Lecture to Falmouth

May 8, 2009 at 5:25 pm 9 comments

It is a great privilege to be asked to be a visiting professor to University College Falmouth, and I would like to thank Geoffrey Smith, Paul Inman and the faculty for bestowing this honour on me, and I really look forward to being involved in the life of the college and helping in whatever ways I can. I look forward to visiting a beautiful place I’ve been visiting since I was 3 more often – and most of all I look forward to pontificating in front of a captive audience.

For my first talk, I thought I would address the subject of the future of journalism, not because I can tell you what it is but because, a bit like the feature in the front of Heat magazine, it is the thing which ‘everybody is talking about’.

First though I wanted to give you a bit of background about me. I have been working for either the Observer or the Guardian for the past 20 years, mostly covering media from a business angle, and for the last decade I’ve been involved in running the Guardian’s websites, I do some media commentary stuff, which is easy as my day job does involve examining the entrails of the industry and trying to guess what might happen next, the scary bit though is then persuading the company to spend money on it.

How I started in journalism however, in 1987, was as a trainee reporter on the wonderfully-titled ‘big farm weekly’.

I was as you can probably imagine exposed to the humiliation of my peers doing the most impossibly exciting things – BBC traineeships, making tea at Vogue, runners for indies, working for the Times, I was explaining that my job involved large agribusiness and not just pigs – though knowledge of livestock and its diseases have stood me in remarkably good stead…

But I doubt whether any of them had as much fun as I did, stuck at the sharp end with my mad cow disease briefings in Whitehall, mornings investigating sugar beet pestilence, listening to farmers describe their terrible personal turns of misfortune, and writing about this weird marginal organic movement.

I covered the lot with the help of a course in shorthand, a knowledge of the law and a company Vauxhall. Law, shorthand, driving licence, the three essential skills for a print journalist in 1987.

If I was starting again now I would have to add a few things to my list, an understanding of communications technology (how to send a picture message, or update a facebook page for instance), an understanding of web tools, an understanding of how to build and manage a community, audio and video skills, communication skills, which actually we were never taught but should have been even then, a rudimentary understanding of statistics, and most importantly an ability to market yourself and your stories to the audience – wherever they might be.

And by that I do not mean get noticed by making stuff up.

What the traineeship spent in wellies did teach me was that it was not the title, the status or the money – certainly not the money – that was the important thing about journalism, it was the story, the discovery and the people that fed into it, the process and the outcome….I had gone into journalism probably with too much of a mind to Julie Burchill’s phrase that it was ‘showbiz for ugly people’ and found that in fact it was an important, privileged, energetic craft which was, as one colleague put it, ‘like being paid to go to college’. It still is all of those things, and, when done well it remains relevant and important, probably more so now than ever before.

But in every other aspect over the past 22 years the job I chose has changed dramatically. Before I leave BFW territory, I was watching the excellent documentary blood sweat and tractors the other night, which for someone like me who grew up on a farm was almost unbearably nostalgic. At the end of the programme which documented how new technologies, a change in the global commodity markets, and shifting govt subsidy had literally reshaped the face of Britain, a farmer who had lived through the past sixty years of rapid agricultural change was asked about the future – he said ‘I can tell you plenty about the past, the problem is knowing anything about the future’. He added ‘we keep on doing it because we love it’.

Journalists would do well to watch the documentary and remember that lots of other industries have been where we are now – agriculture, mining, ship building, loom makers, steam railways. They were and some still are important aspects of the economy and journalism remains a key part of living in a democratic society.

First the good news. Unlike loom makers, or even printing press manufacturers, journalism does have a future. I hope I’m looking at it here. In fact it has a potentially brilliant, vibrant and exciting future, it just doesn’t have a future which resembles the past, except in the rudimentary nature that stories and information well explained and properly relayed are the core of the proposition.

Clay Shirky is an academic at NYU, he’s an economist and new media thinker, he’s the world’s leading bald tom hanks lookalike, and he’s very smart.

Recently Clay kicked off a terrible noisy feedback loop of chatter about the future of journalism when he talked about it in the context of the introduction of the printing press and pointed out that everyone talked about the revolution without acknowledging what happens in the wake of great revolutions and how this was informing the collapsing nature of our business.

This is his quote:

“That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.”

The old stuff has broken before the new stuff is ready. Old stuff is certainly broken, many of our old media brands: ITV, The Independent, The Scotsman, Five Channel 4….in fact, outside the very deep pockets of News Corporation, the family commitment of Associated Newspapers, the unusual funding structures of The BBC -and the Guardian for that matter – just about everywhere the economy and broadband delivery are breaking bits of the media at an alarming pace….

