Can journalists learn to trust the public? Are we open to collaborating with community groups? This Q and A with Professor Robert Picard raises plenty of questions on the future of journalism

Professor Robert Picard and his blog, The Media Business

The emerging crisis in the Australian media industry is likely to galvanise the community sector and philanthropists to engage with the reinvention of journalism.

So says Professor Robert Picard, a leading authority on media economics and management and government communications policies, and the Director of Research at the Reuters Institute, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.

Professor Picard recently delivered lectures at the National Press Club and the University of Canberra, where he also consulted on development of a research agenda for the News and Media Research Centre.

In a Q and A published in full below, he says that journalists need to become more open to developing partnerships with the community sector, although this will require a significant cultural shift.

“One thing I’ve always said about journalists, and as an ex journalist, is that a lot of journalists don’t like the public – ‘please don’t call me about my article’,” he said.

“In the training and the mythology of journalism, we are the school-master of the people. It’s the great unwashed out there, we’re supposed to educate them and direct them…that’s a terrible view of the public. And in fact one needs to be partnering with them.

“It is a cultural shift but it has to happen because the way we interact in a digital world requires interactions, transparency and trust – that haven’t necessarily been evident between media companies, journalists and the audience, which we didn’t really trust.”

In an era where many people and organisations are taking on some of the traditional roles of journalism, Professor Picard says it is imperative that journalists focus on how we can value add in servicing communities’ information needs.

To survive and prosper, journalists must focus more on providing analysis and contextual coverage, to help the community make sense of their information overload, rather than simply providing an account of who said or did what.

“Journalism isn’t an end to itself; journalism is a function that helps society,” said Professor Picard. “I agree that innovation will come as solutions to community problems.”

While Australian philanthropists and foundations have not been anywhere near as proactive in supporting public interest journalism as in the US, Professor Picard expects this will change as the industry crisis grows.

“In Australia the situation has been deteriorating, and it’s getting close to the point whether community and other foundations are going to say, ‘we’ve got a problem now’, whereas two years ago it may not have been perceived as that’,” he said.

Organisations like the Public Interest Journalism Foundation have an important role in educating the wider community about the value of sustaining the worthwhile roles of journalism, he added.

As to the skills that journalists need for the future, Professor Picard says the core attribute of successful journalism remains unchanged: curiosity. He advises journalism students to do double majors, and to develop an area of expertise to enable more authoritative reporting.

He also suggests there may be start-up opportunities in servicing the needs of expat and immigrant communities, pointing to a successful venture that is doing this in Sweden (as profiled here).

While he predicts that print has a limited lifespan and says we are now in a transition period where “people need to try a lot of things”, Professor Picard is optimistic for the future and the reinvention of journalism.

“It’s a great time for journalism,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most exciting times, there are more opportunities for young journalists to do things in the future.”

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Edited transcript of Q and A with Melissa Sweet on 12 February, 2013

Q: If introducing yourself to a room of people interested in public interest journalism, how would you do so?

RP: I’ve spent 30 years trying to understand the economics of media and how they operate, how they fund, and what the implications of the kind of information and content that they provide. Today, as we’re looking at the problems facing journalism, having that background helps me understand what the possibilities are, why the industry is in trouble, and how it relates to the way that news has been funded in the past.

I’m interested in those underlying business and economic factors… because of the performance issues of how do we in society have news and information and content that helps us in our lives.

In the 1970s I was working in the news business and there was a lot of consolidation going on in the news industry and I was trying to understand why do newspapers die, and that’s what led me into some of those questions. Over time I found that I enjoyed studying it better than doing it, and it was a better opportunity for me to contribute by doing that.

Q: What is the critical agenda for research in journalism?

RP: The real question is what information needs are there in communities and how are we going to solve those. Newspapers and television have actually done a terrible job of providing community information. They’ve done a fairly good job at providing information about institutions, but they’re not very good at tracking peoples’ lives very well.

For most people their lives revolve around community centres, around schools, around churches, around their daily activities of life. In many ways those are harder to cover because there are not organised institutions that are always there supporting those so you can go talk to them. Secondly, there is a problem in journalism in that there really isn’t a broad structure to cover those. You don’t get affirmation from your peers for covering what goes on in a church parish hall.

Q: How does that tie into a research agenda?

RP: One of the things they (the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra) are trying to look at is to look at communities and try to say, well, what do people want?

