Interrogating journalism: Asking how audiences are informed in the 21st Century

As journalists, we know how important it is to ask the right question in an interview. As we try to grapple with the disruptive forces that have been eroding the audience for print journalism, asking the right questions has never been more important. The questions, and the way that we frame the challenges that our industry faces, will determine whether many of our news organisations will survive. I was reminded of this when reading an incredibly insightful post by George Brock, a friend and the Head of Journalism at City University London. George took the recent report on innovation that the New York Times carried out and framed the challenge as much more fundamental than the authors of the report did.

The overwhelming impression given by the young guns of the NYT is that they don’t want to ask any question which might pose existential questions for their own institution. How do people learn about the world now? How does information really move and why? How do we use these flows to tell people what we think they should know? Does “journalism” have a role in this?

George is spot on. The questions have to be this probing.

Most legacy organisations understand that they need to change, to innovate, to do things that they currently aren’t do. However, what the New York Times report points to is that it is very difficult for traditional news organisations to get away from what they have traditionally done. Culture is fundamental to The Times, and it binds its staff together. However, culture can also bind news organisations to their past. The Times’ report talks about how dominant Page 1 thinking still is.

I have seen so many reports over the years that start down the innovation road, but they somehow get stuck in the gravity well of their own massive sense of the value of what they currently do and often how they currently do it. They cannot reach escape velocity to explore the new frontiers of how people are being informed in the 21st Century.

As Clay Christensen says, the jobs that our audiences need doing don’t change, but how they do those jobs does. What jobs are our audiences trying to get done, and how do we compete in doing those jobs?

George is asking an important question. Journalism has played a key role in informing people, but is journalism as we have practiced it the way that most people are now informed? If the question is no, what is the future for news organisations?