Reinvention is key to survival of the industry

We are all a bit bored now of being told that journalism is in crisis. The question we want answered is: ‘How do we save it?”

Flat Earth News author Nick Davies and the other doom-mongers are right to say that commercial pressures are threatening jobs and standards. But I don’t agree with him that things are worse than ever. Among the rising tide of lifestyle

supplements, celebrity-driven TV shows and Me-journalism, there is more investigation, analysis and information than ever before. The demand for journalism and the ability to provide it have never been greater. So, I don’t think that we should just accept the redundancy cheques and wave goodbye to the idea of the journalist.

The real problem is how do you make it work and who pays for it?

My book SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World, calls for news organisations to use new media technology and public participation to revolutionise journalism and so create a new set of business models for the digital age. I talk to journalists from Africa to the US and I see that it is already being put in to practice.

Innovation and enterprise

Davies shows how the old forms of journalism are being changed by a culture of press releases and hampered by job cuts. I see another picture. I am excited by the innovation and enterprise I see as journalists begin to exploit the new editorial opportunities.

Look at the work done by the Birmingham Post. It has incorporated blogging and reader interaction as part of their outstanding website. Across the country, local news organisations are turning to video, micro-sites and community link-ups to revive their flagging fortunes.

At the national level, who could imagine that the crusty old Daily Telegraph would create the world’s most advanced ‘360 degree facing’newsroom. Or, that the north London liberal Guardian would find 10 million new readers in the US?

When the big stories break in distant and difficult places like Kenya and Tibet it is now ‘citizen journalists’with camera phones, or multi-skilled correspondents with lightweight gear, who get the words and pictures out to the rest of the world first.

Not all this new-media stuff works. There is a limit to both the amount and the quality of what the public will provide. There is a danger that journalists will spend more time repackaging material for different platforms than creating content.

The real work that needs to be done, from journalism colleges to newsrooms and beyond, is to develop the new skills and systems that will drive up efficiency and creativity. Media management needs to move on from the old model where experienced hacks simply slipped in to executive positions. We need leaders who understand the technology, design and enterprise issues.

It is time to bring the ‘online team’or the ‘digital director’in from an office down the corridor and in to the middle of the newsroom. Everything from your email system to your Facebook site needs to be reconfigured.

It is also about deciding not to do a lot of things that the consumer can get elsewhere. Concentrate on where you are adding value. Concentrate on where you are distinctive.

Stop thinking about your user as a customer ‘out there’and start thinking about your public as a community centred on you.

Start thinking about your work as a process, not a product. Involve the public in that process and then they might value it. That means using the public to create content, to feed in to your work and to interact with what you create.

Interaction over style

Packaging and style will become less important than delivery, originality and interaction. Some people may regret that. I don’t. Some ‘classic’journalism will survive because a knowledgeable specialist will always have an audience. But the successful journalist of the future will be networked. This means becoming multiskilled. It means being able to connect lots of different content with a variety of customers.

So where’s the money for this new journalism? Online advertising will this year overtake mainstream media. But, there is still not enough revenue to sustain the job increase we have seen over the past two decades.

The cold fact is that some news organisations are going to go to the wall. Jobs will disappear. New ones will emerge. Just like after Wapping.

If I had a simple answer to the revenue problem for digital journalism I would not be writing this article. But I do know that there is a lot of excellent experimentation out there and it is starting to pay off.

Market forces are not the problem. They are the real world’s way of telling us that our industry has to change. The news monopoly has been broken. We have to change what we do and how we do it. We have to show the public that we have something that they value.

My useful links for further reading:

  • www.craigmcginty.com
  • http://outwithabang.rickwaghorn.co.uk
  • www.newassignment.net/newassignment_labs
  • http://joannageary.wordpress.com
  • www.andydickinson.net
  • http://strange.corante.com
  • www.thebillblog.com/billblog
  • www.buzzmachine.com
  • www.journerdism.com/index.php

Charlie Beckett is a journalist and director of Polis, the journalism thinktank at the London School of Economics and the London College of Journalism

SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World is published by Blackwell. For more details see www.polismedia.org/publications/saving

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