There are different types of people in a community; even in a city there are rural areas around. You have different ethnic groups, which may or may not get the information they want from the traditional media. In a town you have media but there are other kinds, some digital, community newspapers. So the first thing is to identify what information do people need and then to start looking at where do you get that info and how do you pass that on in a community and what gaps are there – which really becomes the important part. How can we use current and developing technologies to improve delivery of certain kinds of information?

Q: How can journalism best serve the public interest in a digitally connected world?

RP: Some of that is about local community information, why we have media in the first place. Even in small communities today you don’t need much media. If you’ve got 1000 people living in the community, everyone is going to know what’s going on, because they show up in the local public tavern, there’s the parish hall and so they communicate on a regular basis. If you’re upset with what’s happening with the mayor, the next time you see him in the pub, you’re going to accost him.

As scale grows, those places where we communicated as individuals are separated from us and so we have to find out how we can provide and facilitate that kind of connectivity. It differs in different communities and different parts of the country. You have to look at a particular community to see what needs are being filled and not filled.

As human beings, the more we interact, the more we trust each other, the more we understand each other, the more we look out for each other’s interests. We want people to be engaged in the communities, we want people to be engaged in the decision-making in communities. But people can’t do that if they don’t have proper information. So how do you get that information is really what journalism is all about.

Then there’s the second part of journalism, which is as people become separated from the mechanisms of government, how do we promote accountability in that system? So different media will serve those different functions.

Q: You’ve written that public interest journalism is only a small part of what the media does although it’s the part we love to emphasise. Where does public interest journalism fit within the changing media landscape? What are the opportunities and the perils?

RP: Some of it’s changing simply because the institutions that are involved are changing. If you take health centres for instance, a lot of health providers are now providing a great deal of online health information and advice that journalists used to write in their newspapers. Analysing whether they’re doing well is something that probably requires a journalist to do it.

It is important in life that young people are out playing sports; but in many communities you never see those people in the media. Only the professional teams are (appearing in the media), yet that’s an important part of community development and life. It’s good for the health of the community. It’s an important part of pride and developing self-respect.

We have many functions in the community. If they are not being done by the traditional media, we now have the opportunity that others can step in and do that using digital media. Some of this is being done by journalists, some is being done by educated members of the community who have the ability to write and convey information well. It is a very exciting time because these provide a lot of social benefits along the way.

Q: In an era where anyone with a website or internet access is potentially a citizen journalist or media publisher, how can journalists differentiate themselves and value add?

RP: The difference is between the functions of traditional media. One function is just information, what’s happening, what’s out there. That doesn’t require a great deal of training, it requires the ability to gather information and convey it in a reasonable way. Journalists have done that historically for about 200 years because nobody else was doing it.

But then there’s the news function which is really looking at society and saying here’s the range of information, here’s some issues and things we need to focus our attention on and here’s some things to think about – and that requires training. So what I think will happen in the years to come is that journalists will start moving out of the general information function and move more directly into this function that requires a group of practices of how to ensure you’re actually conveying very good information.

Q: But journalists aren’t the only ones with those skills – there are plenty of academics and so on who are doing this?

RP: We’re getting what I call “expert journalism”. One of the functions of journalists has traditionally been, that if we have to do a report about the economy, journalists go out and interview economists. Well, there are many economists now running their own news sites about the economy and they’re aimed not at other economists but the general public. It’s a very good thing but it does bypass journalists, but you have to be wanting to hear what an economist says to go to them. So there’s still a point where journalists need to be able to say to the general public, there’s something going on here that’s interesting.

We’re seeing that with scientists, with doctors, with sports people with a whole range of expert journalists. These really are experts but they were traditionally our sources of information before.

Q: So our sources are becoming our competitors or our collaborators?

RP: Absolutely, because today our monopoly over the platform, which is what really made journalism powerful in the 20th century, is breaking down, because of the internet.

Q: There has been a lot of criticism about the media’s coverage of politics. In particular, how can we value add when it comes to covering the long federal election campaign?

RP: I think that really becomes the issue. Journalists have traditionally done the horse race campaign – who’s ahead in the polls, who’s doing what. In many cases if you look at election campaigning and the way it’s portrayed in media, you don’t always get a sense of what the candidates’ positions are. Part of that is a space issue and a time issue in broadcasting.

