The Future of Journalism rolling roadshow came to Melbourne yesterday, courtesy of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and the Walkley Foundation. The roadshow began last May with a conference in Sydney, and has since been to Brisbane, with plans to go west to Perth and to the Northern Territory next year.

Before I go further, a declaration: I have spoken at all these conferences, and yesterday was pushing a particular barrow, about which more later.

It is good to see the journo’s union putting resources into thinking about the future of their members’ work, despite the uncomfortable reality that always comes up at these conferences: professional journalists will not be the only ones doing journalism in the future. Or as Jay Rosen has put it “Journalism is important. Journalists may not be.” Another conference participant, Pulitzer prize winning journalist Jan Schaffer, now executive director of J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism in the USA talked yesterday about “healthy news ecologies”, and made the point that journalists’ job security is not necessarily the most important thing to these.

Having said all that, my personal take is that there are skills and functions that professional journalists have that continue to be important and useful, and that the challenge of the future is to identify what is important about what we have been doing, and to make sure it is carried into the future.

Which means we have to get with it, because the other side of that coin is the acknowledgement that a great deal of what we have done has actually been not very good at all, including but not limited to the arrogance that goes with privileged access to the means of publication.

But let me move on.

Some of the disconnect between professional journalists and “digital natives” was visible from the conversations on Twitter yesterday, that were taking place in the conference centre during the panel sessions. The Twitterers were largely new media types that come to these conferences and are shocked by how out of touch journos are with what is already going on in new media.

One Twitterer asked another how the conference was going.

“I think I stunned the second last speaker panel afterwards, when I told them I have a job in media, and still studying,” said Yaboo007 to Ben Grubb, of Techwired.

And then:

“When they stated, that good looking people get jobs in media, I’m at the opposite ends, and I did not see any s-xy people there.”

(Shucks.)

During a session on the software and gadgets that can be helpful for journalism, a Twitterer reported to a friend:

“Many were impressed to hear about how you can add widgets to iGoogle to view news ZOMG, It’s called RSS, been around for years.”

(And if you need an interpreter for that, well that’s rather the point).

The Twitterers also found risible one panelist’s remark that the internet was “stealing” the advertising, the choice of word saying everything about attitude.

And the summary from the Twitterers?

“A lot of journalists who are worried about change.”

If it’s possible to draw a consensus from the Future of Journalism conferences, and from yesterday, I would say it is this: Newspapers in print form are in decline, some say dying, and will certainly be less important and influential in the future. But content remains important. A lot of old journalistic roles and skills, including sub editing, remain important. And, on the bright side, there is no evidence of diminished appetite for news and quality content among the public.

But everything else is changing. There is a bomb under the business models for all of our established mass media companies, and if we want to preserve what is good and important in journalism, it is a time for bold experiment.

Now, to my particular barrow. There has been plenty of bold experimentation in journalism going on in the USA. You can read about it in plenty of places, including the Life in the Clickstream Report which was released at the conference yesterday — the product of an overseas tour by a panel of journalists and MEAA officials.

My main message yesterday was that it is time for those who care about journalism to start experimenting here too.

I am involved in a couple of nascent new media experiments. The one I talked about yesterday was the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism, which does not yet exist in legal form, but will do so shortly.

Founded by a cohort of freelance journalists, including myself, it will include partners from academia and from independent publishers, and will explore new methods of commissioning and organising journalism, including models by which members of the public can directly commission journalists without the intervention of big media — although we are not against having big media involved as well.

This idea is new, but next year we will be pushing forward with it, and naturally we are looking for support and interest and, ultimately, funding.

After this, I don’t intend to use my journalism here to spruik for it. I am enough of an old fashioned journalist to be wary of conflicts of interest. But if anyone is interested, a quick Google will turn up my email address, and more information is available.

I also hope soon to start my own blog, The Content Makers — named after my recent book — on the Crikey platform, and will write there about this and other matters to do with the media.

At the Sydney conference, Jay Rosen coined a nice metaphor. We journalists are like migrants to the new digital age. We have a risky journey ahead, which means we must push out many boats, recognising that only some will make it. When we get to the new land, there will be other people there as well, better established and knowing the landscape better than we do. Yet we will have things that will be useful to them.

Like all migrants, we will have to work out what in the traditions of our old country is still relevant and useful, and what we have to leave behind. There will sadness in this, but also opportunity.

Time to start journeying.

Peter Fray

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