Sunday, December 27, 2009

The future of journalism. Or: why journalism is not “media”

We have to accept that industries fail. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Detroit is kaput: we saw it coming, and we all know now.
And it made good copy.
Manufacturing went to China and India. There were blue collar casualties. We saw it coming, and it made good copy.
Did we cry? Did we bother? Did we care?
Then the banks failed. We didn’t see it coming. But it made good copy still.
Did we cry? Did we care? Oh yes we did! In no time, billions of taxpayers’ dollars were thrown at the problem.
To try and make it go away. Unlike everything else, the banking sector was considered “too important to fail.” If what you did was “systemic” enough, abundant funding was made available. Overnight if necessary.
Now our own industry is failing, and we feel it is failing us.
Pulp press products are going kaput, and selling our audiences’ attention to advertisers is a failing proposition. We saw it coming, we all know now, and it does make good copy.
Did we cry? Did we bother? Did we care?
Oh yes we did. Studies, task forces, committees, conferences, serious navel gazing, books and grave op-ed articles galore: we saw it coming, and we did care.

But why care? Why care indeed?

We confounded journalism with “media.” “Media” is going the way of Detroit; journalism isn’t.
Incumbent media structures turned out to be too big, too slow, and too much one-way. Too much focused on “bottom lines,” ownership, walled gardens, and proprietary infrastructures.
Old media was too much focused on shareholder value, and on incessantly selling eyeballs to third parties.
Did we really think this was sustainable?
“Media“ knew how to speak. And speak it did. But it didn’t learn to listen.
Now, on the internet, the people formerly known as the audience are learning to speak for themselves. And they listen to each other. They tag, they twitter and share what they feel is important. They create their own channels, tools and platforms. It is a civic debate, it is not media selling attention to products.

Media’s worth has been predicated on extrinsic values:
“Quarterly profits,” or, more recently: “quarterly losses,” are categories we use to measure media. Journalism must be measured differently. We confound media with journalism.
The umbilical cord once connecting media and journalism is becoming toxic. Media is trying to abort journalism, and journalists should seize the opportunity and leave the hostile womb.

Let media look at its shareholder value, and let it perish in the process. Maybe, meanwhile, it will spawn new Paris Hiltons.
(Then again, Paris Hilton might just single-handedly save the whole eyeball industry once she marries Brad Pitt.)

Media may be a dinosaur. But journalism will be alive and kicking as long as it addresses issues of real relevance. Ideally, it enables, moderates, and curates our civic dialogue.
Journalists will survive if they are conducive to the public good.
That they can, and should, make a difference to society is why they joined the profession in the first place. (It’s also why journalism schools keep on attracting a large number of students.)

So journalism got all tangled up with media?

It is not a historic necessity anymore. Publishing tools, and platforms to publish on, no longer need ownership, or copyrights. There is an ever-increasing wealth of content out there. But all that new content is in dire need of “moderation,“ of perspective, and criticism. It needs professional and dedicated journalistic work, a meta-commentary, if you like, for it to cohere and make sense. Journalists will have to enable their audiences to find and articulate their own voices, they will have to share their “media literacy,” and even their writing and producing skills, with their readership.

So what if journalism were “systemic” to modern societies, what if it is “too important to fail”?

Let’s forget the “media” business model. Let’s find new ways to make journalistic work sustainable. A one-time levy on all internet enabled devices would do the trick. So would a special rate the Google keyword algorithm allots to all “systemic” content on the web. So would new ways of distributing the public broadcast service fees. Or what if, due to its systemic value, journalism is able to receive, let’s say, one hundredth of a percent of all that bail out money going to the banks. You go and figure out how much that is, what with the current estimate of the cost of the crisis amounting to 25 trillion dollars.
The future is the decisions we take today.

So let’s talk, listen, network and share. We have some convincing to do. And a long way to go. Nobody said this was easy.


Wilfried Ruetten
European Journalism Centre

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