Now that we’re breaking that with the internet, the value adding that the journalist really needs to be doing is comparing candidates and looking at the issues in depth so that if people want to see, what is their position on health care, on a particular agricultural policy, what does it mean and how does it compare to other options? It’s (helping the community to get) that background of understanding, because there’s enough ways for that basic information to get to the public.

Q: Yet you’ve written that: “Unfortunately, many journalists do not evidence the skills, critical analytical capacity, or inclination to carry out value-added journalism. News organizations have to start asking themselves whether it is because are hiring the wrong journalists or whether their company practices are inhibiting journalists’ abilities to do so.” What are the core skills/attributes for journalists of the future?

RP: What makes a good journalist to begin with and what is going to be needed in the future is curiosity. One has to be out there saying, what is this about, what’s behind it, why are they telling me that and not telling me something else, what are they not telling me? And to really understand what it’s all about, to put that together with information from others and to provide critical analysis.

A journalist’s role in this information age is to sort through it, to make some sense of it; and that means you have to be curious, you have to analyse and you have to be thinking, you have to have some background skills or understanding on what you’re reporting on.

Q: And is your advice for media organisations of the future?

RP: It doesn’t help when news organisations are suddenly saying to a journalist, you’ve got to produce five stories today. All you can do is get the basic information and after a while that information is not very valuable because it’s not in a coherent picture that helps people understand what’s going on.  So journalist organisations have to really start thinking about, how do we stop doing these little bits of flow, and start focusing on the other? There are enough places on the internet where you’re getting that (information) flow, and now what we need is understanding and comprehension.

Q: What role is there for non media organisations in contributing to public interest journalism? Any worthwhile examples?

RP: There are some very interesting examples. A lot of it is coming from NFPs and NGOs, for example, in covering foreign aid issues. NGOs will now have sites about where aid needs to be directed. They are quite journalistic in their approach and many of the people they use to do it are journalists.

So we’re seeing a whole group of specific information provision on specific issues. There are some very interesting sites now about the conflict in Syria. Some of it is quite independent neutral and some of it is from people who have chosen sides. The problem for the public is that they have to learn what ones are credible and which ones aren’t. And there is a role for journalists there in directing the public to useful sites.

Q: Who should or could journalism be collaborating with?

RP: Journalists have to collaborate more with community organisations; that’s absolutely fundamental. First of all they have to be very open to the kind of information that is there. They have to be open to the fact that they really want to help people.

One thing I’ve always said about journalists, and as an ex journalist, is that a lot of journalists don’t like the public – ‘please don’t call me about my article’. In the training and the mythology of journalism, we are the schoolmaster of the people. It’s the great unwashed out there we’re supposed to educate them and direct them…that’s a terrible view of the public. And in fact one needs to be partnering with them.

Q: It’s quite a cultural shift though?

RP: It is a cultural shift but it has to happen because the way we interact in a digital world requires interactions, transparency and trust – that haven’t necessarily been evident between media companies, journalists and the audience, which we didn’t really trust.

Q: How can journalists and media organisations develop that?

RP: It is a cultural shift and it takes time to do. One of the great advantages of journalism training is that we do train journalists to be suspicious – why are they giving me this information?, what are they not giving me?, why are they making me look over here because they’re hiding something over there?

It is important to be a little critical and wary along the way, but there are organisations and community-based groups that are not exercising power in the same way. And those are the ones where once you start working with them, you start seeing, it’s fine, we can work with them.

Q So should we be looking in our partnerships to the less powerful?

RP: I think so. They’re less worrisome to us. In terms of journalism you’re trying to hold power to account. But at the same time those who aren’t powerful are the ones we’re trying to help as well.

Sometimes those groups that aren’t exercising power are bringing forward social problems we really need to be dealing with and when we deal with them as equals and as partners in the community, we keep things calmer in the community and it actually facilitates solving problems.

Q: What other sectors can we learn from, that are succeeding with innovation in a digital world?

RP: What you see more than anything else today is the idea of connecting people and getting people to contribute in different ways. We have to believe that people out there know something.

In journalism we’ve always said the only thing people know is what they observe so we will go interview them and talk to two or three witnesses and try to put together what’s out there. Very rarely do we invite people to come to us with information.

For example, if you’re covering why there are so many problems with potholes in the street, you can ask the audience whether there is an expert in materials or who lays road – the guys who do road construction and design. We can ask because they’re reading us, they’re part of our community both online and offline. There are people out there with great expertise on everything in society, far more than journalists ever had. But we don’t know who they are. The networking effect of the digital world allows us to reach them in a way that we couldn’t reach them in the offline world.

