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.

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