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Here’s a prediction: 2019 will offer us better, stronger, and more compelling journalism because of — not despite — the continued decline of the influence of traditional media.

In the midst of job losses and closures, it’s easy to miss that the actual journalism we create and consume is already better than it’s ever been. And next year, we should expect better as the shift to subscriptions puts readers in control and innovations in start-up media become absorbed into traditional media.

It’s a simple economic truth: when you have to work for your audience, you have to work harder.

How we got here

Once, as journalists, we could rely on large media institutions to deliver our stories onto breakfast tables, or onto family television screens that left viewers limited choices to the evening news: watch, or don’t.

The professional norms of the craft and strong internal quality control of now all-but-gone subeditors meant it was all of a decent standard. But the system of mass delivery encouraged a uniformity of pyramid-style reports to build mass audiences. Because the audiences weren’t being built for journalism — they were being built for advertisers.

Now, those institutions are just one delivery platform among many. They’re not necessarily the best for journalism. They’re certainly not the best for advertisers. That’s why it’s been exciting to watch journalists and media institutions pivot to asking their readers for money, and exciting to watch readers respond.  

It’s giving us a better media and much better journalism. Not a mass media, not as influential a media oligopoly. But better: a fragmented, diverse ecosystem, each part crafted to appeal to identified needs and responsive audiences.

Big media have attempted to replicate the old in the new. And they’ve been good at it: see the apparent domination in the digital space of news.com.au. That’s the meaning behind Nine boss Hugh Marks’ words last week:

What we do well as a business is working with national advertisers. We will be trying to move to that new model.

I guess Marks is right, if that’s your business. But it’s not the future of journalism.

Diverse sources, diverse stories

Instead, you’ll find that future in the emerging start-up media (ahem, including mature “new” media like Crikey) where the journalism has to catch and nurture its own audience. Here, journalists are largely on their own, like fly-fishers standing knee-deep in that endlessly flowing river of content, casting our stories out over the ripples to tempt our audience to break the surface and take the bait. Well, have I hooked you?

It demands — and is getting — an infusion of creativity into the craft. When I was a baby journalist, to call someone a “writer” was pretty much an insult. Now it’s critical part of the skill set.

The fragmentation of the media means fragmented, more diverse, stories.

The big stories are the stories that will truly be seen by future generations as our era’s first stab at a draft of this century’s history — stories like climate change, feminism, Me Too, the treatment of asylum seekers, Indigenous recognition, #changetherules. They’re all being written, largely outside the traditional media.

Most excitingly, they’re increasingly being written by the people affected. Asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani, without being allowed to set foot in the country, has become the most influential journalist in Australia — a 21st century version of Egon Kisch. Meanwhile, Indigenous journalists are bringing out the offering to reconciliation that is the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

All these stories are resetting Australian politics in ways that have left our leaders — and a fair chunk of the traditional media — embarrassingly flat-footed. Think Wentworth. Think Victoria.

As 2018 ends, we’re seeing the traditional media catch up. Next year, expect to see that better journalism replace hand-wringing interviews with white supremacists or artificial hysteria around African gangs.

Expect journalism to become more than commodified news of car crashes, weather, and the political horse race. Expect it to re-emerge as the way we tell stories to understand in real time how our world is changing.

And if it doesn’t, well, you’re the reader. You’re paying. Demand better. You’ve got a vote on journalism now: it comes with your credit card.

What do you think about the state of journalism in 2018? Let us know by emailing [email protected].