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The Present of Journalism

So, last Saturday I went to the Future of Journalism event in Brisbane (and spoke on one of the panels). Contrary to my usual practice, I didn't live-blog the event - panel-based events are notoriously difficult to blog. Here, then, are some reflections on what I saw - adding to comments already posted by Mark Bahnisch, Marian Edmunds, Cameron Reilly, and Bronwen Clune, among others.

The event began well, with Margaret Simons setting the theme with her usual insightful comments. Her observations about the troubled economic future for the journalism industry (and here, especially newspapers) are perhaps nothing new to most of us (though still not necessarily fully appreciated by many journalists themselves), and the bleak future that this malaise points to especially for in-depth, costly, quality investigative journalism has been discussed in some detail already (including by Jason, Barry and me in the Club Bloggery series), but it was a useful framing for the panels to follow.

Two key points Margaret made bear repeating, however. On the one hand, that the link between the business of media and the practice of journalism is gradually being severed - it is increasingly possible for some forms of journalism to take place outside of the business environment (indeed, the best future for investigative journalism may now lie in funding by taxpayers, NGOs, or philanthropists, while quality political commentary in Australia is now found in citizen journalism sites more so than newspapers), while there is also a chance for journalists to extract themselves from employment by mainstream media organisations and set up shop on their own (something Margaret herself is currently attempting to do, of course).

On the other hand, then, this also requires journalists (and especially journalism students), to develop skills well beyond the standard journalistic craft. Margaret stressed quite strongly that journalism students would be well advised to learn about business plans, and to seek a possible professional future in alternative ventures rather than relying on the availability of employment in the mainstream industry.

Such views contrasted in interesting (and sometimes frustrating) ways with the panels of Griffith University journalism students and mainstream newspaper editors which followed. One of the students represented has already objected to the characterisation of their statements on the panel which I made at the conference, but I'll say it again - I didn't see a great deal of thinking outside of the box, that is, outside of the conventions of mainstream journalism, from the students' panel.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect too much here - the students had clearly been briefed by conference organisers to spend some time discussing their personal news usage, which wasn't all that interesting -, but the perspectives they represented struck me as rather insular, and I didn't get the sense that they were particularly well prepared for the significant industry upheaval which has been foreshadowed (and, in the case of Fairfax, may already been underway). I don't mean to overly criticise the students themselves in this context - rather, I'd suggest that for the most part, journalism courses in Australia and many other countries tend to prepare their graduates for the present rather than the future of journalism. Learning from the wise old heads (at university, and later during cadetships in news organisations) is fine as far as it goes, but their perspectives, honed in years and decades of newsroom socialisation, are limited.

Just how limited, in fact, became apparent in the following panel with editors of the Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail. Titled 'adapt or die', and recast as 'innovate or die' by moderator Hugh Martin from APN, based on what the editors of these commercial newspapers had to say the odds seem stacked in favour of the latter possibility. Courier-Mail editor David Fagan's response to the structural challenges before him was mainly to point to the paper's use of more engaging graphics; he also noted its continuing expansion into Brisbane's outer suburbs, addressing especially recent new Queenslanders moving up here from the southern states, and the simultaneous switch to the tabloid format more favoured by former readers of, say, the Daily Telegraph. (Fagan himself studiously avoided the T-word, of course, referring to the new format as a 'compact' instead.)

Not a great deal of innovation or even adaptation in the face of new challenges especially from online news sites was evident here - just the intention to keep fighting for every reader by aggressively marketing the established brand and product. And yes, that's a strategy which is likely to work for the Courier-Mail for some time to come, as any loss of existing readers may be counterbalanced by the significant influx in new arrivals to the state - but that doesn't make it sustainable in the long run.

Real innovation in journalism in Australia is probably going to happen around the edges rather than at the core of the journalism industry, then - in Crikey, if we're lucky, and in the wilderness beyond, more likely. The highly concentrated media ownership structures of the Australian media industry are partly responsible for this, of course - in an environment where most Australian cities are journalistic one horse towns at best, there has historically been little incentive to engage in content and format innovation.

I would have liked to spend more of the time allotted to my own panel - with Mark Bahnisch and Marian Edmunds, and moderated by Cristen Tilley - on a discussion of such innovation where it has already begun, but I think we did get stuck a little too much on the 'amateurs vs. professionals' debate which I had hoped to avoid. I'll take some of the blame for this - I think I got the point across that this debate is stupidly reductive, and that the haughty petulance towards citizen journalism expressed in a number of recent editorials is laughably ill-informed, but not so much the point that there are better opportunities for exploring the future of journalism if we're prepared to examine projects that do already engage in Pro-Am journalistic processes. Ah well.