Q: What is the most interesting piece of journalism research that you’ve seen recently, and why?

RP: Some of the more interesting things that are happening today have to do with different levels of trust that people have for media. A general pattern is starting to emerge, that people find more credibility in media that are closer to them. The farther away, the less trust. If you have a local community newspaper that may be a terrible newspaper in journalistic terms, but people often really like it because it’s theirs and it reflects them. One hundred miles away might be a larger, more important paper but we don’t quite trust them because they are not our neighbours, we don’t meet with them, we don’t know who they are.

A lot of the research, both in national and international journalism, is showing the same problem. It’s very interesting because we have to say that the local is every bit as important to people in their lives.

Q: How does that fit in a digitally connected world?

RP: Trust develops by human interaction. So with the digital connection, the longer you are in them and you build up a trust, you know whether to trust them or not. So you have this community effect still online. It’s not necessarily geographic.

Q: So if you want to do digital innovation in journalism, trust is all important?

RP: Absolutely. We all have multiple identities, we are not all the same people. I have an identity as a professor but I also have an identity as a father, as a sailor. We are all that way; we are not one person. The world today facilitates that easier than it did in the past.

Q: What is the most useful report on the future of journalism that you’ve seen recently, and why?

RP: A lot of them aren’t very useful. A lot of them are just whining, saying it’s awful, it’s terrible, it’s not the same as they used to be. I like those trying to identify solutions rather than just the problems. The problem is nobody really knows that the solutions are.

We are in an age where people need to try a lot of things. We are in a transition period. There is no one answer, there are different answers for different media. It is really distressing when a local radio tries to use the same strategy as a national radio strategy.

Q: Looking around the world, what are the best models of innovation in public interest journalism?

RP: Some of the most interesting ones right now are digital start-ups. Some are well known like Propublica. But there’s also San Francisco Public Press, saying we want to cover the community and community activities in a different way. We want to cover those activities that are not being covered.

The world is different today than it was 50 years ago and we have much more mobility. People are moving around. When you move away from your country, you still want to keep in touch with your home and culture.

There are lot of things happening to do that. For example, in Sweden there’s this wonderful (initiative), it started out as a free paper, Gringo (profiled in this recent article), it now has radio and TV shows. It was started by Latin Americans who had moved to Sweden; what they wanted to do was convey that we are different but we are being treated differently and to convey their problems in this very egalitarian society.

Because they were groundbreaking, they become a voice for all immigrants. Now you have other groups starting their own, partly because they want to keep in touch. Their audience is in Sweden. It (Gringo) was started by community members but now has journalists.

You’re seeing that happen everywhere, you’re seeing a new type of ethnic media than in the past.

You may have Kurds that have come to Australia from Iraq. That helps them explain to each other, how do you understand Australia, how do you relate to the country and integrate into the country and it helps preserve some of their values.

Journalism isn’t an end to itself; journalism is a function that helps society. I agree that innovation will come as solutions to community problems.

Q: In a 2009 paper provocatively titled “Why journalists deserve low pay” (available here) you argued that the professionalism of journalism and journalism education have turned most journalists into “relatively interchangeable information factory workers” and that “if journalism as an economic activity and the news business are to survive, we must find ways to alter practice and the skills to create new economic value.” Do you think journalists need to rethink their income expectations and rethink creating value out of what we do?

RP: The income expectations don’t need rethinking – they’re just going to change.

You have to be prepared to work in different ways; you have to think about your retirement incomes and your whole financing of life in a different way. The old way of working for an organization for 30 years isn’t going to continue. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that you have to be prepared for that.

Historically journalists had certain things that gave them a lot of economic value. If journalists wanted to speak to people in power, they had access. It was that unusual access that was very important. If there was a speech by the mayor or by the PM, they could go there and be there. Well, we can all be there by cable TV today or by Internet and watch it live.

So just merely saying, ‘well they said this’ isn’t enough any more. That’s where the rethinking has to happen. Many of the advantages that journalists traditionally had, of being able to go into the parliament are now changed.

So one has to think through, what were the advantages that journalists had, a lot of it had to do with sources and access other such things, which they no longer have a monopoly on.

If you don’t have a monopoly and people are already watching the event, if you just say ‘this event took place, you watched it’, that doesn’t matter to the public, but if you say ‘you watched this event, what does it mean, what does it tell us about what’s going to happen next?’

