Our conversation catalyst matched up a journalist myself…

Our conversation catalyst matched up a journalist (myself) and a librarian, Alexa Pearce, who works at NYU. Both of us feel the need to more deeply understand the other’s profession, although Alexa has had more experience working with journalists than I have with librarians since part of her job is as a liaison with NYU’s journalism school. Her reason for coming to the conference: “I’m trying to understand journalism because I work with people who are becoming journalists.” She added, “I’m struck by the similarities between what we say our challenges are.”

I’m a freelance writer who has been working for an AOL site, DailyFinance, although that job looks like it’s ending given the Huffington Post purchase and a move toward hiring full-time staff in the company’s New York and Dulles, Virginia offices. (I’m based in Burlington, VT.)

Before freelancing, I worked for nine years at Bloomberg News, which had library that tended to be more reactive than proactive. As a freelancer who occasionally writes local news stories for Burlington’s newspapers as well as business articles for DailyFinance, I’ve relied on my own reporting, going directly to sources such as government departments or data trackers such as Nielsen to dig up information. I personally haven’t tapped Burlington’s library sources (our public library and the library at University of Vermont) for data or support, and I haven’t seen indications among reporters/journalists here in Vermont that this exchange is going on.

My mom, a librarian with an MLS, flagged the conference and suggested we attend, as a journalist-daughter and librarian-mother pair. I’m coming with open ears to learn about how the two professions might be able to work together.

Alexa noted that her job is to teach and put journalists’ ideas in context, while a big push in the journalism department is the “journalism of ideas.” The department talks about ideas and concepts, allowing for research to become integral to what journalists do. “We can link information much more easily than we have been able to do. It’s a way of adding value to journalism,” she noted.

While journalists and librarians share some values, there are other ways in which the professions view information differently, Alexa pointed out. “Access to information is probably the biggest piece of that that presents the biggest challenge,” she noted, adding that the conflict between librarians and publishers is similar to the clash that can occur between libraries and journalists. “How do you come up with sustainable models for making information accessible and having an economic backbone?” Alexa pointed out.

I added that the ideas/questions posted on Bibionews of whether libraries are poised to become public-access media centers or could operate a news collective is a fascinating one, but that I feel there are conflicts between what libraries provide and what journalists seek to offer that could throw up barriers to this. Journalists want to provide context and shape the way news is presented, while libraries represent open access to information that’s given without an editorial perspective. This could become a hurdle for the two professions working together on a collective news service.

Librarians are respectful and want to get people from point A to point B on their research, Alexa said. She added that although it’s hard to be neutral in any context, librarians are seeking to be in a neutral place, without any editorial opinion.

Our discussion moved into new ways of providing community news, such as Twitter and local listservs. Both of us agreed that we find Twitter an efficient way to get caught up on what’s going on locally and in the world, although Alexa noted that there are issues with archiving Twitter and making it both easily searchable and organizable. But using libraries as a way to capture ephemeral material that’s published either formally or informally on the Web would be a useful task for libraries, Alexa noted.

I mentioned a local listserv in Vermont called the Front Porch Forum (site is here: http://frontporchforum.com/), which has been written about by Bill McKibben and was a Knight News Challenge winner. It provides a way for local residents to post issues (robberies, town meetings, voting information, etc.), but it’s slower than Twitter, as it takes a day or two for postings to be emailed to subscribers, and is limited to small neighborhoods. Perhaps libraries could provide a forum allowing residents to post news items, questions or local events on a more timely basis, I suggested.

Both of us agreed that mobilizing readers to contribute to the news has pitfalls, such as the trustworthiness of the contributions. I questioned whether a librarian is an appropriate professional to monitor such a public-access news site, especially if the discussion devolves into dangerous areas such as libelous statements.

As for what we bring to the conference, Alexa noted that she’s curious and engaged, a creative thinker. She is looking forward to some blue-sky discussions where she can contribute, even if it’s removed from what’s realistic at the moment. She’s a good listener. I’m a skeptical and logical thinker, but open minded. I’m hoping to learn about what’s possible for libraries and journalists, and how that could translate to a small-city market like Burlington.

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