Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Emily Bell on The Future of Journalism

[UPDATE You can now read Emily's own account of her lecture here.]

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a free lecture given by Emily Bell, head of digital content at Guardian News and Media, at University College Falmouth, where Emily has just been appointed visiting lecturer professor to the college's increasingly highly-regarded media degree courses.

Emily's topic was Journalism Ten Years From Now - a massively contentious topic as advertising revenues and print circulations plummet, editorial staffs shrink, new digital and social media platforms spring up everywhere and knowledgeable amateurs with blogs provide an increasing number of alternative, authoritative information sources.

Unlike net-culture visionary Clay Shirky, though, Emily doesn't think that print journalism has no future. Print will remain an important part of reaching the audience - but it will not be the primary conduit for journalism in ten years' time. Instead, going by the 'clues' we can pick up from the way journalism is changing today, journalism in ten years will have some or all of the following characteristics:

1. It will go where the audience is. Instead of hoping that people will go to their website to read or watch the news, journalists will need to take their stories out to where the readers and viewers are. Today, that means publishing stories on Twitter, on YouTube, on Facebook, as podcasts on iTunes, and so on. In ten years' time, those platforms might be different, but the principle will remain - journalists will have to take their stories to where the audience is.

2. Journalism will be networked, not siloed. Journalists will need to act as hubs, rather than destinations. They will need to create communities around themselves, linking and pointing to other stories, and connecting readers and viewers with other interesting people and information, not necessarily from their own organisation. This means getting involved in conversations with readers and viewers, rather than just publishing once and be done with it.

3. Journalists will need to be very reliable and trustworthy. Enabling readers to comment publicly on stories means that journalists can no longer get away with shoddy work - readers can and will set facts straight, add new information and deconstruct 'spin'. Part of the reason why the BBC's Robert Peston has become such a phenomenon is that his obvious deep knowledge of the finance industry means his stories and opinions are trusted.

4. Journalists will need to be ready to share information whenever they have it and in whatever way will communicate it best to the audience. This means they will need to be skilled not just in writing or broadcasting, but also in blogging, podcasting, video-recording, photography and so on, and have the technical skills to get that content out to the audience (in all the places that the audience resides) quickly.

5. Journalism will no longer be possible without the audience. Thanks to advances in mobile phone technology, nearly everyone carries digital recording equipment now, so there are 'digital witnesses' everywhere. This does not mean there is no role any more for professional journalism, though - Emily gave the example of Ian Tomlinson's death during the G20 protests: if it had not been for the fact that the Guardian had paid a reporter (Paul Lewis) to stay on top of the story and keep it high-profile, the hedge fund manager who had the crucial video evidence would not have bothered looking through all of his footage to find it and hand it to the Guardian, and the police would not have been held to account. Collaborations like these help journalism to expose cover-ups, untruths and miscarriages of justice - one of its most important roles.

Emily pointed out that all this is well and good, but what most people want to know is: where will the money come from to pay for all this professional, multi-platform, 'always-on' journalism? The truth is that no one knows, but there are some points that are worth making, viz:

1. News has never been profitable. Sky News isn't profitable; it's subsidised by other Murdoch enterprises. The Guardian isn't profitable; it's funded by a trust. BBC News isn't profitable; it's funded by the licence fee. It's very difficult to make a profit from journalism, although some new models are showing small profits, such as VillageSoup, a hyperlocal news community organisation in the US.

2. There is no point asking people to pay for online content; they won't. Emily said that people who are suggesting this as a solution now weren't online in 2001 when it was first tried and proven not to work.

3. Advertising won't go away - businesses will always want to communicate to customers - but revenues from advertising will never (again) be able to pay for modern news organisations.

Despite all this, Emily is optimistic that journalism as a profession will find ways to survive - as long as there are people who are passionate about uncovering and communicating the truth about important issues affecting our lives.

There followed a Q&A, which covered questions including:

1. Will we see an increasing in 'entrepreneurial journalism'? Emily said that examples like Rick Waghorn in the UK and Jeff Jarvis in the US show that there is a market for independent, authoritative journalists who can attract large audiences to a blog and make enough money from it to maintain it full-time.

2. What is Emily's view of user-generated journalism? Emily said there has been too much focus on the downside of allowing comments on news stories ('the noise of the rabble') and not enough focus on the fact that those comments throw up interesting new information, correction of inaccuracies etc. It is contributing to better, more accurate journalism. Media and politics have been too disconnected from the people they represent for too long - they need to be collaborative, not one-way communications.

3. Here in Cornwall there is a big digital divide - a lot of people do not have broadband/internet access. How will journalism serve their needs in the digital age? Emily said that mobile phone technology will soon make decent-speed internet access almost ubiquitous, even for the country's poorest people and remotest communities. The more pertinent problem is that many people do not and will not read the news - and that will not change, no matter what technology they have access to. 'You can watch TV all day and not see a single minute of news'. The real challenge - for journalists and politicians - will be how to get information to those who currently choose not to receive it.

