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Four Reasons to Be Optimistic about the Future of Journalism

The first speaker in the next session at Future of Journalism is my QUT colleague Stephen Harrington, whose question is not only whether journalism is in crisis, but how we might be able to tell. He suggests that there may be four basic criteria for journalism’s health. The first of these, in ascending order of importance, is the number of outlets which exist in the media ecosystem. This is also least contentious: journalism is healthy when lots of it is being produced.

On this measure, though, journalism cannot be said to be in crisis today, and this is also an argument raised by Brian McNair in Cultural Chaos: there has now been an explosion in the amount of news being produced and shared, if not necessarily by professional journalists.

The second criterion is the diversity of outlets – and again there’s been a substantial increase in the range of outlets over the past twenty years, of course; such outlets now also include The Daily Show or the films of Michael Moore, as well as specialist news Websites, for example. The more (and more diverse) journalisms we now have, the more likely it is that the behaviour of the powerful is going to be interrogated by the media. The flipside of this, however, is that there may also be a tendency towards isolationism and groupthink: people might now seek out only those outlets whose coverage agrees with their established views and ideologies.

The third criterion is journalism’s critical interrogation of the three other estates. Here, our assessment is more problematic: today, we have more critical interrogation both of journalism itself and of other institutions than ever before, probably, but there are also real concerns about journalistic groupthink or self-censorship following the 11 September attacks and in the lead-up of the Iraq War, for example. At the same time, initiatives like WikiLeaks now also shine a light into some pretty unprecedented places.

The fourth criterion, finally, is journalism’s level of connection with its audiences. This is most important of all, and we can easily look to the declining rate of newspaper readership in many countries as a potential sign of trouble; however, this may also simply be a sign of fracturing, redistributing audiences, and may not indicate a total decline of interest in journalism by audiences. We’ve seen a massive increase in the ways in which audiences can connect with audiences, in fact; people might connect with news stories (and journalists themselves) in a wide variety of ways, especially also including social media, of course.

So, is journalism in trouble? Stephen suggests that there are reasons for optimism here; against each of the four criteria, journalism can be seen to be reasonably healthy. The final question to examine, however, is the question of funding for journalism; here, Stephen suggests that we should ignore it, because the changes occurring also make the question of financing journalism less straightforward. If journalism is as important as we keep saying it is, then profitability doesn’t matter: it will continue to find a way to survive.