Mark Day had a good piece in today’s Australian Media section. There isn’t much in it with which I disagree. I think Day is correct to focus on the future of journalism, rather than on the future of the media by which it is delivered. But Day’s analysis is a long way short of sufficient.
In my view one of the many threats to the future of journalism is that too many of Day’s generation and my generation are stuck in dreams of newsprint glory past, and are not thinking about what journalism should and might be like in the new media world.
“Content is king” has become almost a cliché in media, but so far as I can see the only people who are behaving as though it were true are the advertisers, who are miles ahead of journalists in new media. This leads to the highly compromised “content”, on which I have written previously.
Perhaps it is because I teach young would-be journalists, but I am not prepared to accept pessimism as the only prism for looking at the future. Over the last few years I have had a number of the best journalists in Australia speak to my students. They tend to sing a single refrain: “I’ve had it good. You won’t.” The response of bright young people to this is, naturally, disgust and anger.
It is immoral for those of us who have had it good, and continue to have it good, to preach despair to the next generation.
Rather, we should be saying to them, “You may have to reinvent journalism. You may have to find new business models to support it. You may have to question what quality is in journalism, and redefine it. You may have to carve career paths outside the declining and compromised media empires. You may have to find new ways of connecting to audiences. Here are the lessons from history and the things we have learned and the things that we value, which may be of use to you.”
Quality journalism, I suggest, is that which is useful to people in being engaged, empowered and informed citizens. Before we go into mourning for the past we should acknowledge that much of broadsheet journalism has for some time failed to meet this test. Quality does not necessarily mean metres of badly written copy about the minutia of public life, written as though politics is a spectator sport.
Also note that the dumbing down of media identified by Day has unquestionably failed. The commercial current affairs programs he talks about have all lost audiences over the last decade, despite plumbing new depths of trivia and, sometimes, deception.
We need to revisit the audiences, and work out what would be useful to them, rather than dishing out what we, from our privileged position, think they should have. The new opportunities for audience interactivity are full of potential.
And, in an old-media sign of hope, book length journalism has never been healthier in this country. So too the essay.
Audiences no longer need to be large to be economically worth serving, thanks to the lower cost of entry to the media word. Useful quality journalism need not necessarily be mass journalism. There may still be a lot of it, catering to different audiences who are nevertheless intensely networked.
Certainly so far there are very few new media journalism outlets in Australia that do any more than op-ed, bouncing off traditional media. But this is partly because journalists have not yet got their a-ses into gear. It is urgent that they do so.
I could say much more, but I am already well over Crikey’s normal word limit. At risk of shameless plug, for more see my forthcoming book, to be published by Penguin.