Now we have people able to do so much as citizen journalists and computer programs and all this ability to watch the world from afar. You have this deskilling, plus this value added problem, how can we have better skills than the public?

Q: Do governments or civil society have a role in sustaining public interest journalism?

RP: I think they should. The question is at what level should they do so and how should they be involved? All institutions of society, whether government, foundations or educational institutions (have a role) in helping and finding ways to have better flows of information to society.

Governments spend a great deal of money or give up a great deal of money supporting media – not only for public broadcasting but through tax advantages to commercial media. May be we should reallocate those to the news rather than entertainment operations, or to quality rather than tabloid.

Having good information flow and having citizens connected to their communities and participating in the decisions of their communities are important too.

Q: Foundations in other countries have done a lot but we haven’t had much of that in Australia…

RP: (It will come) in time, as the crisis grows. In Australia the situation has been deteriorating and it’s getting close to the point whether community and other foundations are going to say, we’ve got a problem now, whereas two years ago it may not have been perceived as that.

Q: What advice do you have for the Public Interest Journalism Foundation?

RP: I think there’s an educational function, about how this (space) is changing, and about the important functions of journalism. We have foundations that are designed to help give the public better information about health. We need to show them that there’s now a disconnect, and that the ability to reach the public with that information has to be part of your remit.

Q: What advice for do you have for journalism students?

RP: It’s a great time for journalism. I think it’s one of the most exciting times, there are more opportunities for young journalists to do things in the future.

One of the problems of traditional journalism in the past is that you came in and it was years before you got to do anything interesting, simply because there were so many more seasoned people above you.

But in this environment, you have an ability after a year or two to start your own activities to focus on a particular problem. So when you come in, you have more opportunity to do a greater variety of things than in the past.

(Also, I’d say) understand the technology and the issues. I always say to journalism students, get a second major, get a major in economics, psychology, healthcare because then you’re able to bring some knowledge or understanding to the issue so that when you’re writing or broadcasting about an issue, you’re not just parroting others, but you can bring some understanding to an issue.

Q: What are your predictions for the future of media in Australia and globally?

RP: Entertainment media is in great shape, but for news media it’s a different kind of setting, it is very, very difficult.

One of the things about journalism is if you go back 50 years ago, people in journalism could make a comfortable living. Nobody got rich. It was only in the bigger cities that you had people getting rich. Then in the 80s you had this period where people got used to getting rich.

We’re changing but I don’t view it as completely negative. Print is very good at providing information to large numbers of people. But if you’re not providing to large number of people it’s not very cost effective.

In a newspaper, about 12 to 15 percent of the costs are the news and the rest is everything else. That’s a terrible business to be in, and 85 percent or more of your costs are for things that are not to do with core business.

I do think that daily journalism will move away from newspapers because it’s just not cost effective. We will see some of the big city and national newspapers go. Smaller and rural papers are more likely to last longer but in the end, over the next 25 to 50 years, we will get rid of paper. It’s expensive.

Four out of five parts of the newspaper are entertainment, lifestyle. Journalists like to pretend what they’re doing is accountability journalism, but most of them never touch that. Why are we doing food news? We have to rethink the newspaper to say, what parts are we going to do without?

Q: What would you get rid of?

RP: It differs by community. A lot of those feature sections in newspapers, eg food and lifestyle. Now if you want food or automotive information, there are so many other choices, so how important is it to spend a lot of your resources doing that? So each paper is going to have to analyse what they’re spending and how much they’re getting back and to decide which ones are right to keep.

Journalists will need to be more accountable. More and more, you are going to have to justify your actions to funders, whether it be to foundations, the news company or to educational institutions wanting to work together on a project.

Q: How to retain independence?

RP: There is no complete independence and never has been. The question is where do you draw the line, and at what things to worry. Those are going to have to be negotiated each time, but journalists have been doing that for 200 years, trying to negotiate where the boundaries are.

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For more from Professor Picard, see this interview with Eleanor Hall on ABC’s The World Today, in which he says journalists are going to have to become much more entrepreneurial:

“Essentially, the idea that you go to work for an organisation and stay there for 30 years is just dead and journalists are going to have to become much more entrepreneurial on their own, and much less dependent on the organisations for their income.”

Update: And the link to the National Press Club speech.

• Declaration: Melissa Sweet is a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra.