Reporting on some informal conversations about the future of public interest journalism
A small group of community members, bloggers, journalists and academics (some of us wearing multiple hats) attended the Public Interest Journalism Foundation’s first MeetUp event in Canberra recently.
We were fortunate to hear from award-winning blogger and media analyst, Jim Parker, aka Mr Denmore of The Failed Estate, Professor Matthew Ricketson, who assisted Ray Finkelstein QC with his inquiry into media regulation (you can read his recent presentation on this to the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University), and Craig Thomler, Managing Director of digital democracy company Delib Australia, and a Gov 2.0 advocate and blogger.
The discussions were casual and not intended for wider reporting, but some of the general themes included:
• That the digital transformation of all aspects of society and our lives is still in its early days. It is difficult to know how it will all pan out, but the media industry as we have traditionally known it will be reinvented – and probably not by the current major players.
• Australia is lagging behind other countries in digital innovation more broadly, although it is noteworthy that governments are increasingly becoming publishers with the Queensland Police Service Facebook page (with 286,938 “likes”) out-ranking the Courier Mail with a M-F circulation of 188,000 and 255,000 on Saturdays.
• Concerns were raised about mainstream media organisations’ lack of accountability to the public, and about the reporting of misinformation.
• Journalism educators and graduates face immense challenges given the seismic shifts occurring.
Below are some comments from participants.
For the future of journalism, look to the entrepreneurs
Australian society, similar to many other societies around the world, is experiencing a transformational shock due to the emergence of the world’s first low cost, high speed, low barriers to entry, near-ubiquitous global communications and engagement medium – the internet.
Traditional media, having had a core role in building modern society, is feeling a great deal of the pain of this social change. Their control of news distribution is increasingly facing non-traditional competition from, literally, every individual and organisation connected to the internet.
Like the retail and music industries, traditional media players are attempting to preserve their existing models by erecting barriers to new media entrants.
And like the retail and music industries, traditional media is likely to find that these tactics may extend the lives of their 20th century business models for a few years, but will not preserve them in their current form through the social transformation taking place.
Once media players – old or new – accept they can no longer compete on news delivery speed or exclusive access to facts on a commercial basis, and instead focus on becoming meta-aggregators of high worth analysis and in-depth investigative journalism from topical experts, we’ll see a real change in the structure, composition and size of media organisations.
However, media players who cling to the ‘golden age’ of the 20th century – a historic ‘blip’ when owning the (very expensive) means of distribution guaranteed reliable income and profits – are likely to face a similar fate to the players in other industries that have failed to move with the times and adapt to new economic environments.
Throughout this process, wherever it takes us, journalism will remain critical to society, and to democracy, for its role in analysing news, uncovering facts and putting the puzzle pieces together.
However, while traditional media continues to focus on speed and cost cutting, journalism is in for a rocky ride. The most successful journalists will not be those who allow themselves to be trained into the mindset of traditional media, but will be those prepared to be entrepreneurs – to work from their passion for news, not for a steady pay check – building new kinds of media enterprises.
Learn from the music industry – and how musicians have reinvented themselves
The great attraction of events like this is it drags people away from the casual anonymity of their digital lives and creates a level of engagement that is not possible online.
So much of the talk around media is about the death of the business model supporting journalism – and the descent of the industry into manufactured outrage and generating clicks. But the flipside of that process of devolution is the evolution of “accidental” journalism as the public uses new communication tools to build communities around sets of ideas.
The point I made at the forum was that the essential tools of any journalist – beyond a facility with words or images – are curiosity, integrity and a determination to get at the truth of things. But none of that works without the ability to engender trust. With much of the trust in the traditional media now eroded, this provides enormous opportunities for new voices to emerge.
At this point, most discussions of this type descend into pointless speculation about business models and revenue streams. Frankly, I think people should forget about the money and just keep experimenting.
Look what happened to the music industry, which was about 10 years ahead of the media in experiencing disintermediation. Formerly the chattels of record companies, drawing an advance and being managed by someone else, most musicians now are entrepreneurs – recording, producing, distributing and marketing their own music and going back to performance.
I strongly believe journalism is going the same way – really back to its roots in coffee houses and pamphleteering. The people formerly known as the audience are on the same side of the table as the journalists, whose role is now more about research and explanation and curation and helping other people to bring their own stories to life.
