Future of Journalism conf: notes from plenary speaker Emily Bell #foj11

I spent a couple of hours this morning at the Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff, where the plenary speaker was Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s
Graduate School of Journalism and former director of digital content for the Guardian.
Her talk was titled The (Many) Future(s) of Journalism, and my notes are below, if you missed the live stream of the event…

1. The ‘stop talking start doing’ complaint about conferences

“I’m glad to be here talking about the future of journalism because in 1987 the only discussion we had about. Future of journalism was to do with printing strikes, it was nothing to do with the newsroom.”
She said that at one stage academia existed to put people into jobs that were heavily templated.
It was accepted that the best way to do journalism was the way it had always been done, and answers were not easy: “There are no silver bullets because journalism is less defined by the business that
supports it. We are left with a shapeshifting proposition that dodges definition.”

The whole ‘citizen journalist’ and pro/am debate is a cul de sac:
“Arguing over who may or may not be a journalist is futile. I [cannot be arrested] for pretending to be a journalist.
“We can stretch the metaphor and say in the future everyone will be a journalist for 15 mins. The pro and the am are increasingly indistinguishable able so go pick one future is hard because it has a future as a process, business and profession.”

2. Future of ‘good’ journalism and future of ‘bad’ journalism

The argument of five years ago was that the future would be good for bad journalism because there would be fewer journalists doing good journalism.
It would open the opportunity of journalism to anyone who wanted to pretend to be a journalist and ‘peddle lies’.
“It would strap us to a hamster wheel of live reporting, sacrificing analysis in-depth complex journalism for a torrent of live stream information. It would be dominated by technologists. We saw this as a bad thing.”
But actually, she continued, these elements favour good journalism and will help render bad journalism all but irrelevant.

The idea that journalism would be picked apart by others – such as search engines, aggregators etc – is actually a benefit to journalism.
It allows journalism to learn from other fields and bring it back to improve itself. It has been in defence mode for a long time and is starting to break out of it’s boundaries.
The future of journalism lies beyond its borders.
It is about having to understand tech and platforms that deliver it. Columbia University has journalism courses that run in tandem alongside computer sciences.
“These students are asking if there are better ways to do things, and to innovate how to deliver journalism well. You see lots and lots of solutions coming out of technology minded people in newsrooms and that
is no longer the preserve of technology companies.”
She outlined using Storify to liveblog an event, and how exciting they found it. Soundcloud Document Cloud, Twitter etc are the students’ new toolkit.

The inclusion of non journalists has been beneficial, contrary to what may have been though. Eg wikileaks cables collaboration with mainstream media, also the Japan earthquake saw a pop up blog set up
and run by students who explained what the data and metrics from the quake monitoring site meant, and it was part of the system of journalism aggregated and pointed to by other news organisations,
Core skills will be how to make the best of collaboration. Eg NYT  linking up with a local radio station.

Guardian coverage of the England riots was a social activity – relying on crowdsourcing.
There is almost no evidence to show whether David Camereon was right to say social media was behind the riots. The Guardian collected and analysed tweets and is now using its’ Twitter analysis to work with Rowntree Foundation and LSE to see if that is the case.

3. “Instant journalism is bad journalism”
The most galvanising thing to happen to journalism is social web and mobile devices.
Journalists felt challenged by this. [quick observation from me: I don’t think we all did!]
She used Andy Carvin as an example of working beyond platforms. Also the Watershed Post, set up by two people in the Catskills who felt they had toolittle media representation.
The livestream of journalism, the involvement people who are not journalists In the traditional sense and the technological tools we use benefit good journalism.

4. “The lack of money is good for journalism”… “Or it’s the reality we live in.”

There is not going to be the same level of revenue coming in to digital journalism as there was in legacy media and we will be working in reduced means.
Journalism as a working business model is fetishised. The most profitable journalism can be the worst journalism – so bad it closes a newspaper. It shows the problem when the primary focus becomes
profit. Now it is sustainability and profit is not the defining factor of why journalist go into the business.

She used the Journal Register as an example of how sustainability and a rethink has caused such a dramatic change. “We don’t know how this will work or if it will, but we know that if we don’t try it how the
story ends”.
Propublica model has Pulitzer prizes, is one of the most advanced in data use in the world.
“Data, mobile, cms, all of these and the benefits they bring to good journalism could be discussed at length. There is a huge amount of this that is not properly understood.”

5. There is no clear answer to what journalism will look like in five years time but there are clues

The future is there to be defined. We have a collective capacity to make this work but it can only be done by looking out and upwards.
Digital costs a lot less to do. It doesn’t have the legacy costs. The Guardian has money to spend because it gets money from Autotrader, a purely digital product. If you understand the cost of what you are doing it helps – a lot of good journalism comes out of things that don’t make money.

Updated: Robert Andrews’ Paid Content article on Emily Bell’s presentation is here

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