What is the future of journalism? To judge by the discussion at this week’s Future of Media Summit held simultaneously in Sydney and Silicon Valley (and every other “new media” conference I’ve been to lately) it’s endless bl — dy whinging. Whinging about how journalism has standards and bloggers are all “just” writing whatever they think.
The panels in both cities covered the same, tired old ground. The new “participatory media” and “citizen journalism” would never be Real Journalism, because Real Journalism is an Art/Craft/Profession. Real Journalism involves research and fact-checking and sub-editing. There’s a Code of Ethics. But “these people”, as bloggers get labelled, these people just sit around in their pyjamas and write whatever comes into their heads.
What’s tiring about this false dichotomy is that it compares the highest ideal of journalism with the lowest grade of personal blogging about what the cat did yesterday and — lo and behold! — they’re not the same. Gosh.
How much everyday journalism actually conforms to the high ideal? Not much. For every Walkley-nominated episode of Four Corners there’s a hundred tawdry yarns about miracle fat cures or shonky builders with a camera shoved in their face. For every investigative scoop there’s a thousand mundane little 5-paragraph yarns that merely quote what someone said at a press conference, and then quote their opponent. Or recycle a media release, putting the journo’s byline where the PR firm’s logo used to be. Or misappropriate statistics to beat up some shock-horror non-existent “crime wave”. Or either fawn or tut-tut over some “celebrity” and their antics — more often than not because that same celebrity is appearing in a TV show or movie that’s completely coincidentally owned by the journalist’s employer.
And you know, some “bloggers” actually know what they’re talking about, interview people, and link to their references to boot.
Dear Journalists, how can you spout all that stuff about “standards” and then go back to your mucky business?
Oh, that’s right. You’re a proper journalist. It’s all the others…
Actually, I know why you’re so bitter about “those bloggers”. You worked hard on that student newspaper or street rag while living in uni-student poverty, put up with the abuse of grumpy old chain-smoking subs who bawled you out over trivial spelling mistakes, put up with the unpredictable patronage of editors who promoted everyone else to A Grade but you — you endured all of that hoping that one day you’d get the plum posting. But no! The newsrooms are now being decimated, and the masthead’s adorned with photos of celebrity chefs. And bloggers — bloggers! People with no professional training are leaping into the limelight. Some of them are even being paid! How dare they!
Dear Journalists, in case you hadn’t noticed, the internet and pervasive mobile digital communications change everything.
The shape of your craft and the form of your stories was determined by the technology used to deliver those stories. Newspapers, for instance, worked to their daily cycles, and stories had the length and structure they did because of the physical and operational constraints of putting ink onto paper. Some bloke called McLuhan said something about this, ages back — but I wouldn’t know for sure, because I’m not a proper journalist. Still, it strikes me that the very industrial scale of printing a metropolitan daily or producing a 6pm TV bulletin also shapes the way you go about making your stories: all that mechanism between you the journalist and your audience.
Well, that’s all changed.
We all have keyboards now. We all have mobile phones with cameras, or soon will. We all have publishing and distribution tools like WordPress and YouTube and Ustream.tv and Qik, or soon will.
We don’t need a third party in The Mainstream Media to bring us mass-produced stories for mass-produced audiences when we can tell each other our own stories. Stories that are directly meaningful to us — like how niece Sarah did so well at the school concert (and here’s a video), or how the factory’s closing down (and here’s the lousy memo the b-stards sent us). We’re only just learning how to connect myriad storytellers to myriad audiences, but we’re learning fast.
There’s still a role for Real Journalism, of course, with your research and storytelling skills and, yes, with your Code Ethics too. No-one’s saying there won’t be. And you know what? You too can use all these wonderful new tools to create wonderful new forms of Journalism — if only you’d stop whinging about how your world’s falling apart and actually learn to use them. A hint: You don’t have to wait for your grumpy old chain-smoking editor to show you, either, because he’s a dinosaur and will soon be dead.
But nearly every time I hear journalists talking about, say, real-time messaging services like Twitter, it’s about how they can mine it for data, not how they might adapt their craft to this new participatory delivery mechanism. Or they’re waiting for someone else to show them how to do it.
The people already exploring these new media forms will be the leaders. They may not call themselves “journalists” — and they probably don’t want to, since you’re held in such poor esteem these days — but they’ll be fluent in the new media. And you … well, you’ll be stuffed.
Stilgherrian writes at stilgherrian.com, what we might call “blogging” if journalists weren’t so negative about that word.