Monday, January 25, 2010

Where goes journalism

Hugh Cudlipp was one of Britain's greatest newspaper editors. He is commemorated by an annual lecture delivered at the London College of Communication. In 2010, that was by Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger. The full text of his speech is published HERE and it is a brilliant analysis of journalism today. It is lengthy but this short excerpt provides some of the flavor.

[Newspaper editors of yesterday] lived at an age where, if you got the editorial product right, money was usually not the burning issue. There was cover price and there was advertising and there was no great mystery about where revenues came from. Secondly, they didn't see that as their job. Their job was to edit great papers: other people worked out how to pay for it.

Yet the most common question most editors are now asked is: "What's the business model?" . . . We are living at a time when – as the American academic Clay Shirky puts it – "the old models are breaking faster than the new models can be put into place".

. . . If you think about journalism, not business models, you can become rather excited about the future. If you only think about business models you can scare yourself into total paralysis. . . .

If you universally make people pay for your content it follows that you are no longer open to the rest of the world, except at a cost. That might be the right direction in business terms, while simultaneously reducing access and influence in editorial terms. It removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.

. . . journalists considered themselves – and were perhaps considered by others – special figures of authority. We had the information and the access; you didn't. You trusted us [to] filter news and information and to prioritise it – and to pass it on accurately, fairly, readably and quickly.

That state of affairs is now in tension with a world in which many (but not all) readers want to have the ability to make their own judgments; express their own priorities; create their own content; articulate their own views; learn from peers as much as from traditional sources of authority.

Journalists may remain one source of authority, but people may also be less interested to receive journalism in an inert context – ie which can't be responded to, challenged, or knitted in with other sources. It intersects with the pay question in an obvious way: does our journalism carry sufficient authority for people to pay – both online (where it competes in an open market of information) and print?

Depending on your point of view, you may find that vision of new ways of connecting and informing communities inspiring or terrifying. I think it is both – but it is a useful starting point to thinking about the value of journalism, in every sense of the word 'value'. And it is good to be forced to think at an even more basic level – about what journalism is and who can do it.

. . . continue
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