Is News Over? City University journalism chief George Brock says journalists should accept changed world

Update: Watch the whole video at this link (not embeddable, unfortunately).

Journalists still have a vital role to play in society as independent, informed, editors, finders and defenders of facts. No amount of algorithmic authority will change the vital role of reporters to hold authority to account.

All that’s according to George Brock, the recently-installed head of journalism at City University London who at an inaugural keynote lecture at City on Wednesday (read the whole thing in full here) made a staunch defence of the craft and trade of newsgathering, which has and is being so battered by a comprehensive, permanent technological and economic upheaval.

Brock was a senior editor of The Times and its international editor in a 28-year career there, during which he played a key role in launching Times Online. So he knows what he’s talking about and much of his argument is sound. Read on after the jump…

Most interestingly, he admits that journalists now have to face up to the changed reality of their trade:

The failure of journalists to see the whole picture is the worst of all.

The ownership and control of means and production of news information are now in the hands of the masses, not the few. “That barrier has gone and a sense of identity has evaporated with it.” Very wisely, Brock advised the many journalism students in the room that “journalists have to start accepting that they don’t automatically hold the important place they once held in society…”

Brock’s defence of journalism is that it’s a vital trade in an age where communities self-publish the most relevant and interesting information to each other for free, for the fun of it, can be boiled down to one word: editing.

Filtering is exactly what people expect – filtering is what used to be called editing. Editors have to ask old questions – how do we know this is true? The nature of research may have changed but (the process hasn’t)…

It would help, says Brock, if journalists narrowed down what they do to four things (paraphrased slightly):

  1. Verification of facts, especially of events that are disputed.
  2. Making sense of facts – some of which are easier to establish than others.
  3. Acting as a witness to events.
  4. Investigating beyond the bare facts and events.

“None of those four things I’ve listed can be done by an algorithm,” says Brock. Perhaps not.

But online tools (including algorithm-based ones like, I don’t know, Google) help reporters find and verify more facts than they ever could, help establish authority on a subject by collaborating with audiences and to investigate more quickly and effectively than ever before. Help Me Investigate is a good example: the site, though still in its early days, is far more than the sum of its parts. What of Wikileaks‘ on-going fight to publish documents no-one in authority wants published in a collaborative way?

Furthermore, as Demand Media is showing, it is possible to make a business model out of ad-funded online text and videos – but only by finding out exactly what advertisers and readers want to see. Maybe algorithms could help reconnect the broken link between commerce and news creation (though the problem of how you use algorithms to publish content that isn’t just interesting but important remains unanswered).

Speaking of business models, like everyone else, Brock has no “magic answer” on what the future might be for the business of news. It could be ad-funded, state-funded, or a “mixed economy” of all the available options. Brock’s a fan of “spaghetti-throwing“: being brave enough to experiment and know some ideas won’t work.

But for me this debate hangs on the future of news too much: are students being taught the future of revenue? This new generation of reporters will have to actively find a way to be paid for what they do – and for many of them, news will not be the main breadwinner.

“News” may not be the thing that makes the big news organisations much money in future – I’d look to things like real-life events, dating, games, membership clubs, content partnerships, spin-off mini-sites, affiliate advertising, mobile publishing, e-commerce and branded products as the potential growth areas – and with all these things the more niche, the better. As I pointed out this week, the Racing Post gives away all its news as marketing for its many paid digital products.

A final thing: I was internally cheering when Brock turned his sights on the rise of the “moral outrage” genre of journalism, best summed up by the News of the World’s erroneous Max Mosely sex orgy story and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s passioned plea to the Society of Editors that papers should be able to write about such purient trash.

[Dacre's speech] is grotesque and self-deluding arrogance. The point here is not the narrow legal issues of defamation and privacy on which the Mosley case turned, but the effect of this stance on journalists. There are those in society entitled to defend moral standards, but encouraging journalists to see themselves as moral referees has not helped to create or sustain trust in the profession.

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