Overall, though, what also struck me during the event was the very blinkered vision of many in the mainstream industry. I got the sense that there's something not unlike Stockholm syndrome at work here - the longer you work in the industry, the harder is it to imagine any other way of working than by following the routines established long ago. (A recent post by Bronwen Clune about the troubles at Fairfax seems to echo that sentiment.) This, I'm sorry to say, seems doubly so not for journalists, but for many journalism educators, who continue to churn out industry-ready cadets for an industry that's increasingly less ready to take them on. I can't think of many journalism courses which have already responded to Margaret Simons's challenge to incorporate the entrepreneurial skills required for journalism graduates to set up their own operations rather than rely on employment in the mainstream industry.

Many if not most other information and knowledge industries have already moved to put much more emphasis on such independent entrepreneurship, in order to weather the challenges of portfolio employment and precarious labour environments which Mark Deuze has outlined so clearly in his recent book Media Work. (Other than journalism, off the top of my head I can think of only one clear example which similarly has yet to come to terms with its emerging new environment: academia. Here, too, we all too often take for granted a future of employment and prosperity, even in spite of some very clear challenges on the horizon, and real innovation remains limited to a few leading lights in the sector.)

So, overall, some interesting insights into the present state of journalism in Australia. The future of journalism, however, remains very much unclear.

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i think your comments re teaching a journalism-to-come versus a journalism-has-been are spot on, and i can also empathise with your disdain over students' reactions to this shift. i taught a first year journalism course last semester and tried to articulate what was at stake in the current juncture, but my limited experience meant that i largely failed to make an impact on what are basically dear beliefs held by aspiring journalism students. my limited experience hampered my efforts in two ways. firstly i did not have the required knowledge of the industry (and a way to incoporate evidence into the course) to frame the shift in a useful way for the students to grasp why it matttered and why they need to do something about it. secondly my own relative youth (@ 29) meant they simply did not believe what i was saying and found it easier to disengage to play the student game of scraping through on pass marks and not critically engaging with the substance of the course.

on further reflection, there are four points i would make to any aspiring journalist currently studying in a journalism course:

1) reconfigure beliefs about what it means to do journalism. invoking the walkley's as evidence of quality journalism is a waste of time (as the student does on his/her blog linked to in your post). the walkley's are like a platonic ideal that may be realised in a very few specific places, but everywhere else are like the shadows of quality journalism. what do students think they will actually be doing as a journalist? how many jobs become available at the so-called 'quality' papers or whatever compared to other journalistic-writing jobs? (not many, i constantly look.) writers trained as journalists work across a very diverse range of jobs with myriad responsibilities.

2) political economy of the industry. last night at gleebooks we had an event with peter manning and two authors who had written books about iraq. one major issue debated between the authors was about the quality of journalistic practice in iraq. there was a very interesting discussion about the contradictory pressures from the desire to produce 'quality' work and the need to fulfill the capitalist burden of the content-audience relation and giving readers what they want. manning talked about being the executive producer of four corners and how if they ran a story that rated poorly it didn't matter. he posed the question to the most critical author about what journalists should do in situations where they face corporate pressure about how and what they report. the author could not give an answer. what will journalists be writing? will it be 'quality' work?

3) action rather than profession. journalism has to be thought less in terms of a profession defined by relations to corporations, workplaces and the mode of news distribution (platonic ideal) and more in terms of a processual capacity involving relations to current events. this processual relation involves the skill-based capacity to pursue facts, the capacity to write up and communicate these facts into a narrative (that is more or less engaging for readers), and a relation to a means of distribution of any mode. so less about what journalists are and more about what they do, and what they do does not have to be done by a 'journalist'.

4) who needs journalists? this is where the entrepreneurial mode of the profession is very important. the irony of the mainstream media is that they do not actually need journalists. the sooner journalism students (and probably journalists) realise this the better. the only reason the mainstream media needs someone with the capacities of a journalist is so it appears as if the mainstream media is producing journalism. they use journalists to capture and reproduce the interests of an audience so the audience can be sold to advertisers. facts and stories become tools for the collective individuation of an audience. people who need journalists are those that need the facts and an engaging story about the facts so that people will read it.