For the past few years, journalists bemoaned the bleak state of their industry. Conferences and meetings were somber affairs full of grim discussions about the future. Now, however slightly and tentatively, that seems to be changing. There seem to be more conversations about what is working, or at least what might be possible.
With Labor Day marking the start of a new season, and a presidential election rapidly approaching, it’s a good time to reflect. So, CJR asked a small group of peers and colleagues if we are really turning the corner from pessimism to optimism, or just growing tired of complaining. We asked:
1) Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of journalism than you were four years ago? What’s changed?
2) Who or what is the most inspiring sign that things might be getting better?
Alex Cohen, host of All Things Considered on Southern California Public Radio
I feel like it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, I am pessimistic. I do worry that there is a less of a value placed on good journalism than there was four years ago. I am saddened to see skilled colleagues lose their jobs and valuable publications closing their doors. On the other hand, there are new innovations in storytelling every day. I think some “old school” journalists are finally embracing that new technologies are here to stay and can actually be allies in good journalism. When I see radio journalists who can actually remember cutting tape to make stories, enthusiastically raving about Instagram and using Twitter to cull sources, I believe that tides are turning in a good way.
To me the most inspiring sign that things are getting better is that people are still applying to journalism school. In this economy, that’s a very brave move and yet thousands are doing it each day. That gives me hope that people still do value this profession. And I believe that those coming into this profession do so with a new vigor and creativity that may have been lacking in generations past. I feel the key is to make sure that these younger generations get a proper education when it comes to values and ethics and we’ll be in good stead.
Andrew Donohue, editor of the Voice of San Diego
I’m more optimistic than I was four years ago. I was pretty optimistic back then too, because we were beginning to see the signs of new organizations and new models for storytelling and reporting. Now, those new models continue to multiply and mature in both new organizations and long-time institutions.
The most inspiring sign to me is that our profession is really valuing and celebrating creativity. That’s leading to a revolution in how we do everything. How we fund our operations. How we engage audiences. How we report and tell stories. There’s no doubt we still face major challenges as an industry and aren’t by any stretch out of the woods. But when you couple those advances with the fact that social media and other tools are forcing us to be more accountable to the public, yes, I’m optimistic.
Claire Enders, UK Media Analyst
Journalism and commercially viable, large scale news businesses are two very different topics. From the perspectives of research, access and distribution, this is a wonderful time to be a journalist, as digital provides rapid and deep research techniques, excellent collaboration tools, inexpensive video and audio technologies and extraordinarily flexible and effective distribution options. Nonetheless, it is complicated. The reputation of journalists, at least in the UK, has been somewhat volatile, with the parliament members’ expenses scandal and the systematic exposure of the News of the World phone hacking scandal reminding consumers of the importance of organized newsrooms, but the latter also confirming the worst fears of some journalists’ behavior.
Separately, in an increasingly social and connected world, the perceived need for organised journalism and curation, in magazines as well as newspapers, has been through a complex cycle. My sense is that, until relatively recently, the last decade has seen a systematic decline in this perceived need for journalism and curation, particularly among younger demographics, and that more recently there are positive signs that the perception of the need for journalism and curation in society generally has not just stabilized but grown again. I am sure this is the result of the ‘endless ocean’ of the social Web stimulating our collective need for selection, for authority, and for clarity. I feel very positive about the the future when I see the robust and growing sales figures of wonderful publications such as the Economist and the Week. The need for intelligence, insight and a curated roadmap through our increasingly complex world is becoming a more, not less, valuable tool in our endlessly connected lives.
Omar L. Gallaga, technology reporter at the Austin American-Statesman
I’m much more optimistic about journalism than I was four years ago—even the most Luddite journalists have finally embraced blogging, social media has reenergized some news organizations that had become too insular, and I’m amazed with what some reporters are learning to do with big data and digital tools.
When I go to the international Symposium on Online Journalism every year, I’m always blown away by how people working in far-flung parts of newsrooms (infographics, new media, etc.) are thinking ahead to what’s next and I’m always inspired by what journalists overseas are doing with even more limited resources and, often, a tougher national infrastructure to deal with. The stuff that’s happening in mobile overseas—delivering news outside of traditional print/TV/desktop channels—is really amazing.
Chip Giller, founder and president of Grist.org
I’m going to risk my reputation as a card-carrying journalist by admitting that I never got that pessimistic about the future of journalism. It’s been painful, of course, to see so many colleagues affected by the newspaper crisis, and it can be unsettling when the future seems uncertain. But I don’t think “uncertain” means bad or dark; it just takes time and creativity to figure out what comes next. At Grist, we’ve been online since our founding in 1999, and we’ve always looked for unconventional ways to tell stories—whether it’s a multimedia tour of a sadly polluted neighborhood or an infographic about the climate bill—so we’re a little different in that regard. It’s been really exciting to see so many other outlets warming up to, even embracing, the possibilities of digital and social media over the last few years, and it’s pushing us to get much more creative in our approaches, too.
If you look around, you’ll see that journalism and technology are becoming more fused. Journalists are seeing the real potential of social media to help pursue stories and connect with their readers/users/the-people-formerly-known-as-the- audience/whatever-else-you-want-to-label-this-developing-partnership, and technologists are creating tools with storytelling in mind—things like Storify. We’re seeing storytelling partnerships like Buzzfeed and The New York Times, or even Twitter and NBC, that emphasize the idea that new and old can work together—and we’re seeing so much more engagement and energy and participation on the part of the audience. To me, that’s the most inspiring thing: journalism is no longer a one-way street. While that can be overwhelming at times if you’re used to putting a story out there and moving on, I think ultimately it is making our craft more resilient, more sustainable, more vital, and ultimately a lot more interesting.
Joe Klein, political columnist at Time
Not much has changed. Print still looking for a way to finance online
journalism. Television still dreadful.
[I’m inspired by] lots of terrific young journalists who actually report. We have a bunch
of them at Time and you see them elsewhere—i.e. Ezra Klein (no relation).
Gillian Tett, US managing editor of the Financial Times
As it happens I am more optimistic because it has become clear that there is still a strong demand for content, even when it is distributed via new channels. The industry is still in huge flux, but the limits and dangers of excessively customized information is becoming clear—people are still willing to pay to get not just news, but an intelligent filter for that news. The success of the NYT paywall shows that. So does the fact that combined FT circulation continues to rise, as the digital circulation overtakes print.
Warren Webster, co-founder of Patch.com
I am very optimistic about the future of journalism. The general population has spoken loudly about their need for reliable reporting and their concern about the decline. In response, the industry has slowly but surely begun to realize that they can change their method of delivery and their business models to find new ways to fill that need, without sacrificing the fundamentals principles of Journalism.
I believe the most inspiring sign is the level at which consumers are embracing new models for news and information, including Patch. As long as there is this amount of demand, and companies willing and able to fill the demand in new ways, the industry will be healthy.The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.