Here’s the thing about last year: optimism about journalism came back

My apologies for the break in transmission from this blog, My day job took over completely during the autumn of 2013 and I will try to do better in 2014.

As one year flips over to another, bloggers and others get asked to do pieces summarising the highlights of the year about to end in a style which used to be known in print newsrooms as “pipe-suckers” or “cud-chewers” (my own ruminations here and here). This time round, there was one common denominator to the looks backward and forward. To summarise the summaries, optimism about journalism reappeared.

No one believes that anyone has cracked the problem of a digital business model for news publishing. But there’s a gently rising tide of new things working and the unexpected being tried, sometimes with success. Some time in 2013, without anyone quite marking it, a corner was turned.

I spent the first part of 2013 writing a book (see to the right of this post) which argues that gloom and pessimism about journalism fly in the face of (a) what’s happening outside mainstream newsrooms and (b) history. Like most authors, I thought I was arguing against the prevailing pessimism. I emerged from my study and the seclusion needed to get a book finished to discover that I was pushing at a door not exactly open, but easier to open than I’d thought. The climate of opinion was changing.

As the year went on, little fragments of good news kept coming. The final realisation that the good old days of print-dominated journalism won’t ever come back took the prices of legacy media businesses to historic lows, enabling Jeff Bezos to pick up the Washington Post for a price ($250m) which was tiny compared to his fortune but reckoned to be well above market value. It’s long been predicted that hi-tech millionaires might pick up bargains by buying established media but Pierre Omidyar turned that upside down by providing funds to start his own news operation.

These two moves in the US alone massively expand the space for experiment in journalism. The one thing the two new media moguls share is a conviction that things won’t be as they have been in the past. My sense is that journalism will be better than in the past. But if you want a cooler view, have a look at Nick Lemann’s review of my book in which he is uncertain about what’s coming.

But I’m upbeat and a close follower of Mathew Ingram of Gigaom because of his ability both to spot discoveries trends early and his ability to sort the signal from the noise and to spot the important ones. Here’s his short selection of the six most important things he saw last year.

I’d add to this that most new ideas we hear about are about new ways of raising money, attracting user-generated material or reshaping material for new audiences. They are, in short, changes of structure in news and opinion. Information travels down new routes.

But watch in 2014 not only for people playing with structure but also with sensibility. Some innovations may not re-route journalism or aim at new audiences: it may try do much the same but in a different style. Have a look at this trailer for video reporting from Vice (Vice News: Coming Soon, embedded halfway down): reporters doing stories, broadcasting online. Nothing new there. But the feel is changed: an agenda with a twist, the confidence to go for some stories mainstream media would dismiss and less formal reporters.

Remember the secret sauce which made Gawker one of the most popular gossip sites on the web? It wasn’t as if the potential of salacious stories about celebrities large and small was an original discovery. But the stories were done with wit, sarcasm and speed. It was the style, the editorial personality, which scored and made users come back for more.

Crowdfunders are discovering that people are prepared to help fund stories which step outside the parameters which established media have declared inviolable. Those experiment are also likely to demonstrate new styles structures for new which work. The latest in the UK is Contributoria and one of its co-founders Sarah Hartley will be on a panel at City University when we discuss “new ways of doing journalism” at the end of this month.

 

 

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