Just to really cheer you up so far this year, and remember companies also cut jobs last year, 900 jobs have gone from newspaper groups, a similar amount from TV stations, a couple of hundred from magazines and radio – but this doesn’t include the many more casual contracts that have been terminated or the contributor budgets that have been cut.

All of this is very sad, but much of it is inevitable, and, more than that, once the pain has gone away and countless titles and brands have closed, which I still believe they will, there will be a new order of journalists and organisations, many of them shaping a future in a way which it is difficult for pre-revolutionary businesses to even imagine and whilst it might seem unsympathetic to say so we will look back in a few years time and wonder at why it took us so long to change.

We can carry on describing the problems journalism and news organisations face until the cows come home, or indeed are shipped off for slaughter in the wake of foot and mouth.

Much more interesting is what happens next – we are after all journalists, and whilst we like to wallow in the wake of bad news, we also like to know what’s to be done.

First of all – I don’t have an answer, because I don’t think there is one answer. I think there are many answers.

And – by the way – it is just as likely that there is an answer in here as out there. Or in the j-schools of new york or in national newsrooms, in fact much more likely as students here now are Rupert Murdoch’s fabled digital natives – you will be the journalistic entrepreneurs who show us the way. You have a once in a lifetime, possibly even once in a century opportunity to redefine the terms of how journalism connects with its audience, how it maintains strong purpose and real presence in a very changed world.

If there is not a cast iron solution, already, still in the depth of recession there are many clues, and clues are useful because cluelessness is one of the media’s key problems at the moment.

Clue one – any communication organisation needs an audience. So find one. If you build it they won’t come because they are busy elsewhere.
So go where the audiences is.

The idea that we can shepherd viewers or readers or listeners into one place at one time is gone – we all consume our news comment and analysis through many, many different sources.

If your audience is declining as it is for primetime analogue tv, newspapers, and radio stations, but reading, watching, listening is growing, as it really is, then go where the growth is, be on all platforms. Use Twitter, Facebook, mobile, youtube, podcasts, email and sms. Don’t be afraid to let your content go – what’s the worst that could happen.

Do not just do more of the same – Einstein’s definition of insanity was to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

Clue two – networks work better than silos. Rules of networks are that if you are a hub not a destination your traffic will be higher….the same is true of media outlets, the same is true of individual journalists or stories – if you are at the centre of your community not on the periphery, many people will go through you.

Clue three – utility and reliability never go out of fashion and trustworthiness and transparency are crucial. When people know you will tell them something useful they will seek you out, when they know you are trustworthy they will tell you things so you can tell others.
And journalism means journalists – trust is placed in people as well as brands.

Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor is an exponent of this – he is a tall poppy who has gathered a following which gives him 1m hits on every blog post – people want to find the good stuff and to have a personal relationship with a trusted source.

The internet allows that. But Robert Peston has a following because he is very well informed by his sources and can tell you things which, on the whole, other people can’t. He is a classic example of where the BBC, the country’s largest journalistic employer, is moving from a bulletin led model to a correspondent led model. They pay Peston to spend time understanding complex stories and cultivating sources… This is basic stuff but oh so important, and there can be no better use of a news organisation’s resource than allowing its journalists that space and time.

Clue four – Wikipedia is often a better historical source on news stories than news organisations themselves. There are two lessons here – one is that the news business is struggling to understand the language of the web, the second is that tools plus users equals content, both are key to the future of journalism.

Matt Waite is 32 and he has just won a Pulitzer Prize for his Politifact website for the St Petersburg Times in the US. It checks facts around what people in Washington put in their speeches. Matt is now a news technologist, but WAS an investigative reporter – he’s a brilliant example of how you can reinvent a strand of journalism in line with the way the web works..The site is based on DATA – and allows the user to study that data – it tells a story, not in the conventional way, but in a way more powerful on the web.

Clue Five – not really a clue more a statement of the obvious, as Dan Gilmour, the famous media journalist said in his seminal book “we the media” “there’s always someone closer to the story than you”, or as my mum said, at the kitchen table, “whenever I read or see something I know anything about I’m always struck by how wrong it is”.

It amounts to the same thing – your readers and audience know and see more than you ever could. Find ways to let them add their knowledge.

Clues four and five here are very important. The fact that everywhere you go now, there are witnesses, potential reporters, holders of vital information, is one of the key revolutionising factors in telling stories.

When we covered the G20 protests in London last month The Guardian put enormous resource into live coverage, into video of the event, into having reporters in the crowds at every point. It was after all a story happening on our own doorstep. One reporter, Paul Lewis, was convinced the whole story was not being told, so he went back to the scene, he spent time getting closer to the family, he kept writing about it and pushing – and then an American fund manager, who was aware of the story, reviewed his own video footage and noticed that he had shots of Ian Tomlinson being pushed to the ground. He sent us the video, we put it on the web and distributed to all other news outlets – much to the extreme annoyance of the IPCC. That story was possible because of Paul’s perseverance, and the lowering costs of technology which both allow anyone in the street to video anything and a newspaper organisation to publish video.

