News Over Noise: Veteran journalist Tony Burman warns newspapers against “Churnalism”

For Tony Burman, the key to quality journalism may lie beyond our borders.

“In general, print media is thriving in the developing world and suffering here,” Burman told a packed auditorium at the INK+BEYOND 2012 conference on April 27. “There’s that inversion. Why?”

That was the mystery Burman, the chair in News Media & Technology at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and former head of Al-Jazeera English, hoped to shed some light on with his talk, “The Future of News over Noise.” Over lunch, Burman tried to impart some of the key qualities in news reporting he has seen over his storied career.

In his experience working abroad, Burman has found what he thinks are three inalienable truths about journalism: people always turn to the media to be informed, content is still king, and perhaps most importantly, stories need good storytellers.

“We still need people on the front lines to tell stories, whether they’re reporters or bloggers or citizen journalists. What’s changed is the business (in the West).”

Over the last several years, Burman has noticed a decline in the quality of news reporting at home. The rise of assembly line journalism combined with dwindling profits has led to a culture of “churnalism” where fewer people work to pump out homogenous stories at an ever-quickening pace.

The worst part about this shift, said Burman, is that it can easily become a vicious circle. To save money, news organizations will lay off skilled reporters, which lowers the quality of news production, lowers profits, and results in more pink slips.

“It’s an act of suicide,” he told to the audience.

To turn the tide, news outlets in the U.S. and Canada should put their focus back into more substantive reporting. If they don’t, cautioned Burman, they run the risk of losing their status, and sliding into irrelevancy.

Jon Greer, Vice-President of Media Sales for the online advertising firm Impact Engine, was nodding along with most of Burman’s speech, but it was this observation in particular that resonated with Greer.

“What (Burman) says about original reporting under attack by the current culture, it’s true,” he said.

In fact, that descent may already be established. The Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual study that measures the “trust” people have in government, business, NGOs, and media, has seen the faith in media institutions fall in recent years. Interestingly, even though 2012 saw people’s trust in media increase by 18 points in the United States and 15 points in the U.K., people were still found to generally distrust the media in those two regions.

This year, Canada was classified as neutral in citizens’ trust of their news media.

While disappointed, Burman wasn’t surprised by this data. It merely confirmed his thesis that reporters need to double their efforts to produce quality news stories if they are to win back their audience – and people’s respect.

“The news has become less about ideas and more about image,” he said. “We’re now part of a news cycle where stories about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan get more coverage than the tragedy in Sudan.”

As the lunch hour drew to a close, Burman stressed that journalists must be careful about which stories they choose to pursue and publish. If they continue with the current infotainment style, he warned quoting Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death, “culture death is a real possibility.”