Future of journalism: Uncertain but not hopeless

As a journalist who I am sure has been (and possibly still is) considered ‘barking mad’ by some of my colleagues in the industry, quite a bit of what Clay Shirky wrote in his post about newspapers thinking the unthinkable resonated with me. I’m still digesting it because I think the main thrust of what he said was that the industry is entering a period of great uncertainty. I saw this day coming in August of 1993 when I saw Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, in a student computer lab at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. As I wrote in my first post here on Strange Attractor, I knew that the web would fundamentally change journalism.

It took longer than I thought it would. After I left university and went to Washington DC for my first jobs, it was like taking a step backwards into internet history compared to where the University of Illinois was in 1994. Did I know where it was all headed in 1994? Absolutely not. But I’d say it’s a lot easier to see where the internet is heading now than where we’re heading in journalism.

I’m still digesting what Clay has written, but it seemed to me that he was attempting to move beyond the self-denial that the industry has exhibited for much of the past 15 years.

It isn’t that newspapers didn’t see the internet coming. The problem was that newspaper companies and, to be honest, most print journalists tried to adapt the internet to newspapers rather than adapt the news business to the internet. If most (not all by any means) print journalists were honest with ourselves, we would stop trying to lay the blame entirely at the feet of management and avaricious owners and own up to our own resistance to the internet. Too few of us went running boldly to the embrace the future. There’s still time, and it’s better to move towards the future on your own steam than be pushed as many of us are now.

Clay was trying to turn a page and say we’re in the midst of revolution and have been for a while not. Get over it.

The internet is a disruptive technology, not something that politely challenges that existing order. Now that the revolution has met the worst recession in at least 60 years, we’re entering extremely uncertain times.

As Clay wrote:

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.

But let’s not confuse uncertainty with hopelessness. Journalists are not in a hopeless situation. Any journalist can now become a publisher, and from my own experience, regaining your voice is liberating, empowering and also professionally beneficial. Not only is the cost of publishing approaching zero, the cost of experimentation is too. We don’t have to pay for presses. We don’t even have to pay for desk-top publishing. You can do broadcast-quality interviews with a person on the other side of the world for free with Skype. Technology can threaten our business model but it can be liberating for our journalism. We just have to do what we always done, great journalism, and build a great community around it. Honestly, since I started blogging and doing social media journalism five years ago, it’s been some of the most gratifying journalism of my career.

As Steve Yelvington wrote recently, “We don’t have a clue where this is going … and that’s OK.” Steve was writing about the launch of the Guardian’s Open Platform (the Guardian being my job). Steve would love to have the resources we have at the Guardian or those of the BBC or the New York Times to launch a platform, but he doesn’t need them. He’s building his sites on the open-source platform, Drupal, and it’s army of users and developers around the world are constantly working to extend it. You don’t need expensive technology to innovate.

We’re entering a post-industrial era in journalism. It’s scary. It’s uncertain for journalists, but just remember, it’s not hopeless.

3 thoughts on “Future of journalism: Uncertain but not hopeless

  1. Bill,

    I agree with you and your post. Suw and I have actually been talking a lot recently about asking: What is the problem that journalism solves? And now, I think it’s important to ask: What problems does journalism solve better than other forms of providing information?

    Steve Yelvington worked on a project in the US called Newspaper Next, which applied the theories of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, to newspapers. The problem with newspapers as they are currently configured is that the problems they once solved are now being solved by other services more efficiently and at less cost. That doesn’t mean that newspapers are useless, but it does mean that in these challenging times, newspaper managers need to be a lot clearer about the ‘point of journalism’, the unique solutions that journalism and only journalism can provide.

    Thanks for the comment, and I’m sure that this discussion will be rumbling around for the next few years. As the

  2. Bill,

    I agree with you and your post. Suw and I have actually been talking a lot recently about asking: What is the problem that journalism solves? And now, I think it’s important to ask: What problems does journalism solve better than other forms of providing information?

    Steve Yelvington worked on a project in the US called Newspaper Next, which applied the theories of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, to newspapers. The problem with newspapers as they are currently configured is that the problems they once solved are now being solved by other services more efficiently and at less cost. That doesn’t mean that newspapers are useless, but it does mean that in these challenging times, newspaper managers need to be a lot clearer about the ‘point of journalism’, the unique solutions that journalism and only journalism can provide.

    Thanks for the comment, and I’m sure that this discussion will be rumbling around for the next few years. As the State of the (US) Media Report 2009 says though, the time for coming up with answers is shorter now for many publications and for many journalists.

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