The future of journalism is not in the mythologising its past

When I discovered blogging six years ago, one thing that instantly got me hooked was the conversation and the community. Soon after meeting Suw, I started writing with her here on Strange Attractor about my passion for the future of journalism. After a bit of a downturn in the journalism blogging community a few years ago, I’ve felt a new energy this year. One of the fellow travellers I’ve recently ‘met’ through blogging is Reg Chua, Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post. He blogs at (Re)Structuring Journalism, and he’s been commenting here for several months.

On my last post profiling regional news site TBD, I wrote this footnote:

It’s difficult to make a business built on investigations. Accountability journalism is important, but let’s be honest, investigations have always been an expensive and relatively small part of what we do.

Reg had this to say in a great comment:

And it’s also true that investigations have traditionally been a small part of what news organizations do; there’s a lot of harking back to an imagined past that didn’t exist, where every paper was a paragon of public service and broke important stories of official corruption every day. That’s not to say it’s not an issue that old media is in trouble; only that we should recognize what we did and what we are – because only then can we really move forward.

Spot on. There is a lot of mythologising about journalism right now. Psychologically, I can understand this. Journalists feel threatened, and we’re trying to make the case of how essential we are to democracy. We’re trying to make the case that what we do is indispensable. I understand this, but I think that sometimes this imagined past is getting in the way of creating a new sustainable future for journalism.

I’ve spent most of my career working for news organisations that had a strong public service ethos, the BBC and The Guardian. The BBC is publicly funded, and The Guardian is supported by the Scott Trust. They are unique organisations, and they provided me with unique opportunities to develop the type of journalism I practice. Even with their unique funding, these organisations are under pressure.

The business of newspaper journalism has been severely disrupted, and it will take creativity, honesty and hard work to create new sustainable businesses to support sufficient journalistic capacity to support democratic societies.

3 thoughts on “The future of journalism is not in the mythologising its past

  1. Agreed, mythologising isn’t just misplaced, it’s a smokescreen for ideas to make a better journalism. “What someone somewhere doesn’t want you to put in the paper” is such a cliche but it’s everywhere. Think about arts profiles and surprising science and it’s so much bigger than just the (admittedly very important) deep and dark investigations. But aside from the areas that are already exploring the future (Guardian, NPR, science bloggers, storify, etc), is there another way of changing the plot?

  2. Matt,

    You’re right. Some of it is mythologising, a wistfulness for a journalistic Utopia. However, some of it is a smokescreen or at least smoke. Smoke that comes from quite a bit of fire from the conflict inside of news oganisations right now, even those exploring the future.

    How to change the plot? We’re at a point where the plot is changing whether we journalists like it or not. I guess the interesting thing is that there are those locked in that conflict, and then there are a lot of us doing what we’ve been doing for a long time: Just getting on with it.

    How would you change the plot?

  3. Kevin, thanks for the shout-out. I posted longer comments on my blog, trying to address Matt’s very good question. How do we change the plot?

    One thought is simply that we need to educate people better about our past – our real golden age, warts and all. But I recognize that doesn’t get us all that far. Another, as you say, is to just get on with it. Although I do think mythologies are useful in some ways. And so maybe part of it is trying to create new mythologies that don’t put us – and the way we do things – in the center of them, but instead speak to the aspirations we have for the new world of information.

    And I suppose one more thing we can do is constantly reinvent new forms of journalism – perhaps that’s why I’m big on databases and structured journalism – because they don’t lend themselves easily to comparisons with old mythologies. If you’re building motorcycles, it’s hard to compare them with the good old days of horse and buggy.


Comments are closed.