I was teaching on the day of the recent Is there a crisis in world journalism? event so I was unable to participate and I’ve been trying to catch up since. There’s plenty of audio and video at the link above, set up by Coventry University which hosted the event, and on journalism.co.uk. But I had a few doubts about the event, and what I’ve seen and heard so far hasn’t assuaged them.
Form and content
I should say at this point that I’m not knocking the very great effort that went into staging or contributing to this event. I just think we need to move things on a little. Coventry University’s John Mair, who produced the event, described it as as: “Distinguished speakers from across five continents, an audience of students, academics and real people, three and a half hours of exciting intellectual debate and more, breaking new frontiers with videoconferencing and webcasting and Twitter and more: this has put Coventry and Coventry journalism on the world stage.” All of which is fine, but the measure of the event’s value is surely in what was actually said, as well as the methods used to say it.
From what I’ve seen so far, there was much general discussion about the exciting and challenging media times we live in. Jeremy Paxman made an interesting contribution about the kind of journalism that can be produced, and Adrian Monck also focussed on a practical angle, observing pertinently that “journalists are obsessed with the notion of crisis” and saying that we need to “seize the opportunity” to put new ideas and new ways of producing news into practice. And on one of the podcasts on Coventry Uni’s iTunes U site, jco’s own Judith Townend mentions the problems caused by management’s inability (or unwillingness?) to communicate properly in this era of change, therefore fuelling staff suspicion rather than ambition.
But there was also more of the same stuff I’ve been reading and hearing for over a year. At the risk of over-simplifying in summary, this seems to consist of the massive generalisation that print is “dead”; some vague assertions about the need for journalists to be entrepreneurs (as if this is something new); and a few references to how social media means we are all media barons now. OK, I know I’ve really over-simplified that, but bear with me on this.
One of my teaching colleges spoke of a frustration that “so much of the debate is consumed in negativity without giving any of the new young journos any interim navigating skills”, and I think some of that is driven by the tendency of so many journalists to re-invent themselves as expert commentators – something I refer to in the comments following a very good post by Adrian Monck in which he debunks some of the commentary.
I’m aware that by writing about all this I’m opening myself up to the same charge of posing as an expert commentator, but what I hope I can do is help to move the debate on so that we are looking at the very practical ways we can deal with the new media landscape rather than simply pushing general theories. It’s not quite so easy to get a punchy headline or a simple set of soundbites, but it may prove more useful.
This stage of the debate can’t be driven by talking heads, by ‘experts’ who are often removed from the day-to-day issues faced by ordinary journalists. It has to come from the trade itself. So I’ll be looking for reports of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom‘s ‘Media for all, The Challenge of Convergence’ event, and pushing the value of the NUJ’s New Ways To Make Journalism Pay event on 16 January 2010. And I’ll also be continuing the discussion with the students I teach at the London College of Communication and Goldsmiths College, who seem to have little doubt that the quality of the content, not simply the method of delivery, is key.
It’s at this level, and at the level of the – let’s call it the shop floor – that the most interesting debate is going on, whether it be Reed Business Information’s more formal discussion sessions about how to work in new ways, or simply on-the-hoof decision-making about how best to find, present and extend a story using whatever tools we have at our disposal. It’s why I’ve always believed in the value of labour that is organised – not for some theoretical political reason but because of its practical value. Understanding and valuing a trade leads to the development and practical application of skill.
That’s not to say the participants at events like ‘Is there a crisis in world journalism?’ do not understand or value the trade. They clearly do, although I would agree with Adrian Monck when he observes that any crisis may well be one of confidence in what we can do.
Don’t forget variety
It’s also worth observing that 99% of the discussion about “journalism” is actually about news reporting. There are other forms of journalism, which may not be as socially and politically significant – although there’s room for debate there – but which are embracing new opportunities with far less gnashing of the teeth than the news end of the operation.
Too much of the debate in the last 12 months has been about talking journalism down, about predication rather than application. We talk about what might happen rather than what could happen. In the choppy waters we find ourselves in, we need more navigation and less forecast.