The New New Journalism

Last night, Kevin and I went to the POLIS/LSE Media Group event, The New New Journalism, a panel discussion with Charlie Beckett, Founding Director of POLIS; Tessa Mayes, campaigning investigative journalist; Bill Thompson, journalist, commentator and technology critic; and Julia Whitney, Head of Designs & User Experience at the BBC. Nico Macdonald chaired.

I’m always wary of anything around the subject of how journalism is changing, particularly if it’s called “The New New Journalism”, but Nico assured us that that was irony. Unfortunately, it did rather set the tone for an evening of hashing over old ground and getting distracted from the real problems that journalists face. Whilst an introduction to each panellist’s thoughts is up on the website, one could probably summarise it like this:

  • Charlie Beckett: Optimistic and positive, although not quite sure how we get from where we are to where we could be.
  • Tessa Mayes: Over-enamoured of investigative journalism and distracted by concepts of The Truth and Objectivity.
  • Bill Thompson: Interestingly pragmatic, believing that the market will always want journalists and will find a way to pay for them whilst also acknowledging that journalism isn’t a necessary part of society.
  • Julia Whitney: We need to pay more attention to user experience and design, it’s all one big ecosystem.

Charlie was by far the most hopeful, saying that new technologies brought with them great opportunities, particularly for creating a partnership between journalists and the public. He said we need more networked journalism. He also pointed at some local blogs, such as Kings Cross Local Environment. But although he painted a fairly rosy picture, he also said that he wasn’t sure how things would pan out, or how we’d get to his vision of a networked future.

I found Bill’s comments interesting. He’s not just an entertaining speaker, but he’s also very thought-provoking, especially when he talked about how, when you get right down to it, society doesn’t need journalism to survive. It’s something that bugs Kevin and me – this sense of entitlement that many journalists have, the attitude that they are owed respect and a living because they are journalists. It’s an attitude that is massively out of proportion to reality.

Indicative of that view was a comment from one of the journalists in the audience that even if people didn’t trust reporters, they still need them. That comment alone speaks volumes about what is wrong with journalism. Arguing that standards set journalists apart from mere citizen journalists and bloggers, but then arguing that a measure of those standards – namely, the trust of our readers and viewers – is immaterial, is itself a measure of the double standards rife within the industry.

It would be an overly simplistic reading of Tessa’s argument to say that she represents the attitude that journalists are owed a living, but she was attempting to elevate journalism to a lofty cultural standing as if it was like opera, classical music or the works of Shakespeare. She argued that the pursuit of The Truth was a noble and necessary goal for professional journalists, as if the hundreds of words written on tight deadline were somehow in the same vein, or even had the same goal, as Plato’s Republic.

These arguments go beyond rationalisations for the profession and actually strive to become justification for state or civic support of journalism to shore up its broken business model. It raises journalism to such a position that state support becomes necessary because it is “too important” to be left to the tastes of the public and the pressures of the market. However, whether or not this was Tessa’s intention, the cultural argument takes journalism down a post-modern rabbit hole that doesn’t address the issues that face journalism and journalists: Dwindling audience, dwindling trust and dwindling revenues.

Julia’s comments I thought were interesting, but in many ways were a little lost in journalistic navel gazing that went on. One point she made that was interesting was a quote from a study of teen attitudes towards sex ed information. (She thought it was a Harvard University study but wasn’t sure about the sourcing.) The teens assessed the validity of the information based on the quality of its presentation.

But overall, I don’t think that the arguments we heard last night have moved us on very far from a discussion that I participated in at the LSE in February 2005, called The Fall and Fall of Jouranalism (notes from Mick Fealty).

The straw men put forth last night, some from the panellists, but many from the audience, included:

  • The one about quality, wherein journalists apparently are the only people capable of producing quality content. Obviously this is a selective definition of ‘journalist’ which doesn’t include any of the tabloid hacks.
  • The one about the truth, wherein everyone gets sucked into a pointless philosophical discussion about whether or not the truth is exists, and if so/not, what should we do about it.
  • The one about technology being subservient to information, which is really code for “geeks and designers should be subservient to journalists”

But there are a lot of monsters under the bed that didn’t get discussed at all:

  • Integration. In an ideal world, integration would mean cross-discipline teams learning about each other’s medium and finding ways in which they can work together to best tell a story and engage their audience. In reality, this is too often about senior management in the legacy business fighting to retain their primacy and pushing digital staff and managers aside. Online journalists often have their digital experience deemed irrelevant because it’s not seen as “journalism”, but production, which legacy managers believe can be taught to anyone.
  • Dysfunctional management. I made this point at the very end of the evening, that much of the problem in news organisations is down to broken management structures and dysfunctional management techniques. Bad decisions are being made by people unwilling to listen to those with the knowledge, but who are several paygrades down the food chain. Good journalists do not always make good managers and, ironically, are not always the best communicators.
  • Owning change. There’s way too much squabbling over who owns the change in news organisations. There’s not enough emphasis on what that change is, and too much focus on turf wars.

Unless we start honestly addressing these issues, journalism isn’t going to go anywhere. We’re not going to solve these problems overnight, because they are self-perpetuating. Bad managers don’t just suddenly learn how to manage well. Bad decisions and policies don’t just suddenly come good. What’s needed is a radical shake up, but who in the industry has both the nous and the political weight to do it? Who’s got the brains and the balls to turn round to senior management and tell them they are doing things wrong, and can get them to listen? There are some very talented and smart people chipping away at the problem, but I don’t know if they can make a significant difference before it’s too late.

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