Don’t be vague: measure the value

I went last night to the Frontline Club in London for a panel discussion organised by Index on Censorship on – what else? – “Will the future of journalism mean we are better informed”? Two admirable outfits, but the debate was a mess.

Many discussions of this kind are driven by what live-debate-marketers think is a widespread worry about journalism. The internet may look and sound like a boon, but is it just a tsunami of unreliable, manipulated trash? And, what with phone-hacking and related sleaze, the established mainstream media is hardly better. Oh what do we do?

I doubt that these assumptions are even right: I think most people are quietly celebrating how much information the internet gives them (yes, it’s that simple) and mistrust of popular papers is long-established. But majoring on anxiety produces shapeless discussions in which journalists – including young ones who’ve hardly started – lament the passing of a supposed golden age in which huge, well-resourced newsrooms provided jobs for most wannabees. While at the same time panellists do their best to sound polite and politically correct about citizen journalists and “user generated content”. The connection between these two bits of the picture isn’t often made.

I could go on at length about what’s wrong with this kind of discussion, but I’ve done that at length elsewhere (see Out of Print to the right). Instead, a modest proposal.

There’s a another premise and focus for these kinds of debates which would allow them to move forward from misplaced nostalgia and pessimism: look at value.

What information is valuable (which involves thinking hard about how and why it’s used) and how might journalists produce it? Start with those questions and you have a way of cutting through vested interest, nostalgia and muddled thinking. I’m not talking about value that is only measured in a financial sense and I’m well aware that trillions of bits of information without lasting value to any or many people are swopped every day.

But stick with value (does it matter to someone? To how many people? How? Why?) and a lot of clutter falls away. New journalism startups and mainstream media coping with disruption worry constructively – and experiment energetically – about the value they add. The important questions come into focus a little more clearly. It’s a bit easier to hear the signal in the noise.

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