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Spike the gloom – journalism has a bright future

News with your Shreddies? Brendan Lynch

Whenever more than two journalists gather together to discuss the future of their business, the dialogue is usually depressing. This prevailing pessimism must change: we need a new conversation about what’s happening to news. What’s happening is better than many journalists think.

On the surface, there is a lot to be gloomy about. Jobs in mainstream journalism continue to be lost as those media businesses shrink. There’s a fine and eloquent example in a blogpost by the excellent Christina Patterson.

In London, journalists lay bets on which major newspaper will turn off its printing presses and take the huge gamble of trying to survive on digital revenues alone. Many bets are placed on The Guardian, which describes itself as “digital-first”, switching off print before its rivals. But my money is on the Financial Times taking that plunge before any other paper.

In the US, the New York Times, a newspaper worth a great deal less than it was a decade ago, sells the Boston Globe for a fraction of the price struck a few years ago. The Washington Post is sold, by kind but exhausted owners, to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for a sum that would have seemed ridiculously small at the turn of the century.

Adapt and flourish

But this picture of deterioration is one-dimensional, incomplete and out of date. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that journalism is going to adapt and flourish; you just need to know where to look for it.

In a book published this week, I try to dissolve the pessimistic mindset which sets the tone of so much commentary on journalism’s future. Here are a few things which the worriers should keep in mind:

  • Journalism is forced to re-invent itself at regular intervals and always has been. whenever the changing context of economics, law, technology and culture shifts the ground beneath it. Re-invention and experiment are the only constants in journalism’s history.

  • Journalists tend to confuse journalism with major daily papers. The “golden age” of newspaper journalism in the second half of the 20th century was, in reality, a long commercial decline. British national papers reached their peak total circulation in the early 1950s; the Daily Mirror’s highest sale ever was in 1966.

  • More newspapers were killed off by the coming of television from the 1950s onwards than have ever been closed by competition from the internet.

  • The internet made things worse for newspapers and was lethal to classified advertising income. But the decline of print began before the internet was built.

  • Demand for news does not seem to have fallen or even changed much in the last half century. What has imploded is the effectiveness of the business model of large, general-interest daily papers which require news reporting to be cross-subsidised by advertising revenue.

Ah, but you say, can “the press” be an effective check on the use or abuse of political power if it is weakened and fragmented by internet outlets who give away their news for free? How can journalists in the treadmills of 24/7 reporting find the time and space to dig out the hard stories?

Institutional muscle

Big stories driven by data leaks from Wikileaks and more recently by the American National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden have required the power of mainstream journalism institutions for the stories to be heard. Is that institutional muscle which protects the exercise of press freedom going to atrophy?

First, it’s not a given that today’s big journalism “brands” will go under: they face a horribly difficult task of adapting to radically changed circumstances but institutions will not fall. That’s what happens in deep disruption: some organisations adapt and survive, some don’t.

Second, the insurgents of news publishing fully intend to become the giants of the future. A few will, most won’t. In America, where newspaper income fell faster than in Europe (largely because profitability rested more heavily on small ads), there is now a solid if small group of online news businesses which cannot yet match the giants of print but have a viable business – and have done so for several years.

The poster girl for this group is the Huffington Post, but there are a cluster of other sites which have been in existence for a decade or more, don’t depend on grants or philanthropy and have a base of income and users solidly built.

Renaissance in text

I asked the founder of one of those sites now entering early middle age, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (TPM), if he thought long-form and research and reporting would fade in the publishing era dominated by online. Marshall, whose site now employs almost 30 people in New York and is aimed at political wonks, said that a freer market for communication would cater for a wider range of tastes.

“The 8,000-word piece is not going to disappear,” Marshall said. “Words are very persistent and people want text. The last 20 years has seen a renaissance for text. Video is for entertainment. Details need words.”

Many of the online news sites in their early phases concentrate on building any audience by any means available. In a few cases, you can now see those sites moving into areas of more serious journalism which may have to be cross-subsidised by the more attention-grabbing material.

Buzzfeed, a site which began by providing silly videos for people to swap when bored at work, is already into political coverage and aims to move into international affairs and business news. Today’s journalists treat this as a shocking route to success, ignoring the plain fact that journalism’s history is full of examples of successful subversion and disruption of the established order on just this pattern.

Filling local gaps

At a much more local level, online news sites are sometimes filling the gap left by shrinking local papers. In London, there could hardly be bigger and more potentially controversial planning decisions than those being taken for the redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle area on the south bank of the Thames.

That area has its own start-up online site called SE1 – except that it’s not really a startup for it has been going for 15 years. Its finances are still fragile and most of its income is advertising; SE1 owes no money. The site’s founder James Hatts often attends planning meetings at which multi-million pound redevelopment schemes for the area are being debated and decided. He is, he says, “often the only reporter there (and often the only person in the public gallery at all)”. Which journalism serves local democracy better: the online version or beleaguered print?

Radical change

None of this means that “print” will “die”. Weekly newspapers and magazines are under pressure but nothing like the pressure which is bearing down on the business models of daily, general-interest papers. In some areas, the appearance of - or threat of - online rivals has revived long-established local newspapers. In the north-eastern towns of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, one new paper and one online news site have sprung up alongside the established paper, which has been overhauled.

The key to the future lies in journalists’ ability to adapt the work they do to a new context: the importance of what good journalism can do has not changed, but the context in which is it being done is changing radically. The good news is that the generative energy and quality of innovation needed to accomplish that are being devoted to solving the problem of a future business model. The signs of re-invention are scattered, small and hidden in the grass roots, often attracting less attention than loss figures and redundancies at major titles.

Journalism is coping with two crises which are wrapped together. The business model in which advertising supported reporting for print will not come back. The desperation caused by the slow decay of that income has triggered a crisis of confidence and credibility in printed news media – most obviously evident in the Leveson Inquiry in Britain which was triggered by the phone-hacking scandal.

Leveson. Sean Dempsey/PA

Journalism is not going to evaporate as an idea because anyone, in the era of digital self-publishing, can claim to do it. Much changes: more people and sources of information can be consulted, news consumers can compare more sources faster. Four “core” activities journalists do are best done by people trained and experienced in them: verification, sense-making (analysis, opinion, context), eye-witness and investigative reporting. The first of those terms “verification” gives a clue to a shift which has come with the information-saturated world of today. One of journalism’s new challenges is managing abundant information. When journalism began information was scarce. Now it’s in glut: the problem is working out what’s true.

And old task in a new form. In the course of my research for Out of Print, I came to see that the “tilt point” has been passed. There are enough experiments under way in how to make journalism work in the digital age to give it a future.

George Brock is Professor and Head of Journalism at City University London and the author of Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age, is published by Kogan Page

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