Prof George Brock has an interesting post as a prelude to his talk at the international journalism festival in Perugia which is well worth a read. He ponders an incomplete list of things that might shape what comes next in journalism. There are a couple that stand out for me.
First off he cites ‘impact’. By impact he means the way that the digital landscape dilutes the impact of even the biggest stories. Much as it’s an interesting way of describing one of the negative effects of the networked environment. It’s concept that suggests news has a finite impact; With so many routes for news to travel it eventually, well, runs out of steam.
I think there is some merit in the idea – impact is neat phrase – but I do think it stems from a slightly institutional (print) perspective. What its really saying is the value to the producer is harder to conceptualise (and monetize). In that sense I don’t think that ‘news’ has any less impact. In some ways it can have more. We can’t really think that news is a stone to throw and then measure its success by the size of the splash! In a digital world we are measured against the ripples.
In that sense I think ‘reach’ is a better word than impact. Impact is the same mentality that still demands we recognise the word breaking or exclusive. The challenge of reach suggests there less of a problem with the ‘news’ and more a problem with the industry’s capacity to inhabit the broader landscape and connect with the audience.
That’s not to criticise Brock. He clearly sees the impact of impact!
Even if a single outlet has something big and releases it first, a scoop is not quite the event that it was. Partly because a revelation will spread a long way very fast and won’t be “broken” by being published to many people simultaneously at a set time. What we used to call “news” was once prepared like a conjuring trick or play behind a curtain and revealed at a fixed time; if it was big news, its release was an event.
Brock says that means "news’ is an idea which is being bent into a different shape” I like that phrase. But I’d go a little further. News is broken as a concept. What news is has been changed (a factor Brock also identifies) But the news as an object (something we distribute) is also broken apart by the network. People chop it up and repurpose it for their own use.
I think what we are seeing is people, just by expectation and consumption habits rather than any discrete motivation, pushing against attempts by media organisation to control (own, whatever you like) the structure, purpose and shape and importantly the life-cycle of news. I see a lot of parallels with the Restart culture which wants to move beyond…
…the culture of constant upgrades and disposal, The Restart Project reconnects people with repair, preparing the ground for a future economy of maintenance and repair. We are supporting groups across the world which would like to replicate our community work.
People getting together to bring those dead electronic and electrical devices back to life. It’s all about sustainability and usefulness.** Digital means people are beginning to restart news in the same way. **
For me that presents interesting challenges the process of Brock’s suggestion that in making clear the ‘value of what journalist do’ journalists can:
insist that verification and investigation will not happen naturally in a ceaseless flow of data, conversation, gossip, rumour and manipulated misinformation; someone must make a choice to do these things and find the resources to support them. They can insist that big ideas depend on long passages of written words to spread and be debated. They can insist that a space to establish what is most likely to be accurate and true in the midst of what is now a marketplace for noise is something of value to democracies and worth fighting for.
I worry that we think we can/should insist anything. I think that’s less about insisting and more about (a) proving it and (b) about being connected enough for the community who might value that to be able to tell them.
Funding Journalism or the journalism industry
The last part that stood out was Brock’s assertion that:
While everyone thrashes around looking for a business model, philanthropy has a crucial role to play in bridging the gaps between a dying business model and a new one.
I bristle slightly at that one. The idea that large, profitable organisations should benefit from “charity” rubs a little. I know that in the context of this conversation (and others) we are using it in the ‘fourth estate’ context rather than ‘where did our profits go’ sense. But I don’t think you can split the two that easily. And anyway plenty of rich individuals seem prepared to invest in journalism already. That seems to have worked well over the years!
As I say Brock’s piece is worth a read. Definitely (as the post proves) food for thought. It’s a good stager for his presentation (if you’re lucky enough to be in Perugia) and an indicator that his book “out of print” is worth checking out.
But, and this is no criticism of George, but you have to wonder if the biggest factor that is going to change the shape of journalism next is not going to be the journalism industry.