs. Hats off to David Westphal’s blog and the Online Journalism Review as well."

Schaffer's repared remarks