We could not have done this two years ago.

Talking about this last week, Alan Rusbridger said something which I believe to be at the heart of our future – that we cannot do journalism to the best of our abilities without the audience and they cannot project stories as well as we can. We need them, they need us. Recently – and I believe a Falmouth post graduate was involved in this- we embarked on an ambitious project to expose the problems with corporate tax loopholes.

Ironically, as an aside It lead to us being injuncted, in the middle of the night, over documents which then turned up on Wikileaks and then on other blogs and sites, rendering the injunction on the Guardian a nonsense. It seems the judicial system didn’t get the memo about the existence of the internet or the power of the network. It lead to the government introducing changes in the budget – powerful stuff – but as Alan noted, given those stories are phenomenally expensive to run it is impossible for a lone voice, without some organisational backing, to produce these results.

So from the clues we know that the future of journalism is networked not silo’d, we know that it has to be distributed not static, we know that it has to be appropriate for the platform, and to be really effective it has to be trusted and open to engagement, and in achieving that you can use any means at your disposal which, in the days of audioboo, flip videos and social networking sties, is pretty much every way. And we know we need the help of our communities to build and engage audiences and to break stories. Simple really.

We also know it needs funding.

So this is the multi billion pound question.

What are the business models?

It’s always the key question – it’s the same question I was asked in 2001 when I was categorically told “the advertising model on the web will never work”. Eight years later our digital revenues are ten times what they were then, despite the recession, and Google seems to have made advertising on the web work.

Though I have to say that this is where it is possible to despair if you are less optimistic than me. Innovation from the agency businesses and media owners in terms of commercial revenue generation has been unbelievably slow and quite poor – no wonder Google has eaten our lunch, it listened to advertisers and studied users – arguably the advertising industry did not do enough of either – if we are ever to have sustainable business models this will have to change radically.

Businesses will always need to communicate with customers, they value the projection they can get from media, they will continue one way or another to fund some content, but it will not be the same order of money we enjoyed in the brief heady days of control over distribution channels. Going back to Big Farm Weekly I had a car, in my first job. That doesn’t happen any more. In my second job at an advertising trade magazine, at my interview, in 1988, the publisher held it aloft and said “this magazine made £15m profit last year”. That also doesn’t happen any more. When I joined the Observer in 1990 – nearly twenty years ago, a journalist with a similar level of seniority to mine at the Guardian today was paid almost exactly the same salary as I am now. The editor had not one, but two jags. Alan has a G-Whizz, only one of them.

I was watching another documentary the other day where it was revealed that in 1962, a diary tip given to the daily express got you £70 – that’s £1100 in today’s money. Incredible.

The deflation in journalism has been going on for three decades and we have seen an explosion of output and productivity – but news is not a profitable business and we might need to be clear that in the immediate future cross subsidy will be needed. Now in the on demand world some of that voluminous choice will inevitably go. Most organisations are still riding two horses at once – large, expensive print organisations and developing digital businesses, or on-demand video and lights-on-all-the-time 24 hour news, or bulletins fronted by extraordinarily highly paid presenters.

I’m not pleading poverty – far from it. But it is worth pointing out that the heightened expectations of the ‘licence to print money’ model of media, applicable to so much of the post war period, was maybe a transitory aberration rather than a realistic aspiration.

But even as I was sitting at my desk on Friday afternoon, sweating on deadline (some things never change) someone pinged me a link to a US blog talking about a new hyperlocal model called VillageSoup, quietly plugging away for the best part of the decade, here is a small company producing hyperlocal networked sites, employing some journalists, but blending it with citizen and sponsor blogs and – gasp – making a profit.

I believe it is places like this – Falmouth, and other regional cities, and people like you, connected and interested, skilled and passionate about journalism who are the future of journalism.

John Edward Taylor was a campaigner for Parliamentary reform, and after witnessing the Peterloo massacre was motivated to start what became the Manchester Guardian in 1821.

John Edward Taylor and his descendants, who nurtured the Guardian as a family business, was not motivated by a business model, indeed there was no more a business model for print in 1821 than there is today, but there was a thirst for dissemination of knowledge, and a revolution in production and transport.

It is impossible not to think about Taylor and not feel inspired about being at the start of such a revolution rather than the end of the cycle. For that reason I think that the future of journalism is as exciting and important as it ever was. And as the farmer says ‘we do it because we love it’.


Entry filed under: Future of journalism, Online Journalism. Tags: , , , .

On the death of paid writing and bangle making

9 Comments Add your own

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

RSS Emily Bell on Twitter

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Emily's del.icio.us links

%d bloggers like this: