Vanguards and rearguards in the fight for the future of journalism

“The truth is hard”

I’ve come across this quote repeatedly in the past year, most frequently in the form of ads for the New York Times at various media events. It always makes me think of the divide between the vanguard and the rearguard over the future of journalism.

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New York Times ad at the World News Media Congress in Glasgow, June 2019

One truth that is not hard is this: in my first year as Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, I have been truly and thoroughly inspired by the ambition, desire, and fight for change in journalism among many journalists, editors, and media leaders.

Let’s call them the vanguard.

While the vanguard is often young, it is not only young – Maria Ressa at Rappler and Marty Baron of the Washington Post are not spring chickens, and they are forging towards the future of journalism, as are Kath Viner at the Guardian, Siddharth Varadarajan from The Wire, and many others who have been through a thing or two. But perhaps it is also about age—the absolutely certainty among many that journalism as we knew it will not thrive in the 21st century, combined with suspicion among some older journalists that it may yet last their time out.

That latter part is a harder truth to face, the persistence of a mindset that risks doing lasting damage to the profession of journalism and the news media organizations that enable it, and make a number of already tough challenges even tougher. It is the mindset of those who say they believe that people will cool on their smartphones and pick up print, that people will ditch video-on-demand and return to linear scheduled broadcasting, that journalists can safely condescend upon and harmlessly ridicule as conspicuously woke or ridiculously politically correct the values and priorities of new generations.

This is the rearguard.

This mindset is invisible at most “future of journalism” gatherings, but I meet at least some of them at every industry event I attend, many in most media organization I visit, and they have plenty of kindred spirits among (older) policymakers.

The rearguard thinks the problem is that the world has changed too much. The vanguard thinks the problem is that journalism hasn’t changed enough.

Nothing is ever black or white, but crudely put, I see one group of journalists and media leaders who want to develop and change the profession and the funding models that sustain it so they are fit for a changing world and a digital media environment. But I also, constantly, everywhere, come across another group of journalists and media leaders who do not see it this way, who would rather pour their energy into vain attempts at trying to restore a romanticized past, airbrushed of its shortcomings, idealized for its (very real) virtues, and valued for the stability it offered many, both in terms of professional security and career advancement as well as in terms of the media business.

From my experience, the younger generation is overwhelmingly in the first group. The older generation? More mixed. The vanguard is full of women and more diverse. The rearguard full of white men like me.

Both the vanguard and the rearguard care about journalism, but the divide between them is a problem for the profession and the industry, for while the first group is fighting for various visions of an uncertain future, the second group is defending a defunct past that—while it had much to offer—will in many ways no longer serve. The older parts of the rearguard won’t even necessarily experience the full consequences of their own conservatism. Business as usual, perhaps with a bit of hand-waving about AI and blockchain for garnish, may in fact last their time out (if they are close enough to retirement). But in the process, this mindset will continue to undermine journalism’s ability to adapt, remake, and renew itself, and the profession as a whole, especially younger journalists, will have to live with the consequences of this conservatism. This is an often unacknowledged, but ever-present and very real, generational divide in journalism.

 

“The truth isn’t so obvious”

That’s another part of that same New York Times advertisement. And don’t we know it. When we redefined the Reuters Institute’s mission this year as “exploring the future of journalism worldwide through debate, engagement, and research”, it was premised on three things: (1) we don’t want to fight yesterday’s battles, but will look toward the future, (2) we don’t know what that future looks like, or should look like, so we want to explore it by all means available, and (3) we don’t believe anyone can succeed on this journey on their own, so we will focus on collaboration and conversation.

But there are some things we do know, and while these things may count among the truths that the New York Times counts as hard to hear, they are also truths that cannot be glossed over.

  • Journalism is important for democracy. (Yes – often for good, but sometimes for ill.)
  • Journalism is important for holding communities and societies together. (Yes – but also sometimes dividing them.)
  • Journalism is an important part of the media and technology business. (Yes – but small and shrinking.)

In my experience, many in the rearguard would like to stop with just the celebratory first part of each statement. They seem to prefer an after-dinner speech celebrating the value of journalism at its best to an accurate description of journalism and its actual state.

But, as each of the parentheses suggest, we cannot truthfully stop there.

And while an after-dinner speech may feel good, planning your future as if it is an analysis will lead to catastrophic, avoidable outcomes.

