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
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.