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

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.”