07 November, 2009

It's a Revolution, Not a War

This is part 1 of a speech I gave @ the Media 140 conference "The Future of Journalism in the Social Media Age"* held in Sydney this week.

The Fall of Rome is a rich metaphor tapped recently by Mark Scott to powerfully evoke images of the collapse of traditional media – especially anachronistic print barons like Rupert Murdoch.

What worries me, beyond the inevitable end of the traditional print model of journalism (at least in developed Western democracies) is the Nero-like behaviour of some of the most respected journalists and editors in the so-called ‘legacy media’ - here & abroad…there is much fiddling while Rome burns. And part of the problem, to further mix my Roman history metaphors, is the failure of some media outlets & journalists to lend the masses their ears.



Within some journalistic circles, there is a continuing arrogance towards media consumers and users – ‘the people formerly known as the audience’, to quote NYU Professor, Jay Rosen (who delivered a keynote address @ the conference). This arrogance is well demonstrated by the sneering derision & cynicism directed towards the phenomenally popular micro-blogging platform Twitter (& those who tweet) by the defenders of old, unsustainable models of publication & an inflexible attitude towards definitions of journalism.

To begin to talk about the future of journalism we must start by agreeing that the struggle should not be focussed on saving print…nor does it simply revolve around identifying alternative business models. Those who say the concurrent crises confronting journalism are ONLY technological and economic are kidding themselves. There is also the loss of public trust in mainstream journalism – fuelled by tabloidization: the product of a decline which reflects the misidentification of the need for engagement with the need for sensationalism. It’s a loss of faith magnified within online communities where mainstream media are often viewed cynically as bent on controlling an agenda skewed in favour of the powerful, or vested corporate interests. Such distrust escalated in the face of the sloppy journalism, bordering on propaganda, that accompanied the Weapons of Mass Destruction Debate - to name but one example.

In the Social Media Age, it may be true that anyone can call themselves a journalist if they have the skills to gather, synthesise, analyse & distribute information with a captivating narrative. But it is also true that pro- journalists have never had their professional practice so closely scrutinised – there are millions of online fact-checkers, bias police and critics. And credibility within online communities, built on active engagement, will be crucial to the sustainability of any professional journalism model into the future.

So, I argue that the only struggle critical to the Future of Journalism is one designed to ensure the continuation of the core of our professional practice: shining a light in dark places; speaking truth to power & doing so without fear or favour, but with a commitment to accuracy, truth & fairness.

Of course, in order to do that, we need to identify sustainable funding models – opinion is cheap, but quality reporting costs money – and sustainable new audiences, in new spaces, for our work.

And in considering how we should achieve that, we need to accept that journalism is not simply narrowly defined as news reporting and be prepared to part with that increasingly unworkable & misunderstood sacred cow of 19th Century Western models of journalism: objectivity. Social media platforms like Twitter, Youtube & Facebook, are changing the way we do journalism and affecting our professional & ethical constructs in the process, while allowing the people who sustain us – our increasingly interactive audiences – greater access to us and more power to independently set news agendas and frame news values.

All of this makes for very challenging times for professional journalists & it’s tempting to take up arms & dig in. There are livelihoods at stake, not just empires, traditions & ideals, of course. But it’s vital to accept that this is a revolution, not a war. A time for transformation, revitalisation…reinvention.

Continuation of the sort of mindset that replicates a form of trench warfare where the Imperialist generals entrench us in rotting surrounds & force us into futile, deadly battles will just lead to body piles in journalistic No Man’s Land.

The alternative – a revolutionary mindset - involves a passionate embrace of change –change for good. Change for a new media world order. A world where information gathering and distribution is more equitable & representative. We don’t embark on such a campaign uncritically, of course - we must be aware of the pitfalls. But neither can we be hamstrung by fear or reluctance; intransigence or arrogance. Yes, some battles will be lost and the transition may involve bloodshed but the end result doesn’t have to be the displacement of our core value as journalists AND citizens. And, in the Social Media Age, the nexus between the two is critical.

Debates about the Future of Journalism in Australia have crossed over onto Twitter in recent months. On this very newsworthy new, news-medium, journalists are openly discussing ethics & professional practice – both as they apply to traditional media and social media – with other users. They’re crowd-sourcing solutions to the dilemmas posed, by constructively & profitably reaching across the walls of their own media organisations - to colleagues in other camps, freelance journalists, Citizen Journalists, bloggers, academics and active citizens of all persuasions.

This vibrant forum has emerged on the back of what I identified in April as a veritable explosion of Australian journalists in the Twitterverse. And as Twitter has become a zone for publishing breaking news & aiding reporting, it’s also become a hot news item…indeed in the eight months since I began formally researching Twitter & journalism, it’s gone from a news curiosity to a virtual media cliché.

*I was the Editorial Director of Media 140 Sydney

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[ *The opinions expressed by j-scribe reflect those of the author only and in no way represent the views of the University of Canberra ]