It is a painful time for many journalists. Cast aside from the failing industry that used to provide them with a secure living, they are confused, frustrated and in some cases downright angry that society no longer seems to put a dollar value on the skills they worked so hard to perfect.
That the wounds of mass redundancies are still raw was rammed home to me last week when I took part in a panel at an inner Sydney hotel organised by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation (PJIF) to “share ideas and experiences around innovation in journalism”.
“These ideas about new media are all very fine, but we need to know how we’re going to earn a living,” was a common refrain from some of those attending. Others expressed concern that no New Media enterprise would have the commercial heft to protect investigative reporters against lawsuits aimed at suppressing accountability journalism.
Suffice to say it became clear fairly early in the piece that these journalists didn’t see digital media as likely to provide them with a reliable living.
Also on the panel were journalist and publisher Anne Summers, former Sydney Morning Herald social affairs writer and now blogger Adele Horin and freelance journalist and new media trainer Lesley Parker. The panel was moderated by Melissa Sweet, public health writer, coordinator of the health blog Croakey and president of the PIJF.
Each of us described how we have practised our craft outside the mainstream media environment. Of course, in my case, I no longer make a living as a journalist. I have a day job in the financial services industry. The fact is this blog is a labour of love and was never intended as a commercial enterprise. So the question inevitably came: How can you, with your funds management gig, offer anything to unemployed journalists about making a living in a post-industrial media world?
It was a reasonable question and one for which there’s no pat answer. But just because I no longer work in the mainstream media doesn’t mean I no longer care about journalism and the important role it plays in society. In many ways, I feel I have done some of my most public-spirited work as a writer since leaving the media – in my paying job helping to educate people about sound investment principles and through this blog on media and journalism.
I sympathise with the plight of journalists who’ve lost their jobs. It is a tough adjustment when an industry that’s provided a reliable income for decades implodes. But the fact is the days of Big Media have gone. The business model is broken. While digital experiments may yield marginal revenues, newsrooms inevitably will be smaller and involve much more multi-tasking. Even if they were offered jobs back in that environment, I doubt many of the older journalists would enjoy the new environment very much.
While they don’t have to be “tech heads”, journalists who want to reinvent themselves are going to have to learn how some of the new digital tools work. And those who make sniffy denunciations of social media, as if they are above it all, are also going to have to change.
The danger is that a lot of journalists will unnecessarily limit their post-industrial-media options by clinging to a narrow definition of journalism and undervaluing their skills in other environments as organisations like universities bring journalism in-house. Those skills, rare in the world outside the media, include:
- communicating clearly
- helping experts talk directly to the public
- moderating and facilitating debate
- building online communities
- aggregating reliable sources around public issues
- providing relevant context and background
- synthesising multiple strands of information into coherent narratives
- finding relevant information quickly and efficiently
Those skills can be employed commercially. But they also can serve the public interest. To make it work in a way that generates a living will require a lot more cross-discipline collaboration than journalists are used to – with technology experts, with marketers, with academics and with business.
Providing a practical insight at the PIJF event was health academic Professor Simon Chapman who spoke of his experience with Choice magazine more than a decade ago in developing online communities in which readers were active participants in the editorial process. Former Age editor Andrew Jaspan’s successful experiment with The Conversation is an example of journalists helping academics sharing their expertise in areas of public interest more widely. Melissa Sweet told of her own work for conference organisers providing accurate and non-sensationalist reports direct to audiences, particularly in remote and regional areas and without the need for mainstream media coverage. In the US, philanthropic efforts like ProPublica are gaining traction.
OK, none of these initiatives look like The New York Times. But the cosy cultural cocoon of the newsroom has gone. And the defiant tribalism of journalism – of being perpetual outsiders – won’t work in this post-industrial context. They’re going to have to invite people inside the tent and develop a more collaborative, open form of journalism – one that involves less distance from the public and greater immersion in the conversation that we are all having.
Ultimately, public interest journalism has a value irrespective of price. But somehow we need to bridge the practical challenge of ensuring that those who serve the public through their journalism are rewarded for it so it can be sustained. Change will be difficult. And there will be lots of false starts and blind alleys. But I’m sure that the best way forward involves collaboration, patience and a readiness to reinvent journalism by rediscovering journalism.
(For an outsider’s view of the Public Interest Journalism Foundation forum, see this account from political blogger Andrew Elder).