Why journalists should look over the horizon and cheer up

Kogan 'OOP'To judge by the prevailing tone of public discussion, journalism in Europe and America has been suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown. Jobs are lost as newsrooms contract, print circulations shrink and online news startups fail because they can’t make enough to survive. The portrait of some newsrooms painted by the Leveson Inquiry was not pretty.

Writing a book which examines these issues, I’ve come to think that most of this gloom is overdone and out of date. Certainly, much is lost in a phase of change. But I am sure that the net impact of digital communications on journalism will come to be seen as positive and not negative. My book is called Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Era and here is the elevator pitch version of its argument.

  • Journalism is being renewed and re-engineered for new conditions. It is almost impossible to measure with scientific precision, but the generative energy needed to adapt the ideals of journalism to radically new possibilities does exist. Established journalists often seem determined not to see the evidence of this.
  • The fact that a single business model to sustain journalism hasn’t been found to replace the broken print-advertising one doesn’t mean that online news businesses can’t succeed without philanthropic or state support. Gradually, larger numbers of new platforms are succeeding even as many fail.
  • I reached this optimistic frame of mind not only by looking at the present and speculating about the future but by recalling the past. Journalism exists in inherently unstable conditions (the junction of social and democratic purposes with the market) and is always being renegotiated, improvised and the subject of experiments. The dominance of printed journalism, for example, began crumbling earlier than most people realise. The aggregate circulations of British national newspapers peaked in the early 1950s.
  • The greatest single driver of change is the quantity of information available. That shifts the emphasis of reporting and editing to the management of abundance, for information in quantity is not the same as information on which you can rely. Many journalists have yet to come to terms with this shift. (There’s an excellent piece on this theme here from Slate’s business and economic writer Matthew Yglesias).
  • Why have journalists (myself included) been slow to adapt? Possible reasons include…the news business is inherently conservative because its practitioners are so caught up in the daily/hourly struggle…the importance of independence to journalists has meant a resistance both to change and to accepting advice (such as from software geeks).
  • But a corner has been turned. The long trends show that print won’t disappear, but that as a vehicle (and a culture) for news it will be much less important in the future. As digital re-routes the way information travels and changes access to knowledge, the exciting challenge is to adapt journalism’s basic aims to a new phase.

That’s the short version: I naturally hope that you’ll read the longer version (you can pre-order here). I’m about to take my summer break, but when the book is published in September I’ll most probably be writing about it again….

 

 

Tags: , , ,

4 comments

  1. I only qualified as a journalist last year so can’t pretend to be experienced in the field, but I strongly disagree with your views.

    All positive opinion pieces are written by those in the top echelons of the industry. Your jobs are safe. You can adapt because you have the experience and contacts.

    No golden age in history has ever involved savage job cuts and insane competition for so few jobs.

    Any positive spin is just a contrary view to generate debate and books/articles.

    Journalism is being renewed – I agree – a slimmer and meaner (in terms of salaries) entity.

    That’s the short version.

    My solutions? Who cares what I think – I’m a nobody.

    • Tony – When I was in the “upper echelons of the industry” (if that’s what they were) I was pessimistic. My view has turned optimistic since seeing more and being at one remove from industry. Journalism always involved savage competition for jobs. There have been plenty of cuts in golden ages: look at the number of newspapers which folded in the US 1950-75 as television came to dominate news. But I do hope that you will read the whole book. I do not make light of the cost of change, but we can’t escape the fact that change is a constant factor in journalism everywhere.

  2. Thank goodness someone is saying this, George. I couldn’t agree with you more! I’m tired of the endless pessimism, rooted in a misunderstanding that the means of delivery is not the same as the value of the content. I was probably lucky to leave journalism for nearly a decade between 2000 and 2008, when much of the devastation of the old model occurred. Coming back into it, with a few corporate management skills learnt along the way, and shorn of all legacy costs, we’ve created our own content wholesaling business newswire, which has been profitable since its first year of operation, means I am an optimist for the future of journalism. Digital technology has handed the means of production to the workers. It’s just that a lot of the workers haven’t noticed yet or don’t know how to react.

  3. Dear Mr Brock,

    I just watched your interview on the BBC programme “Daily Politics”.
    Fascinating and very informative insight in to the world of journalism and the legal definition of a “Journalist”.

    I’ve pondered on the subject in my mind in the past and who or what is a Journalist.

    I will endeavour to buy your newly published book and very much look forward to reading it.

    I’ve also bookmarked your web sight, which has also grabbed my attention.

    Thank you very much.

    All the best,

    Levent