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Journalism is going to survive this era of creative destruction

Here's why.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.