Journalism is an inherently arrogant profession. From the nucleus of the idea – we write something, the reader reads it – it’s something that thrives off a sense of superiority. That may or may not be unavoidable, but I’m very uninterested in the idea of a traditionalist, egocentric model of journalism.
A month or so ago I tweeted this:
Honestly – Bylines, what purpose do they serve apart from ego. Is there a legal issue?
It led to several responses (which I’d link to but can’t seem to find them in searches) but they were fairly varied. Some thought it was an interesting subject. Others spoke about accountability. Almost all were negative. The interesting thing about a journalism industry losing its ego is that it only works if everyone co-operates.
Here’s a hypothetical situation; I have a brilliant idea about a new blogging platform. I have it visualised in my head, and proceed to write it all down. I then meet up with a developer and coder to help flesh out the idea and make it real. I accept that I need their help. I don’t need to learn code, I just know that these people can help me out, and vice versa.
We create the blogging platform, and it’s moderately successful. The developer takes credit for it, saying that it was his idea. All along I’ve pursued an agenda of openness – willing to share ideas freely and accept that this is our project rather than mine or yours. We all have a part to play. But the system falls down because someone isn’t playing by the same set of rules. You can be as evangelical as you like about losing ego in journalism, but unless everyone plays ball it doesn’t work.
How is it that when open-source culture exists we can still be bound by a legacy concept of how journalists operate? This isn’t anything to do with content or economics but a mindset. We need to bring the journalist down the hierarchy of perceived authority, and earn that authority by the work we produce and the community we serve. Up until now, the mindset of the industry has been “I am a journalist, therefore I am authoritative”. In a world in which the public can access media through a myriad of different sources, this attitude should no longer be prevalent.
I’m pessimistic about an ego-free industry ever appearing, at least not in my lifetime. Ego is woven into the fabric of the industry so tightly that it’s very hard to escape. Journalism schools, for their part, haven’t done anything to assuage this. Becoming part of a big media organisation (where this attitude is most common) is still touted as the golden ticket, and it’s only with a young generational shift that something like this is ever likely to change.
It’s ego that makes journalists stand alongside politicians and government ministers as the least trusted professions. It’s ego that makes people roll their eyes when you tell them you’re a journalist. And it’s ego that makes you write what you think should be the news rather than what your community thinks.
In reality everything is a shared effort, and failing to acknowledge that smacks of ego. It was a shared effort before crowdsourcing was a word, and it was a shared effort before social media. Only now it’s a lot more obvious. Journalists need to can the ego, and start thinking like members of a community, not as overseers.
Just over a week ago Kelvin MacKenzie derided modern entry routes into journalism. I’m fairly certain I’m the last to blog about this; there’s plenty of other informed opinions already out there if you want further reading, some which I’ve collected and curated with Scoop.it.
Kelvin is angry because of the saturation of journalism courses in the UK. In a sense he’s right; there are only a handful that are fulfilling while others seem to be purely money-making exercises. Where he goes wrong is when he advises young people to “try and achieve three different A Levels, go to a local, then a regional and then head out on to nationals or magazines by 21-22″. The problem with this piece of supposed wisdom is that it doesn’t exist any more. Not only is Kelvin describing a ludicrously accelerated career path (can you think of any other industry that purports a step from the bottom to the top rung of the ladder within 4 years?) but also a model of journalism that ceases to exist.
Looking through local newspaper job listings, what do many of them stipulate? Some form of journalism qualification – be that undergraduate or postgraduate. Kelvin also enthuses about the joys of training people up on the job in regional journalism – another thing that is fairly scarce. Journalism courses have taken the place of many of these trainee schemes, ensuring that graduates arrive more or less fully formed journalists by the time they begin knocking on a publication’s door. Hence the need for good journalism education.
It’s not so much the chip on his shoulder faux working class chumminess that irritates me about Kelvin (particularly as he was educated at Alleyn’s) but more the lack of ability to accept a meritocracy of ideas. In that sense he can be said to be emblematic of the journalism industry’s thinking up until now. That is; patronising, unwilling to engage and with a ludicrous sense of self-importance.
“That’s how it was in my day”-style anecdotes rarely stand up to much scrutiny, particularly within journalism. In some aspects the industry is a diverse one; people who arrived through undergraduate courses, postgraduate courses or after long stints in other professions before turning their hand to writing. This should be an industry where anyone can write and anyone can teach. It’s one where the opinions of Kelvin MacKenzie should be seen as what they are; inflammatory and misguided opinons written by people long out of touch with the mechanics of modern journalism and have instead resorted to playing to the gallery.