Furthermore, while the public may be willing to at least consider the after-dinner speech version of what journalism is and what it means (we still have a reservoir of goodwill), they don’t buy it as a description.

Much of the public does not trust journalism, consider it to be of limited value (or even a drain on them), and pay little attention to it. This disregard goes well beyond the imperfections that most journalists are already willing to contemplate.

Consider just three findings from Reuters Institute research in the past year as an illustration of each point—

I cannot stress enough how important it is that we face these issues. Lucy Küng has a passage from an interview that she often returns to in discussions of the business of news.

Interviewer: “What was your biggest mistake?”

Media industry CEO: “I always say that if I could go back ten years, … , I would not be saying, ‘The Internet’s going to be big’ … what I would really be saying is, ‘Your business is going to be more screwed than you can even conceive of now. Your worst case scenario is just a scratch’.”

“Just a scratch.” What if this applies to journalism’s connection to the public as well as to the business of news?

Journalism exists in the context of its audience. Its public value, its political power, its social significance, its viability as a business, its legitimacy as a beneficiary of public and philanthropic funding—all of it is premised on its connection with its audience. That connection is in many cases hanging by a thread, and it is on us to retain, renew, and reinforce it.

The vanguard understands this. The rearguard refuses to accept it.

 

“The truth is powerful”

The push-back that we often get when we present findings like these suggests that some in the profession and the industry prefer tame cheerleaders to independent researchers, and dismiss challenging findings as depressing doom-mongering. Some, it seems, would prefer only research that suggests journalism is great, and was even greater in the past.

Most of the vanguard, in contrast, embrace our research, as much of it again and again underlines the absolute necessity of change, change that will have to go well beyond this or that question of tactics, optimization, or refinement, and concerns basic question of purpose (what are we for?), value (what problems are we trying to solve for whom?), and strategy (how do we get to where we need to be to do that?).

The rearguard? The prevailing assumption there seems to be that hard truths are for other people.

The attitude seems to be that we should romanticize the journalism that, for all its values, also arguably failed us on climate change, in the run-up to the financial crisis, and in uncritical coverage of digital media throughout the 2000s, a journalism that has often seemed as out of touch with the energies behind #BlackLivesMatter, #Fightfor15, #MeToo as with the groundswells of support for Brexit, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump, a journalism that is still all too often based on a mass media business model that won’t make sense much longer.

But hard truths aren’t only for other people. They are also for us.

At the Reuters Institute, we will continue to pursue independent, evidence-based, internationally-oriented research on as many of the major issues facing journalism worldwide as we can, whether the findings are comforting or not, whether they concern the many external challenges over which we have little control (political pressure, increasingly challenging business, the growth of platform companies), or the internal ones that we, together, can in fact address (how we engage with people, create value and gain trust, and change our own organizations).

The Reuters Institute is not on anybody’s side, vanguard or rearguard, but our findings are overwhelmingly aligned with the vanguard’s view of the world, and rarely the rearguard’s. (If the facts change, our views will too.) We will explore the future of journalism with anyone who wants to engage (and with the help of a new Steering Committee and a new Advisory Board that better reflect the diversity of our journalism fellowship program and the wider profession).

We hope we—through debate, engagement, and research—can help more journalists, editors, and media leaders develop their own understanding of (a) how our media environment is changing, (b) what it means for their organization, and (c) what they can do to succeed professionally and organizationally in that changing environment.

Everyone should make up their own mind, but with every program we run, every event we attend, every report we publish, I see a few more people – some young, some old – come to the conclusion that more of the same isn’t the answer, that going back to the past is neither right nor possible, and that we have to forge ahead towards an uncertain future instead. In short I see them joining the vanguard, a vanguard where there’s always room for more, and a vanguard that needs experience as much as it needs energy, insight as much as it needs innovation.

That matters, because rearguard action won’t lead us to the future, and no one else is riding to the rescue – not platforms, not foundations, and not governments. If journalism and the business of news that sustains (and constrains) it is to be saved, it has to save itself, if it is to be remade, it has to remake itself.

And I promise you this: we will continue to call it as we see it, despite the stream of angry emails I get every time our research falls short of the rearguard’s self-understanding, or challenge some of the truisms of how journalism and the news industry like to present itself to the public and to policymakers.

We do this just as journalism seek truth and report it, not because it knows exactly what the future will hold, or precisely how to solve the issues of our day, but because journalism, at its best, is premised on the belief that the truth is powerful. That people with access to relevant reliable information and a chance to discuss it with their peers will make better choices.

