The future of news: words from an optimist

The future of news: words from an optimist
Perhaps it’s the gloomy nature of the product, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a journalist these days who’s optimistic about their future.

Perhaps it’s the gloomy nature of the product, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a journalist these days who’s optimistic about their future.

In some ways, they have a point. The going rate for freelance contributions has been stuck at 50 cents a word since the 1990s, which means the value of the craft has eroded in the past couple of decades.

You’d get plenty of news consumers who’d agree with that too. But readers disliking journalists is hardly news. The news business is doomed to be derided by the same people who will turn to it every time their real interests are at stake.

That makes it a necessary evil, pricking holes and shining light where it’s not wanted, and more often than not appealing more to our fears than our hopes.

Some will argue news can be replaced by social media, blogging, live broadcasts and television replays of the actual event. But in some way, that’s always been true. Before Facebook, there was the telephone, talkback radio and gossip as a way to find out what was going on, other than reading it in the newspaper. Social media, blogging and other new channels have broadened the array of available content but that doesn’t necessarily make them replacements.

In fact, as populations became more literate, and are now more able to consume new information anywhere, anytime, the future for news should be bright.

So why all the gloom?

Here’s my personal theory. Journalists and others who angst about the future of news have made a fatal error of reasoning: they’ve confused the death of old business models with the death of news.

But a newspaper is not ‘the news’. Nor is the internet, nor is a television or radio broadcast system. These are simply the media by which the news – and a whole heap of other consumable content – is distributed.

Journalists have never been in charge of the means of distribution. The only time I ever saw a printing press was on a tour as a journalism student. Not knowing how that all worked had no impact on my ability to write and convey the news.

Yet much of the debate today seems consumed with which means of distribution will best work for the news to keep being written.

That’s a fair question, because the answer is far from clear.

But what has become clear, after the initial burst of enthusiasm for the idea that citizen journalism would replace journalism as a trade or profession, is that journalists have skills that not everybody shares.

Being able to write, to listen well, to amass and curate facts in a way that explains the world and makes its complexity more navigable, are not skills that will die with newspaper circulation. If anything, they are likely to be more valued than ever in the future.

So, yes, this is a tricky time for both journalists and journalism.

But if we concentrate more on what we produce than the medium it’s produced in, my sense is the question will start to answer itself, and the answer will be ‘more please’.