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How ‘vs.’ thinking drags everyone down

Television vs. newspapers. Blogs vs. news. The web vs. print. VJs vs. photogs. You can find tons of “vs.” at every journalism conference, in every media boardroom, and indeed on every media blog. The “vs.” supposes that there are two choices, and it is the notion that we need a “vs.” that is one of the biggest reasons why traditional media and new media aren’t performing nearly as well as they could.

“Vs.” thinking is what’s often worst about TV news. We’re constantly subjected to the obligatory “the right says this, the left says this” kinds of reports that are then allegedly balanced. News and media are stuck in “vs.” thinking in our own industry.

For years, there was this snobbery that newspaper journalists looked down on TV journalists for being too shallow. TV journalists didn’t care – they got the news on faster than a newspaper could. It was “speed vs. depth.”

Now, with the web, that “vs.” goes away. And newspapers are producing their own video reports. The truth is, most of those reports aren’t of the same caliber as those you’d find on TV. At least – that’s what the TV people will say, because that’s the New Snobbery: nobody can do TV like we can. That’s fine – except the web is not TV. And some newspapers now have dozens of cameras on the streets. Their time to publication is no longer an issue. Can they go live? No. Not yet, anyway. But they now present a formidable offering: in-depth written stories, video from the scene, pictures, multimedia presentations and social features like comments and voting are all available at some newspaper sites.

(It’s at this point that we need to stop calling that a “newspaper” site at all. Newspaper vs. TV sites is another “vs.” that has to go. They’re all websites to the user.)

So many digital trees have died on the topic of videojournalists. And 99% of the debate is this: “That’s not professional video work!” “Yes it is!” Truly – this defines the debate for so many people who look at VJs. Instead, take away the professionals vs. the VJs and look at the real question at the center of this change: how to we find the people most qualified to tell a story quickly and accurately, and how do we arm them with the right tools to do so? Instead of a “vs.” you find an “and,” as in “sometimes it’s with a single camera, sometimes it’s with a crew, sometimes we need a chopper, and sometimes the video someone sent in from their cellphone gets it done.”

The more tools we keep giving journalism, the more journalists keep arguing over the tools. What they don’t see is the toolbox.

I am always amazed by how any journalism discussion can be ended with the following pronouncement: “That’s not news.” Not “I think we should devote our resources to something else” or “Our audience has been favoring a different story.” The people who say “That’s not news” are the editorial “vs.” thinkers who stop websites from gathering the great voices from the blogs in their communities. They refuse to let their own reporters blog. They hear the very word “blog” for that matter and think “That’s not news.” They believe it is “journalism vs. the mob.” And in no other business that I know of could you get away with holding your customers in such contempt.

OK, maybe the airlines.

News isn’t about our internecine squabbles over how to present it. We’re killing each other over methods. We’re backstabbing over choices of presentation style. We blame the audience for too much dislike of the media — but then we show them we can’t stand each other, too.

Lest the “vs.” bloggers think they’re off the hook in this artificial battle, they are not. The extremist mindset of “we will overthrow the shackles of the mainstream media and rise up to cover the world!” is proving to be absurdist nonsense as well. No, it turns out that those who try to run their own citizen journalism (another horrible phrase) sites run into the same trouble that every other site runs into: it’s damn hard to make money.

If you think that having the best TV or newspaper website in your market means you win, you will lose. If you want the best citizen journalism site in town, you will lose. Got the best blogs? Losers. It’s only when we join together that we win. When we build great regional portals that share revenue and give our audience choices — not just on how to consume but on how to create and distribute — we win.

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