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July 2, 2008

Beyond churnalism: the brave new world of journalism online

Filed under: ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, new books, seminars — news_editor @ 12:15 am

Optimism shines through as three top writers ponder the future of journalism. John Mair reports on a fascinating debate

Journalism tomes are like buses: you wait for them and then they come along in threes. This summer has seen the publication of three works of substance; Nick Davies’ Flat earth news (see my review in the last Ethical Space), Adrian Monck’s Can we trust the media? (reviewed in the next Ethical Space) and Charlie Beckett’s Supermedia: How we can save journalism and journalism save the world (also reviewed in the next ES). The three authors all appeared on one platform (literally) at the Groucho Club on London at a Media Society mini-debate in June. Fascinating it was too.

Davies is the star of the show. So far Flat Earth News has sold 17,000 copies and generated much debate, some heat and some light. He has confirmed the prejudices of some, annoyed a good many others. Davies is no ingenue: he’s a former Journalist of the Year, Reporter of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year. He used his skills with words to the full at the Groucho debate staying well away from the well-worn ‘churnalism’ theme of his book. Instead, he took out his crystal ball and gazed to the online future - even then hedging his bets. ‘There are too many variables to make any firm predictions,’ he told his distinguished audience, ‘but the old financial model is dying and something needs to take its place.’

That might be the online newspapers. But, he added: ‘Clearly, asking people to pay for content does not seem to be a viable proposition, so newspapers have to rely on online advertising, which is not able to generate anywhere near the revenues that print advertising does.’ This was a circle which was difficult to square.

Davies applauded Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of Guardian Newspapers, and his online strategy: ‘Rusbridger is trying to build a massive global brand with the Guardian and Observer online - and the attractions of this seem clear in terms of the savings from not having printing and distribution costs.’ Rusbridger’s Guardian was moving into international brand cyberspace along with the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and others. ‘You move from being a national newspaper competing for market share with other national newspapers to an internationally recognized information source’ was his analysis of their aim. But he acknowledged the Guardian was a special case because of its unique ownership arrangements: ‘As a trust it does not have the same overwhelming commercial imperatives as the media corporations.’

In this brave new world, others would not be so lucky, or so careful, or so mindful of quality. ‘I think it is likely that with the new financial models required by newspapers in the digital age, though, that the big media corporations will cut corners - in terms of journalistic quality - in order to maintain their profits’. Back to one of his central themes in Flat earth news.

Professor Adrian Monck, of City University, London, is poacher turned gamekeeper. Former ITN and Sky News journalist now heading one of the most prestigious academic departments in the UK and a weekly sage on the Press Gazette; Monck was up-beat. ‘This is a very exciting time to be a young journalist and that’s not just about technology - things like FoI [Freedom of Information] are very new and have very exciting possibilities for journalists which are only just beginning to be explored,’ he asserted.

Monck sees his role as a pricker of the balloon of moral myths. As he put it: ‘The whole problem is trust anyway: not just in the media but in a wider variety of institutions. There is a breakdown of the old sense of trusting a few institutions and authority figures to deliver the truth.’ Because information was so accessible everyone could find things relatively simply and quickly. ‘Take medical conditions, for example - you can read up a lot before you even go to see your doctor.’ Information for all meant more freedom for all. ‘That access to information is extremely liberating,’ Monck argued. The consequences for the information-providers were positive: ‘It means that people are becoming more aware of the issues around journalism…’ and, as a result ‘…there’s certainly hope for all of us!’

Charlie Beckett is the new kid on the journo academic block. Another poacher turned gamekeeper, he’s a former BBC and ITN producer now the founding director of the think-tank polis@lse. Supermedia, his new book, is a closely argued case for ‘networked journalism’ in which the old one way didactic form adapts to the new interactive media world of bloggers, Twitters and more and incorporates them all in their everyday practice. As he puts it in the book: ‘Networked journalism is a process not a product. The journalist still reports, edits, packages the news. But the process is continually shared. The networked journalist changes from being a gatekeeper who delivers to a facilitator who connects.’ He sees the results as enriching. ‘Think about how this opens up the space for a more participatory politics at all levels. Imagine how it can inform a more deliberative democracy. Instead of claiming a special dispensation, the journalist will now become part of a network of responsibilities and relevance. It’s where I have always thought good journalism belonged’. Some manifesto.

Charlie was also upbeat: ‘There is the threat of “churnalism” but I think there is a very healthy future for journalism - the basic business proposition is sound and the demand for information and journalism is insatiable.’ Things were changing and had to change. The public was interested in journalism wanted more, not less. As journalists embraced this idea of public participation, journalism would improve.

  • John Mair is director of events for the Media Society and produced this debate. He is a senior lecturer at Coventry University and a former television producer for the BBC, ITV and Channel Four.

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