Sunday, 28 September 2008

Crisis, what crisis ?

A cracking 'Moral Maze' style debate in Oxford this weekend just past, marking the 25th anniversary of the Reuters Foundation – now Thomson Reuters Foundation - and examining the proposition that ‘Quality Journalism is in Crisis’.
One of the participants, Charlie Beckett of the LSE/Polis who opposed the motion, blogs that its outcome – overturning an initial near 2:1 supportive majority to a near 2:1 vote the other way – is resonant of the (in)famous King and Country debate at the Oxford Union. Up to a point etc …
I was fortunate enough to be one of the investigating panel – along with Jean Seaton of Westminster University and the Mayor of Woodstock and 'missionary to explain', Peter Jay – and began the enterprise needing to be convinced by the motion’s supporters.
Little united those supporters other than an uneasiness that a familiar past was slipping away; in the cases of the Guardian’s 'Flat Earther' Nick Davies or the BBC’s John Ware it was a past (largely imagined, I think) in which the journalist was hunter-gatherer hero, bringing stalked enlightenment back from the forest; in the case of former Reuters’ strategy director David Ure it was a past of brand-dominant information brokerage. Oddly, the fourth supporter of the proposition, former LA Times editor Michael Parks, had told us the previous evening ‘every minute spent lamenting is minute lost to inventing’ … so little surprise he ended up switching sides and opposing his own motion.
And that was probably justified by the debate, too: Charlie Beckett and the Oxford Internet Institute’s Bill Dutton presented a distinctly non-scary future vision of what is already the dominant news platform, the internet: while Zoe Smith of ITN online and Mehdi Hassan of C4 News – whose combined age was probably less than the average of the other speakers and of us on the panel – proved utterly unperturbed by a future in which platforms mutate before their eyes and passionately committed to finding ways of producing quality journalism.
What swung the vote ? Probably the realisation that the ‘crisis’ of the proposition is in large part an ever present feature of quality journalism: that it always has been and always will be under threat from something – whether the foibles of press barons, the profit drive of corporate ownership, the fickleness of audiences and their attention, the gutter morals of the lowest in the trade. There wasn’t isn’t and won’t be a golden age.
Probably, too, the understanding that journalism’s emerging future is one in which the divide between ‘news’ and ‘information’ is gone; that quality, revelatory journalism of the now and future is more about intelligencing information – which in all likelihood is already out there in some form - than it is about hunting it down. Oh … and that it’s inevitable someone out there in the audience is better at intelligencing it than a jobbing journalist.
That, in order to sustain quality journalism, what will be required are new analytical, intellectual and visualising skills more than technical skills (which, anyway, young journalists increasingly have as a matter of course); that the journalistic convention of ‘the story’ is dead; and that quality is unlikely to look like it did twenty years ago.
Yup. No crisis at all.

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