Butch Ward advises journalists to produce better quality stories.

The Poynter Institute’s managing director, Butch Ward, has an answer for journalists struggling to find their place in the shifting media landscape, but they may not want to hear it. Story by Danielle Bevins-Sundvall.

Butch Ward, the managing director of the Poynter Institute, USA, had simple advice to give to journalists at a recent media industry conference in Sydney: “Do journalism that matters.” And according to Mr Ward, that means worrying less about business models or viral videos, and more about values.

But it’s not an easy task in an industry facing dwindling revenues and the ever-present threat of job cuts. “I think that the business pressures are so great to find new audiences, to move faster, to break news, that it’s easy for journalists to lose sight of the values that in fact will enhance our credibility over the long haul.”

“We can be first today on a story that’s breaking but if we get it wrong …the public may well forget we had it first, [but] they’ll remember we had it wrong,” he said. The blurring of the line between advertising and editorial also challenged the value of journalistic independence, and Mr Ward noted that there was increasing pressure for journalists to collaborate with advertisers wanting to sponsor content.

Mr Ward said that journalists needed to speak openly with each other about these issues, warning that without consensus, news organisations would become: “A ship without a rudder.” “They need to talk about what are going to be the values that guide us through these difficult times, so that we don’t have to make every decision on the fly.”

While established codes of conduct are a good starting point, Mr Ward said that the pace of change was so rapid, journalists needed to step back and ask how stories they worked on today meant they required them to reconsider their values. “And maybe we don’t reconsider them. Maybe we simply say they’re still as important as they ever were and here’s how we will adapt them to our work, so we make sure we’re abiding by it,” he said.

Ultimately, though, it’s the audience who have the final say on journalistic values. “In the end, the public gets to judge whether or not the values that you have adopted for yourself are good or not; whether they buy into them or not, because they’ll decide whether to buy your product,” Mr Ward said.