It’s really a very exciting time and one that the Public Interest Journalism Foundation can continue to foster by holding soirees like this around the country – sponsoring discussion and ideas and tapping the huge interest of the public themselves in talking about the issues as they see them, not as how a dishonest, cynical and self-serving media would frame them.
How can public interest journalism engage the public?
I liked the relaxed, informal nature of the event and bringing together people with diverse experience and views and a passion for good journalism and the opportunities presented by the online environment.
One of the things I took away from it concerns the role of citizens and what they are making of public interest journalism and the kinds of citizen-led initiatives the PIJF is involved in.
What motivates citizen journalists and their audiences/publics? It would seem important that public interest journalism can attract and appeal to as many people as possible, including those who may not be currently engaged with online news/journalism. I guess one of the challenges for public interest journalism is attracting and retaining the interest of the public when there are so many sources of news and information available.
A great night
It was enormously refreshing to participate in an unbiased conversation; to be heard; to receive considered, evidence-based responses to my questions rather than the opinionated drivel awash in today’s media. I’ll definitely be back.
Greater public engagement is the future
I found Craig Thomler’s summary of the media and digital landscape an interesting one…and a good reality check, as well. The way our society is engaging with technology presents an enormous challenge for ‘producers’ of news and information to be heard, seen and read. The work of journalists will always be important in a democracy but the consumption habits of our society means the channels of delivery, distribution and engagement will become increasingly more important.
The PIJF is an admirable project because it does keep the focus of journalism on the group of people formerly known as ‘the audience’. The public now have so many ways in which they can choose to engage with news, current affairs and public information, and although we might cringe, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, social and non-traditional media are outlets also operating in this space.
Despite the pessimistic forecasts (not helped by recent events at Fairfax), journalists are not redundant. They know what makes a story, they understand the purpose of producing content in the public interest, they have the ability to convey information in a way that can be digested, and there will always be a need for the public to find out what is happening in our world from reliable sources.
But one of the keys is how they can make the public part of that process. The MPs expenses case in the UK in 2009 was an example of how this can work. Media outlets (The Guardian, in particular) asked members of the public to help scour the expense accounts of MPs and, consequently, uncovered criminal acts that sent shockwaves through the political system. Stories like that come along once-in-a-decade, perhaps even less frequently, but it’s the concept of ‘news outlets’ (and not necessarily the traditional ones which currently exist) engaging with the public to produce content which everyone is invested and interested in.
Discussions like the one on Tuesday night in Canberra, albeit to a small audience, are a healthy sign that people care about the role of journalism in our society.
Focus on public interest role of journalism
At this time of industrial and technological change, there is a vacuum in which the public interest role of journalism is in danger of being lost. This meeting of the foundation was a welcome step in bringing interested parties together to begin discussing alternatives.
Challenges for educators and graduates
It was an enjoyable night with great speakers and a good opportunity for Journalism and Media Studies academics to network with others with an interest in public interest journalism.
I would reiterate the comment that journalism educators face massive challenges preparing our graduates for this rapidly changing world. It’s of great concern to the academy, and the changes we have put in place to our Journalism degree at UC are designed to produce graduates with strong skills and a broad appreciation of the industry(ies) in which they might end up practising.
How can the Public Interest Journalism Foundation help?
• The Public Interest Journalism Foundation has few material resources but a wealth of networks and contacts that can be engaged in facilitating discussions and innovation around the future of journalism.
• Perhaps the Foundation could help facilitate networks of mentors – not only for helping young journalists and graduates upskill at a time when it is difficult to achieve this via traditional routes but also for helping bloggers, citizen and independent journalists, whether with business, technical, legal or content advice.
• One suggestion was to establish a website or similar to enable community members and others to have greater opportunity for holding the media industry to account.
• As always, thinking about the future of journalism raises mixed emotions. On the one hand, the lack of a business model to support worthwhile journalism remains a challenge. On the other hand, the potential for innovation and for re-establishing the purpose of journalism is tremendously exciting, as is the expanding role of the community in this space.
Clearly the Foundation needs to keep its focus firmly on the wider community rather than limiting our sights to journalists and the traditional industry. On related themes, this post about the future of news by software developer Stijn Debrouwere concludes: “Most innovation in media and most of the revenue and most of the value will come not from the incumbents and not even from news start-ups, but from people who unwittingly stumble into producing media as the solution to another problem.”
• More feedback is at the MeetUp site.