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Futures for Journalism

If it’s Thursday, it must be Wales: I’ve made it to the Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff, which starts with a keynote by Emily Bell. She begins by noting that discussions about the future of journalism only started in the UK with the Murdoch papers’ move to Wapping, and it has been mainly about the role of technology in the transformation of journalism; before then, there was a strong commitment to continue doing journalism as it had always been done.

Today, journalism is becoming less defined by the business models that support it, and more by the activities which it consists of – types of journalistic activity are now scattered widely across many domains. Journalism is a craft, and arguing over who might or might not be a journalism today is futile. If Julian Assange or Rebekah Brooks say they’re journalists, or a random citizen taking first-hand footage does so, who is to say they aren’t? We may gather random forms of activity, and ask whether they are journalistic, but there’s little point in doing so any more.

Journalism continues to evolve, and to pick a single future trajectory for it is pointless; it has a future as a profession, perhaps, but also as an ecosystem, as a set of activities, as a technological process, and so on. We are now beginning to write that future, or indeed those futures.

Key problems that matter most in this are the futures of good and bad journalism, and we can learn something about this from what has been said about their past trajectories. One argument, for example, has been that there is a decline in funding, and thus there will be fewer journalists, and indeed fewer journalists doing good journalism, and thus, finally, more bad journalism; people supporting this argument argued that there would be more Internet-based, real-time, breathless storychasing journalism, and the future of journalism would be dominated by technologists knowing nothing about the ‘art’ of journalism.

This is the argument rolled out against the role of Google News as a disruption of journalistic practices and business models, for example; but these changes actually favour good journalism, Emily suggests. The disaggregation of journalism by search engines and other disruptions has been seen as a negative, but it also enables journalism to reach out into other disciplines and learn from them, as well as to bring those elements back into journalism. Journalists are now beginning to realise that these opportunities are there for the taking, and so the future of journalism lies beyond its own borders.

The argument that journalism would decline because it would be increasingly dominated by non-journalists (especially technologists) is being challenged, indeed, by the fact that journalism schools are now embracing the innovative approaches which new technologies are making possible; journalism students are beginning to find new ways of thinking about how to do journalism well. As digital publishing innovates, so, increasingly, does journalism as a specific form of publishing, Emily says. She notes the example of students using Storify to generate live blogs about stories they were covering, and says that they learnt about storytelling in the process – and that’s just one form of new technology for covering those stories.

Further, the inclusion of ‘the great unjournalistic masses’ has been a net positive, even in spite of the significant anxiety which it has caused in the past. Emily notes Andrew Chadwick’s ECPR paper (which I liveblogged here) on hybrid media as pointing to the possibilities here – these possibilities provide a rich opportunity for the future of journalism. The way natural and other disasters have been covered (for example, the Fukushima meltdown) this year has also shown opportunities in this space. This doesn’t usurp journalistic skills, but means that the ability to collaborate now becomes a major need for journalists.

This includes social and other online media. The Guardian has been doing good work analysing tweet traffic about the London riots, for example – and we may now need a place to collect and store journalistic datasets like this, Emily suggests. What we need to push back against in this context, too, is the idea that ‘instant journalism is bad journalism’ – the proliferation of mobile devices has been seen as a challenge by many journalists, and as part of the commodification of journalistic activity (‘hamster wheel journalism’), but it’s time to move past this, and to find effective ways to work beyond specific journalistic platforms and use whatever is at hand and useful.

The coverage of Hurricane Irene is another example in this context: much of the mainstream media coverage was overly focussed only on the five boroughs of New York City, and dwindled when that emergency passed. Coverage of other areas was much more effective in social and online media spaces; Emily points to the small Watershed Post Website as a particularly good example here. Sites like this were active in aggregating resources and providing information in real-time in innovative and user-friendly formats; this is done by people who are not actually journalists per se, but do journalistic work.

Of course, the lack of revenue is also often seen as a negative for journalism, and leads to more bad journalism – but it’s simply a reality which we now face, and won’t change any time soon. Key themes in this have been the need for journalists to understand their business model and find more cost-effective ways of doing journalism, and the underlying realisation that digital journalism simply won’t ever generate as much income as conventional forms, regardless of new business models or technological solutions being tried. That said, the worst excesses of journalism (think News of the World) have taken place in conventional media, and journalism like this which simply chases funding is already a problem.

The collapse of income streams is also driving innovation, on the other hand. The decline of regional journalism in the U.S., for example, has necessitated a complete rethink, and one solution for sustainability which has been introduced is to push it beyond its traditional limits. This has included introducing ‘open newsrooms’, as at The Register Citizen, where regular citizens can participate in editorial meetings – whether such models will work remains to be seen, but there are great opportunities for researchers to track and evaluate such experiments. If they don’t, of course, the only alternative is the death of regional journalism in the U.S., which must be avoided.

Another innovative model is Pro Publica, funded by philanthropy and donations to engage in investigative journalism; it has now generated a number of Pulitzer prizes and has embraced a range of innovative digital ways of doing things. It is sometimes criticised as simply a novelty operation, but it points to real opportunities in this space.

Data, mobile devices, content management systems, and other technologies, then, all play an important role for the future of journalism – certainly in the western world; we also need to better understand news markets in other areas, which may remain comparatively underresearched. There are now, at any rate, plenty of clues to where the future of journalism, and the future of good journalism, may lie; a lack of funding may in fact be a benefit which drives innovation, and we have a collective capacity to make this work – but we need to look up- and outwards and into other disciplines, and thereby do our own good journalism better.