4. How does Emily deal with information overload? Emily said she looks to filters like following trusted people on Twitter and using RSS to filter news and other information.

And that's it - if you were at the event, please feel free to add anything I've missed or correct anything I've got wrong.


Andy Coote said...

Saves me the job of transcribing my notes. Very full and comprehensive report.

Where I think that emily did agree with Clay Shirky was in his comment "old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place".

For that reason alone, the future of journalism is as yet unmappable and will keep us fascinated as we take our part in its unfolding.


Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

Hi Andy, yes indeed, I didn't mean to imply that Emily was at odds with Clay Shirky, just that she's more optimistic about the future of print journalism than he is.

Sorry I missed you last night - hope to see you at CSMC next week.

Anonymous said...

An impressive precis of Emily Bell's lecture Sam (one for your portfolio perhaps?) Just on a point of accuracy -- Emily has been appointed a Visiting Professor, rather than Lecturer, to UCF.

Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

Hello Anonymous, I'm not Sam, but I will certainly correct the inaccuracy - thank you!

surf98/dgeorge said...

Really good account of a very interesting insightful lecture.
I left the Tremough Campus more hopeful (even perhaps a little excited) for the future of digital media. Safe in the knowledge that there are enough thinking people (especially in Cornwall an area easily forgotten by the London centric) to see a way forward in a global market.

Andrew said...

Excellent treatment of a fascinating topic. Thank you. BUT -- I have a concern. When viewing old-style media (newspapers & TV), audiences were exposed to a range of stories, views and perspectives (albeit not nearly as diverse as publishers liked to think) -- but in the future you describe it seems that audiences will only engage with journalists and writers that they already agree with. Am I the only one concerned that the future of journalism / media will promote more insularity and merely reinforce the viewers pre-existing biases?

Mary Spiro said...

Great read and important points. I wish I could have heard her live myself. I am sharing this with my fellow "citizen journalists" at the in the US. I am the Baltimore Science News Examiner.

Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

DG: Yes, I think (and in fact as Emily and @pinman said on Tuesday), that Cornwall has an opportunity to lead the way in the evolution of journalism in the UK, given the breadth and calibre of the digital media courses at UCF.

Andrew: That's an interesting point and one that wasn't really touched on in the lecture. However, if we're looking for clues to the future in what's going on in journalism today, I think the opposite may actually happen.

If you read the reader comments on any online news story today (certainly here in the UK), it's more a case of people engaging with writers they *don't* agree with - often very aggressively, as they feel aggrieved that their own viewpoint hasn't been taken into account.

Today, those comments often tend towards the abusive, but as time goes on and more journalists start to engage in public debate with their readers, and readers get over the novelty of being able to comment anonymously online (which is partly what gives rise to the abuse), we should see individual news stories becoming starting points for discussion and further exploration, in the course of which a wide range of viewpoints will be expressed and made public for anyone to read.

I think this was the point that Emily was making about how there's been too much focus to date on the downside of allowing readers to comment on stories, and not enough on the benefits.

Mary: Thank you - it was a very good lecture and a very good summary of where journalism is (or may be) going. It's a shame it's not available online anywhere as there were many more interesting points that I didn't include in my write-up.

onliner said...

Good write up. Thanks.

I too think that attempts to charge for online news are doomed, but according to Emily's own paper today, Mr Murdoch disagrees.

Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

I saw that - good luck to him getting people to subscribe to the Sun and the Sunday Times online. I bet most subs to the WSJ online are paid for by companies, not individuals. You're not going to get that with the Sun.

Tim Warren said...

Onliner: Ah, I wondered if someone would mention that here before I finished today's blog post... It seems Murdochs's done a bit of a U-turn over the last 18 months...

For anyone only monitoring this post; I also posted a link to Steven Johnson and Paul Starr's exchange of correspondence re. the future of journalism in Prospect magazine this month. Worth a read.

onliner said...

loool! What a U-turn! Clearly he's getting desperate (in the light of his 97% drop in profits in the Newscorp newspaper division) and has no more idea about the future than any of us.

Somebody should book him a place at Emily's next talk. ;)

Anonymous said...

Its interesting Emily said this:

2. There is no point asking people to pay for online content; they won't. Emily said that people who are suggesting this as a solution now weren't online in 2001 when it was first tried and proven not to work.Because a day later Rupert Murdoch announced plans to charge for news on all NewsCorp sites within a year.

The other interesting point that Emily raises is the burden that will be on journalists to do more--and as a journalist I could not agree more. There is no longer a single deadline--print or broadcast. Our job is about content gathering and dissemination. The sooner we turn to that model, the better it will be for everyone.

Charles Letterman said...

Many thanks for this report, very interesting views.

Sadly the advent of 'The Internet' blinded many organisation's commercial senses. If paid-for content models had been introduced in 1997 they may have stood a chance. Consumers will of course still pay for unique quality content, but sadly this will never now extend to news.