What’s happening to journalism

Journalism is a dead industry. Or dying, at least. That’s what we hear. Citizen reporters are using new technology to provide for free what professional journalists currently provide for a salary. All they need is a smart phone and a social-media account and these insurgent hacks are good-to-go. It costs nothing to produce and nothing to view; and who needs training? They simply hold their phone in the air and start beaming whatever seismic event is taking place in front of them.

How can professional journalism compete with this? And, more importantly for those still earning a living by the trade, how can they make it pay? This might prompt most people to say, ‘who cares what happens to the phone-hacking cockroaches?’ But journalists – and other writers, such as Alexander Chancellor in The Spectator recently – are, for understandable reasons, a little more concerned.

He recounts an address he gave recently to journalist-hopefuls at Nottingham University, in which he found himself torn between wanting to explain how today’s youth would have to be particularly stupid to aspire to a career in journalism, and not wanting to discourage the bright young things from pursuing their cherished dreams. Still, obviously not too torn, because he gave them the gloomy news anyway.

It’s a good question: ‘Where are the new jobs going to be when every news organisation in the country seemed to be getting rid of people instead of hiring them?’ And possibly a question with no redeeming answer to someone (and I hope this sentence is not taken the wrong way) nearer the end of his journalistic career than the beginning.

When one has spent a life in a particular organisation, there is always something sad about uncontrollable change. Old soldiers, sailors and airmen grieve stoically when their regiment, ship or squadron drops off the order of battle. But they rarely, if ever, stop the change. If something lives, you know it will die; and, if you take an optimistic view of life, it might re-emerge in a new, improved form.

Sticking with the military theme, we might think institutions like the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force, conservative as they are, respond poorly to change. But that’s not quite true. One need only look at the way all three services implement the ever-changing demands of their political masters with grumpy but loyal commitment. In 2006, the Army lost 6,000 posts, renamed and lost distinguished regiments and reorganised after three decades of deployment in Northern Ireland; and over the coming years it will do the same, only this time it will lose 20,000 posts and integrate the Territorial Army into a new Reserve force central to all future regular commitments. This is quite a change, with considerable risk; but the Army will get on with it, as it always does.

What’s this got to do with journalism? Nothing, really, except to say that things always change. Fantastic advances in technology are shattering the assumptions that have underpinned journalism since the invention of the printing press. We might wonder if late-medieval scribes had a little panic when Gutenberg revealed, with Steve-Jobs evangelism, his filthy, job-destroying machine? They probably did, but we might then note how the printing press gave rise to a whole new set of employment opportunities; and there is no reason to believe that, when we’ve worked out how to marry journalism with today’s developing technology, we will not have a vibrant new industry that looks like journalism, but not quite as we have known it.

Mr Chancellor knows this, of course; he’s far too shrewd an observer of our species. But perhaps he’s not yet thought about the matter as one might think of greater societal change. Perhaps his observation – that fewer people are to be employed professionally in journalism – is not a sign of decline, but of advance. Think of all those former journalists now free to take up more productive employment.

One of the ways – perhaps the chief way – society advances is through diversification. Indeed, a society that can produce a greater variety of goods and services is generally considered a more prosperous society. They are freed from the risks and the poverty characteristic of societies still largely dependent on one or two rudimentary industries. It is still fashionable in certain political circles to think the West enjoys lower child mortality, more abundant food and better medicine because of socialistic provision, but this ignores the creative power of capital and trade – the means of diversification and prosperity.

And key to our ability to produce more of the things that make our lives better, is being able to create more with less (or, rather, to make what we want, but with lower human input) – Productivity. Take agriculture. Societies where agriculture forms the main source of wealth are poor societies, harassed by poverty’s attendant problems: greater ignorance, higher mortality and less freedom. The great triumph of developed societies is their ability to get people off the land while still being able to feed themselves. Every person freed from dependence on the land is a person doing something else to make our lives more varied and interesting: education, science, business, art, philosophy etc.

The principle continues through all trades and industries. More efficiency, especially in labour, leads to greater capacity for other things, thus enriching society and creating what we recognise today as advanced and diversified culture. Every time we substitute robots for people to build cars, we free people to do other things; every time we find a more efficient method of producing what we want, we reduce the need for labour, freeing that labour to do something else to enrich society. Some people, generally of a Luddite tendency, still see labour-saving advances in productivity as a regressive step; but this is a mistake. Not everyone can work on the land: who will make the ploughs?

Back to the point, and back to journalism. Perhaps we need to look at this present revolution in journalism as we do other labour-saving advances? Perhaps technology, by enabling the citizen-journalist, is simply making journalism better and more efficient. Perhaps the professional journalist, with his or her tendency to filter and edit the news, has always been an undesirable hindrance to our understanding of what is truly happening in the world. After all, if Time magazine wasn’t witness to the latest great tragedy, then it didn’t really happen! Now we are all witness, and we can testify with the touch of a button.

But it is not all doom and gloom for the professional journalist. If the human race is good at one thing, it is good at finding ways to make money. Citizen journalism will need polishing-up for the more discerning market. It will need editors, copywriters, distributors, platforms and more, all of which means jobs – just slightly different jobs, that’s all, and perhaps fewer; but that’s all right. Perhaps journalists of the future will be less journalist, more editor. Perhaps journalists are, in fact, simply going to be ‘the people’: people who do something else but know the issue on which they write in far greater detail than any journalist could manage?

No, journalism isn’t dead; it’s not even dying. It’s simply changing, and if anyone wants to make money from it, they will have to do what all businesses do without the crutch of state subsidy. They will have to provide something for which people are willing to pay, be they readers, advertisers, philanthropists or anyone else. But it was always thus; it’s just that things have got a bit more competitive, that’s all. And that’s a good thing, no?

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