Journalism’s future needs entrepreneurial ‘hackers’

Some people are looking for a new kind of journalism. Ted Eytan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The Guardian and The Washington Post have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their work in bringing to light documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

It is fashionable to sprout doom and gloom about the future of journalism, but The Washington Post’s editor Martin Baron isn’t joining in.

At the recent International Symposium of Online Journalism Baron listed nine reasons to be positive about journalism - arguing there was no alternative to optimism.

First, new money is flowing to legacy media corporates as well as to new digital ventures, forcing the media industry to rethink business models.

Since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last August, he has “not put his nose in the newsroom”, according to Baron. This implies that Bezos doesn’t influence editorial decision making, and so far has shown his willingness to invest in news production. The Washington Post is hiring 300 new people this year.

Baron admits the business models of news media remain unsettled as digital advertising on news platforms isn’t growing fast enough. As he puts it, “we now have a living laboratory of business model experimentation”, and this phase of experimentation will yield some successes and some failures of which news companies shouldn’t be embarrassed.

In Australia, newcomers are also experimenting in media markets, and the new weekly print newspaper The Saturday Paper was launched in March. Its target is to gain 100,000 subscribers, and time will tell if the paper can capture weekend readers and enough advertising income to support it.

New digital ventures and new jobs

The second reason for optimism is that new digital media organisations such as Vox Media have started to gain momentum, and thirdly the new generation of “digital native” journalists have entered the field. Surely these are positive signs?

Vox Media’s chief executive officer Jim Bankoff hails his company as one of the fastest growing online publications, and he expects his company to be profitable this year. Vox Media’s business model is based on brand recognition, growing traffic and selling audiences to advertisers. Its business model mirrors that of social media companies such as Facebook, which are dependent on traffic numbers.

Pew Research Center’s latest State of the News Media 2014 report found that in the US, digital news organisations such as Vice, Politico and BuzzFeed have produced 5,000 full time editorial jobs. Yet at the same time layoffs continue in many media outlets. For example, at the start of this year, the US based hyperlocal news platform Patch laid off hundreds of journalists after the company was sold to the private equity firm Hale Global.

However, the new generation of news journalists and news organisations is emerging at the same time as Millenials look for a new type of news. Jake Horowitz, CEO and co-founder of youth-focused PolicyMic, says his generation is “incredibly distrustful of mainstream media institutions”. This mistrust has triggered young journalists to start up their own media companies such as The Texas Tribune (US), Homicide Watch (US) and The News Lens (Taiwan).

The Texas Tribune is a non-profit media outlet focusing on local politics, policy, government and other matters, and it promotes “civic engagement.” Since the site was launched in 2009, it has received more than 141 million page views from 18 million visitors. The company has 15-17 reporters, and is funded by individual donors, foundations, corporate sponsorships and advertising.

These kind of ventures and developments are impressive, but yet to prove sustainable in the long-term.

We need entrepreneurial ‘hacker’ journalists

The new digital ventures will provide new jobs for journalists, as the PEW figures indicate. But the skills future journalists need have more to do with entrepreneurial and technological skills than learning shorthand.

As Baron states:

Journalists will have to be entrepreneurial — building entirely new companies, working within new entrepreneurial ventures, or behaving as internal entrepreneurs to transform organisations that have stood for decades.

This doesn’t mean journalists won’t need strong story telling skills or journalistic values – it means they must also be equipped with technical skills for example in data analysis, data presentation, coding and video production. The industry is looking to academia to produce journalists who are able to build new digital ventures as well as have all the possible tools to produce stories, and investigate information with ever more sophisticated tools.

As Bankoff put it, we have entered an era where the hacker culture meets journalism. And that goes beyond Edward Snowden.