Journalism is going to survive this era of creative destruction

Here's why.

Creative destruction is no fun if it is your livelihood or beloved newspaper that is being destroyed. But my researches have convinced me that journalism is being adapted, rethought and reconstructed in thousands of ways in far more places than can easily be grasped. In short, there is enough experiment in train to be optimistic that economic sustainability will be found even if the experiments have a high failure rate.

In open societies, this takes the form of new communities of interest, new market players, new suppliers of news. Even in some closed societies, information can often flow down different routes in informal, unpredictable ways. Some of those new flows are – or may become – journalism. New ways of dispersing information do not mean that ‘everything changes’. Here are some examples of the variety of what does and does not change:

Journalists worrying about "paradigm shifts", "network effects" and "post counts’ can often forget that, in many parts of the world, adapting journalism to disruption is not the big issue. Keeping reporters and cameramen alive and out of jail remains a priority for many news organisations. In 2012, 70 journalists were killed worldwide in direct relation to their work, making it one of the worst years since records began to be kept. The imprisonment of journalists reached a record high in the same year, with 232 individuals behind bars because of their work. In many places, journalists confront risks, obstruction and threats that are a feature of any society not accustomed to press freedom. The Russian deputy minister of communications Aleksei Volin recently told journalism teachers in Moscow:

Human beings like reading words from paper. For many, paper is both optically more attractive and carries greater authority. The internet creates potential business-model problems for newspapers, magazines and books since all of these rely on cumbersome and expensive distribution systems. But the impact has been felt first at daily newspapers, whose heavy reliance of immediacy once a day was most easily upset by the internet’s ability to send information without a regular timetable. That in turn caused advertisers to be increasingly sceptical that daily newspapers were holding the attention of their readers, and particularly younger readers; the scepticism predated the internet. Magazines and books remain effective ways to send information that readers value.

Newspapers are very reluctant to die. They may cut staff, hollow out their content, be a shadow of their former selves and change their readers − but actual extinction, taken as a whole across developed societies, still remains rare. Printed newspapers will be a lower and less important layer of the news system in many countries, but it is not likely that they will vanish entirely. It has happened at more rapid rates in some places in the past than it is happening in the second decade of the 21st century. News readers, particularly over the age of 40, are readers of habit; even if they use a tablet to read newspapers, they will adapt most easily to reading apps that mimic structures and layout in print. The readers of the Daily Mail on paper are among the most enthusiastic users of its site Mail Online. The DNA of printed journalism will alter over time, but at a slow and evolutionary pace. Any potential audience contains ‘lean forward’ readers – technologically adept, engaged, interactive – and ‘lean back’ readers who enjoy the journalism more passively for its writing quality, sense of humour or character. Some readers have both of these approaches at different times, on different subjects and in different moods. News publishers must adapt their strategies to the temperament of the audience they have or they want, because members of their audience can switch so easily.

The internet will often carry the widest-ranging and quickest comment because that is what the web is often best at. Newspapers – printed or online – have specialised in trying to produce news that no one else has. The ability to see a story – to frame selected facts readably – produces bad results when it goes wrong. But at its best, it sharpens the attractions of information. Julian Assange paid tribute to this skill, despite his loathing of mainstream media, when explaining why WikiLeaks had partnered with several major newspapers: "We see actually that the professional press has a nose for what a story will be – the general public becomes involved once there is a story."

 What may appear revolutionary is better labelled as evolutionary. The sites experimenting with different ways of producing sustainable journalism have significant quantities of journalism in their bloodstream. They may hire journalism experience when confident of an audience, they may train their own people, they may institute rules for editorial quality and integrity. A high proportion of founders of new journalism operations have been journalists themselves before striking out on their own. They are living proof that journalism is not being reinvented without any legacy from the past. The past is part of the mix.

The hunger for video and the switch to mobile devices are the two major trends that business strategists must adapt for in the second decade of this century. But none of that sweeping change alters the fact that the internet is a universe of words. That means that writing − and the editing that inspires, sifts and improves it − will matter in what people choose to read. Since there is no space constraint on the web, long-form writing may flower. Much long-form will continue to appear in print, but there will also be sites specialising in writing of length and depth outside of academic journals. A few such sites for a general readership already exist.

It has taken time but we are now seeing the emergence of multichannel news outlets, which are competing against each other as global players. This group ranges from business-oriented sites such as the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Bloomberg to those with broader agendas such as the BBC, Al-Jazeera (in English), CNN and China’s CCTV News. The BBC currently runs the world’s largest news-gathering organisation, employing 6,000 people worldwide. CCTV’s global operation, when fully developed, is expected to overtake the BBC total. These organisations have the levy income (BBC), the state’s resources (Al-Jazeera, CCTV) or subscription income (Bloomberg, Financial Times) to keep expanding well outside their original core market. Several newspaper websites such as the New York Times and The Guardian would like to count themselves as in this group, but it is not yet clear if either paper can overcome its financial weaknesses to expand to compete in the long term.

Journalism’s platform is moving, in a literal sense. In Britain, print circulations have fallen at an average of 3.08 per cent every six months in the five years to 2012. If that rate of decline continued, the 10-year drop would be 45 per cent. Compare that with smartphone data. In 2012, the volume of data exchanged on the world’s smartphones was estimated as 0.9 exabytes. By 2017, that figure is expected to be 11.2 exabytes, a compound annual growth rate of 66 per cent.Journalism does not have to abandon its original purpose or values; but it does have to adapt. If information flows like liquid in and out of devices 24 hours a day, journalism’s value lies in something it has done before: sifting, distilling, taking the signal from the noise. A 2011 survey asked people to describe how they felt about the information flow from the internet. More than two-thirds (72 per cent) picked the description ‘a roaring river, a flood or massive tidal wave’.Journalism’s function has often been to organise information so that what is most important is available and accessible. The world’s information flow creates a demand: it is up to journalism to supply it.

The evolutionary renewal of journalism has many precedents. The age of mass media will leave an imprint on the coming era of social, dispersed media. But the last century, when journalists were part of industrial oligopolies, may well have been historically unusual. Journalism cannot survive without adapting again. The determinants of success or failure are the quantity and quality of experiment. Journalism’s recent history has shown that existing institutions have been slow and cautious to experiment radically and disruptively enough inside their own organizations. Experiments have not been numerous enough nor good enough. Agile challengers have done better. The size and stability of many legacy media companies have insulated their journalists and managers from having to consider precisely how to deliver a value that will be recognized in the new era. These newsrooms have precious expertise if journalists can come to see how the value of what they do can be adapted and refashioned.

This blog post is taken from Out of Print: Newspapers, journalism and the business of news in the digital age - published by Kogan Page. George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

It also appeared on Press Gazette.

 

Photograph: Getty Images

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war