Why are journalism courses valuable? Because they allow students to form ideas within the safety of academia. They lead to things like SR2 Blog, Blog Preston and Wannabe Hacks. They give students a better understanding of the mechanics of journalism – the theories that underpin it and what can be learned from them. Despite their practical nature they get young people thinking about journalism in ways that would be impossible if they were whisked onto training schemes to deal with the day to day.
There’s a good reason why people like Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen ruminate on such fascinating possibilities within journalism – they’re detached from the practice of it. The reason they can research and theorise about the future of journalism is so well is because they’re not weighed down by meeting deadlines every day. Journalism courses rest on the same crux, and if they produce a new generation of innovators and thinkers in this transitionary period for the industry then I think it’ll be all the better for it.
An interesting article in yesterday’s Observer focuses on several young entrepreneurs that have created promising business start-ups in spite of the tough economic climate. None of those startups really resemble a journalistic endeavour (video platform SBTV comes closest), but what provoked a few thoughts in me is the relationship between young journalists and their future employers.
Last month I worked on the Media Briefing’s Paywalls 11 conference. One of the most interesting findings in a day that was full of stats was by media analyst Nick Thomas. He said that his company’s recent survey of 14,000 adult internet users found that 31% would pay for music in future, but the proportion that would pay for news was only 13%. So there’s a big wall already; people simply aren’t prepared to pay for news, at least in a tangible, straightforward sense.
How does this mesh with the idea of a journalism startup? As is oft-documented, the US has always had a buzzing scene based around startups, particularly in Silicon Valley. The idea really appeals to me. Getting together with a team of three or four initial staff and controlling the product in its entirety is both liberating and terrifying, and I imagine that it’s this mix of adrenalin and fear that compels many to go the way of a startup.
But why don’t we see more of it here in a journalistic sense? Many UK journalism schools are innovative, and the projects produced by some students are intelligent and unique ideas. Why then is the idea of working for a national newspaper or magazine still perceived as the Holy Grail? We live in an age where news is not defined by the platform, it’s defined by the content. Readers care less about where the news is coming from, and more about whether whoever is writing it has any authority. More and more, people are realising that non-traditional news organisations hold the key to a particular beat; take Guido Fawkes.
Readers can deconstruct and take apart pieces that reek of inaccuracy; so we’re in an age where it matters less who you write for, but how good you are.
Why is that important for trying to understand a startup culture? Because it reinforces the idea that the playing field is wide open. Take your chance now, while everyone from the top to the bottom of established media companies is scratching their head. Chances are you’re less likely to be doomed to failure than you think you are.
But none of that will happen. The idea that joining a big name company comes with its own kudos still outweighs the possibilities of a startup for many graduates. Your mum is more likely to ask when you’re going to get a real job if you’re involved in a startup rather than getting on the Telegraph Graduate Scheme.
And that’s painful. Painful because I think that unless we put facilities in place (mentoring schemes, cheap co-working spaces, more funding opportunities) we’re in danger of just recycling what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years. Good graduates should be making their own way, not joining a creaky newspaper house that’s on its last legs. Newspapers had their chance. They sat on the sidelines as their industry fell apart, and they did nothing to understand or connect with the readers who felt disillusioned with what the news industry had become. Without the necessary implementations, graduates are right to feel that they have to tread the age old career route of journalism.
Let me suggest an alternative future. A cluster of startups that all produce content within a really niche area of content. I don’t mean “multimedia reporting”, I mean honing in on something that’s so specialised that they do it better than anyone else in the world. This ecosystem of startups grow up in the digital age; they are digital natives, and understand everything that comes with that. They stick to what they do best and don’t try to be all things to all men (magnify that idea to something like the FT and you can see that it works).
This group of startups not only feed their customers directly but enter into open collaboration with news organisations. When they do, they are paid. It’s by outsourcing and recognising that they stopped being leaders in many areas of reportage long ago that newspapers will reap the benefits of becoming a platform for these startups. Good content: check. Keeping a trusted brand: check.
I fear that none of that will happen. Not because it’s unrealistic, but because the mindset required and facilities needed aren’t prevalent in the UK. Startups also need luck, not only in implementing and selling the product but also in happening upon a perfect meeting of minds with the people they choose to set up shop with. Co-working spaces are still generally priced at a premium membership rate, and people have little or no clue as to whether they have any routes to access funding.
Yesterday I tweeted this:
Final thought: If grads are still feeling the pull of big media, how can we ever create a proper ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalism?
I received a myriad of replies, some of which discussed the problem and some of which despaired because they really wanted to give the kind of stuff I’ve been talking about a go. Hopefully they will. Let’s experiment a bit, shall we?