The future of journalism

12Jul10

Last week I went to The Guardian to hear its Editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger read his 2010 Hugh Cudlipp lecture, which he delivered earlier this year (you can read the whole thing here), and take part in an audience discussion.

The topic was the future of journalism and whether ‘journalism’ even exists anymore. Top billing was the free vs pay debate, highly topical given that The Times went behind its paywall just a few weeks ago. Rusbridger made the fair point that paywalls are not necessarily all bad or all good — they may be right for some but not others, they may be the right idea, but wrong at this moment in time.

How will digital paywalls change journalism, he wondered. Rusbridger said the debate marked the first fork in the road for journalism and represents a wider debate about open vs closed journalism and ‘us’ (journalists, special) vs ‘them’ (non-journalists, not special). He wondered if the key might be the value of specialist knowledge or information, as opposed to the general information that will be freely available.

He also touched on the technology debate. Would charging for mobile access be the way forward, with everything else free? Screens give us more than just words, said Rusbridger, “We are in an age where most under 25s can’t remember a time without them”. He argued how some stories work best with a combination of links and embedded video, evolving content, while others are best as a pure snapshot. “Journalists have never before been able to tell stories so effectively,” he said.

Most interesting to me (though obvious) was the effect of all this on the scoop. In a 24/7 news environment, he said, it’s difficult to break stories. A scoop has a lifespan of just 3 minutes in the Twitter age. Those 3 minutes are still a commodity to those in a market sensitive environment (like the Financial Times) but it changes the game for the others. Most people will be prepared to wait until it is free elsewhere, rather than pay to read it first. The fact is, he said in the discussion later, the speed information travels makes it difficult to tell who breaks which story these days — in 45 minutes it’s appeared on other media outlets and aggregators and most readers won’t have a clue it came from you originally.

In the Q&A, Rusbridger pointed out that speed vs accuracy was not a problem. Wire services have been dealing with this for decades — the trick, he said, was to file quickly, and repeatedly, reporting on what you do know for sure, not what you don’t. He also put in a nod to the Guardian’s story trackers when he said that stories don’t end with publication, and remarked that there was no excuse for failing to add, clarify and correct afterwards. This constant addition and clarification leads journalists to act in different ways, he said. To quote Rusbridger, quoting CP Scott, “What a chance for the world, what a chance for the newspaper.”

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