Kevin Marsh on the future of journalism

A colleague was with his GP the other day. He had a puzzling pick and mix of symptoms and his doctor was baffled. She turned to the PC on her desk and put the symptoms into a search box… not on some dedicated medical website, but on Google.

At its simplest, his GP was bowing to the inevitable – more and more patients arrive at surgeries with their conditions pre-Googled. Plus, the web is getting better and better at mining – intelligently – information that was once the preserve of specialists.

Journalists are beginning to understand this One Big Thing that new technology means to their craft. Anyone can know (almost) anything – including that journalists, like GPs, are not infallible.

The thing is, they always could and always did. Someone outside the newsroom always knew more than the journalists – if only by virtue of proximity to events. But old publishing technologies hid that fact most of the time. The one-to-many lecture that journalism used to be was a comfortable illusion.

No longer. So most journalists fret about what the technology is doing to their skills, their jobs, paper or station.

What really matters is what technology is doing to audiences – and by that route, what it’s doing to the meaning of the word journalism and the craft it names.

The web has tooled an army of fact checkers, experts, analysts and news distributors – ‘the people formerly known as the audience”, as New York University’s Jay Rosen famously called them.

Journalism is no longer something done to them – it’s by them or with them.

Blogging consultant Suw Charman recently wrote an important paper called ‘The Changing Role of Journalism in a World Where Everyone Can Publish”. Suw is a (very insightful) zealot, but this paper is right on the button. The ‘historic role of gatekeeper is now obsolete”, she writes.

That’s good news for journalists if they embrace what Suw calls ‘facilitation – working with the community to help people publish stories important to them’and ‘curation – collecting trustworthy links and synthesising an informed and succinct overview of a story”.

It’s less good for the old model – journalism has to be transparent. It’s no longer enough to say ‘trust me on this one’– everyone expects links to sources, originals, authorities, dissonant voices. They also want to see and question the methods journalists use. Effectively, they’re telling every journalist: ‘show me why I should trust you.’

Most won’t have heard Professor Onora O’Neil’s Reith lectures on ‘trust”; that consumers want their information ‘assessable”, asking questions such as: ‘where’s the unedited version of this? where did it come from?”.

The John Sweeney Scientology Panorama, or rather the scientologists’ response, was different only in scale from what’s becoming commonplace. The scientologists had resource and the commitment to make a professional-looking report on a report. Everyone now has the means to record and publish.

As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told a gathering of news ombudsmen at Harvard last week: ‘Everything we do will be more contestable, more open to challenge and alternative interpretation.”

That also means accepting that ‘the people formerly known as the audience’will revise stories in the light of their own knowledge and in line with the web maxim, ‘nothing is ever finished – it’s just the latest release”.

Of course, journalists know their trade is rough and ready, imperfect, imprecise, ‘the best we can do on the day”. But they only ever admit it to each other. Quietly. Never to the audience, especially when they’re defending a whopper.

Forget all that. Journalism is collaboration now or it’s nothing.

And that’s true even for those types of journalism – investigation, reportage, analysis – that will survive the information aggregators and the web’s networks.

Journalism’s audiences may well now be its fact-checkers, commissioners, tipsters, sources and contacts, but that doesn’t mean journalists aren’t needed.

Most people don’t have the time, access, persistence, application or – let’s not be shy – skill to carry out genuine journalism of revelation. Luck, good or ill, may capriciously deploy anyone to the bomb or fire, but it takes more than that to stay day after day, making sense of events for those who aren’t there.

Most of the web conversation derives from traditional journalism. And as Chris Paterson found in a paper last year for Leeds University two ‘traditional’sources (AP and Reuters) dominate the content of the news aggregators. They make traditional journalism more, not less, necessary.

For the difficult stuff – investigative and original journalism – the killer facts are generally well-hidden in a dark place, too dark even for Google. Bringing light into those dark places will always be the essential civic function of journalism.

Here’s the real opportunity. If journalism could drop the mask of surly infallibility, it’d accept that in any investigation you get things wrong. But out there is someone who can put you right, or righter than you were yesterday.

Unlike truth, news is a collaborative venture. Journalists need to realise that. Minnesota public radio has invited its audience in; so has BBC Radio Berkshire. It’s inconceivable that with audience and journalists working together both won’t do better journalism.

The future isn’t just about converging media, skills and business models – they matter, of course, and not everyone will survive. The future is about fitting the space audiences – the paymasters – make for journalism. Do that well and you have a future.

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