This is the final part of my inaugural lecture at City University London, ‘Is Ice Cream Strawberry?’. You can also read part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five. A full PDF is available here.
Now, this lecture said that I would sketch out the two paths that I see journalism taking in the next decade – so here they are:
The first path is a self-interested profession that sees value in users beyond their eyeballs.
The second path is a self-interested profession that allows others to control the public sphere.
I would obviously not expect the industry to be anything but self-interested.
In either case, technology will not change journalism. People will. You will.
I want to end by summing up what I’ve been saying for the last 40 minutes in a simple list.
Lists are of course notorious for working well on the internet, and as humans can only remember 7 things at any one time, here is…
Everything I’ve just said in 7 easy to remember soundbites:
1. Stop trying to recreate the old, closed market of print and broadcast, and address the gaps and opportunities in the new one.
Our ways of doing journalism are the product of a culture that has grown up over centuries, created by people within the limits of institutions. As that culture changes, and new institutions take shape, we need to reassess what our core purpose is.
As part of that, there are obvious areas where journalists can make a difference.
- Firstly, to verify and contextualise what’s online – rather than merely repeating it.
- Secondly, to digitise what’s offline – what Ulises Mejias describes as the ‘paranodal’ – and make it findable.
- Thirdly, to empower communities and make connections between them.
2. See users as an asset, not a cost.
If you are searching for a new business model to support journalism, it starts with this: that the balance sheet begins and ends with the users. You need to invest in attracting the best ones, supporting them in what they want to do, and giving them the resources to defend themselves against attack.
3. Get over yourself.
I thought I had heard the last of the ‘citizen brain surgeon’ argument until it resurfaced a few months ago at a Dutch-Flemish investigative journalism conference I attended.
No, you would not let a ‘citizen brain surgeon’ operate on you. But journalism is not brain surgery. Journalists have always been jacks of all trades, and masters of none. Now that the masters of each trade can publish themselves, it is our connections across differing worlds that is our strength. But to maintain those connections we need to put people before stories, and get over our egos.
4. Make power accountable.
Continue to push for regulatory, legal and institutional change that makes it easier for people to access information relevant to their lives. By doing so you are investing in users, and you can then focus your efforts on investigating what they find.
5. Hold power to account.
Data doesn’t do anything alone. Journalists must be scrutinising both the data and its sources, and asking questions of both. We cannot continue to only take new recruits from the usual humanities backgrounds.
6. Protect the public sphere
I have talked about censorship but internet propaganda and electronic surveillance are equally important issues for journalists. We also need to be aware of the implications of issues such as net neutrality for journalists and for journalism.
7. Stop confusing ice cream with the flavour.
Don’t perpetuate the myth that technology causes things to happen. People do.
As Douglas Adams puts it so well, Google Maps does not create terrorism any more than roads, or pencils – both of which are technologies used by terrorists. If a politician or corporation seeks to ban or control a particular technology, whether it’s for national security, the poor musicians, or the children, be sceptical. Equally, if you are using technology because everyone else is, then you’re missing the point.
Technology – whether the internet, newspapers or the English language itself – is a tool. It does not want to do anything. It does not want to be free. It does not want to make you stupid.
You choose the flavour of the ice cream. You have the power, and the responsibility that comes with it. Take that responsibility – and make journalism better.
Source material and other related reading can be found under my Delicious bookmarks for ‘inaug’.