Last week I programmed and chaired an Innovation Forum event in the Future Media series entitled The New new journalism. The event was supported and produced in collaboration with POLIS and the LSE Media Group. The discussion was rich, and well-informed and heartily contested. The most substantial post-event discussion has been on Strange Attractor, where Suw Charman-Anderson posted a write-up and response. My response to this and the related comments, including one from panelist Charlie Beckett.
The programme was considered in three parts: the changing role of the journalist in society; the new possibilities presented by technology and design; and the nature of the story in a dynamic medium. In reality we covered about half of the programme. I am over-ambitious as ever! These themes will all be picked up at the Media Futures Conference.
However, it is necessary to establish what journalism is for (and if this has changed) before we can address what forms it should take, business models it might adopt, changes in organisational form that might be needed, and new groups that might contribute. As the designland aphorism has it: You need to 'design the right thing before you design the thing right'. Most discussions of journalism start from an assumed agreement about its role. In reality, its character, even in 'old media', has changed profoundly. These changes are responses to, and causes of, the 'dwindling audience, dwindling trust and dwindling revenues' to which Charman-Anderson refers.
Panelist Tessa Mayes argued that journalism has a role in "searching for the truth", which needs to be differentiated from being an oracle of The Truth, and which can lead to a 'pointless philosophical discussion' (Charman-Anderson). But just because much journalism is 'written on tight deadlines' doesn't invalidate this as a goal. Noting the importance of going beyond reporting information Mayes said "the question is how ideas connect". The debate about citizen vs professional journalism was also quite subtle. Peter Day spoke about the need for time and resources for journalism, and noted that to the extent we train citizens to be journalists "then it becomes a profession, which is difficult and sometimes nasty". He also noted that "to build a Web site you need reporting".
My observation on business models, albeit made in conclusion, was that we are wealthier than ever yet we are less prepared to underwrite the value represented by journalism in particular, and media in general. Is this because in a 'post-politics' world we value it less? It has been commoditised by access to more suppliers and decreasing cost of that access? It is too hard to pay for material? Or we haven't invented the new forms of journalism that are worth paying for? Dennis Howlett's comments are of interest here.
On technology being subservient to information, in the developed world we have spent the first 15 years of the commercial Web largely playing with technology. I don't object to this: it is necessary to investigate the 'texture', the affordances, and the possibilities of any new technology. But at the risk of continually looking for problems in need of a technological solution, and as Mayes put it "being so caught up with IT you forget the story", we do need to consider technology as a toolset that is at the service of organisations and their primary functions. I also believe, as I argued in my talk at the PPA annual conference, that design comes before technology. Designing the right thing again.
Charman-Anderson makes a valuable point about 'dysfunctional management'. In the media business, as in many professions and industries, the doers get promoted to be the managers of the doers. However, the media industry, and particularly publishing, has tended to be low profit with high people costs, leading to a culture of low pay and little professional development. This may partly explain the character of management in media organisations. Media managers also tend to be poor at thinking about systems, as noted in Charlie Beckett's comment, partly because, at least in publishing, the processes and manufacturing systems relatively simple and well understood. Sarah Rink's comment about the ability of ethnographers to deliver insights into system problems is worth noting.
But her point about 'senior management in the legacy business fighting to retain their primacy and pushing digital staff and managers aside' may reflect as much the 'innovator's dilemma'. In this scenarios, newspaper publishers still bring in most revenue from cover price, display and classified ads, and can not be made up for in the short term from digital publishing operations as the cannibalise print revenue. Thus analogue media is given primacy. But it is a no-win situation, as Clayton Christensen describes in his eponymous book The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.
I have only addressed some of the issues discussed at the event. A write-up of the discussion will be posted shortly on The New new journalism event page.