That same role is the one that we to the best of our ability try to play vis-à-vis the profession, the news media industry, and its various interlocutors – provide independent evidence and analysis, foster and host debate, insistent on the importance of facing the big issues, however inconvenient and uncomfortable it might be for various incumbents and elites. This, a focus on exploring the future of journalism through debate, engagement, and research, is our answer to the question I asked last year when I took the role as Director: what we can do to help journalists (and all of us who rely on journalism) reinvent the profession and the industry?

We don’t know what the answers are, and we don’t know what exactly the future holds for journalism, but we want to be part of that journey, and we will continue the search for answers through our journalism fellowship programs, our leadership programs, and our research programs.

Not as tame cheerleaders (or depressed doom-mongers). But as explorers of the future of journalism.

We hope you’ll join us.

100 inspiring books on journalism

What books (related to journalism) have impacted your life?

In early September, a journalist asked me this, and I named four of mine—

  • Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: : The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Alexievich’s ability to give voice to the voiceless is such I have to carry tissues whenever I read her books.)
  • Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (Malcolm’s book is the best I know on the complexities of journalists’ relation with sources (Hard to beat her opening!))
  • Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 (Thompson’s book on the 1972 election is crazy, raw, entertaining and thought-provoking, and a rougher version of what I suppose some would call literary non-fiction.)
  • Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (This I think is still the single best analytical treatment of the role of journalism in (Western) society – a classic almost a century after it was published.)

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I also asked people on Twitter for what books on journalism had impacted their lives, and got a lot of really interesting responses, I’m posting the first 100 recommendations I got below (sorry if I’ve missed some, it got very lively).

Just to be clear, I haven’t read all of these myself, and I don’t know whether I’d personally recommend them all, but it’s a great list and I hope others will find it inspiring – I’ve just finished Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s The Race Beat which was outstanding and I warmly recommend it (as Javier Moreno and others did to me), and have just started Jan Whitt’s Women in American Journalism.

The list is still very heavily male-dominated and overwhelmingly voices from the US and Europe, so very keen to see more suggestions for a broader range and more diverse voices. Can then update the list.

 

Non-fiction books including biographies, autobiographies, etc.

Zahra Hankir & Christiane Amanpour, Our Women On the Ground

Dahr Jamail, The End of Ice

Bernstein/Woodward, All the President’s Men

Alan Rusbridger, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters

Joris Luyendijk, People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East

Hostwriter and CORRECTIV (publishers), Unbias the News: Why diversity matters for journalism

Jay Rosen, What Are Journalists For?

Katharine Graham, Personal History

Ed Snowden, Permanent Record

Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed

Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing

Jeff Jarvis, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News

David Carr, The Night of the Gun

Jan Whitt, Women in American Journalism

Phillip Meyer, Paper Route: FINDING MY WAY TO PRECISION JOURNALISM

Jay Hamilton, Democracy’s Detectives

Michael Schudson, Discovering the News

Joan Didion, Political Fictions

James W. Carey, Communication as Culture

Timothy Crouse, The Boys on the Bus

David Halberstam, The Powers that Be

Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

Ernest Hemingway, By-line

Chris Horrie, Stick it Up Your Punter: The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper

Paul Starr, Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications

Robert E. Park, The National History of The Newspaper

Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker

Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat

Ben Bradlee, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures

Jake Adelstein, Tokyo Vice

John Carey, The Faber Book of Reportage

George Packer, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

D Q McInerny, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking

Ed Lambeth, Committed Journalism: An Ethic for the Profession

Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War: Vasily Gossman with the Red Army 1941-1945

George Orwell, Essays

John W. Dean, Blind Ambition: The White House Years

Fintan O’Toole, Back at the Ranch (The Politics of Irish Beef)

Alan Brinkley, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century

Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit

Bharat Anand, The Content Trap

Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

John Simpson, Despatches from the Barricades

A.J.  Liebling, The Press

Tim Bowden, One Crowded Hour: Noel Davis, Combat Cameraman, 1934-85

Edward Behr, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?

David Carr, The night of the gun

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Andrew Marr, My Trade: A short history of British Journalism

Nicholas Coleridge, Paper Tigers: The latest, greatest newspaper tycoons and how the won the world

Harold Evans, Essential English and Pictures on a Page

Seymour Hersh, Reporter: A Memoir

Marvin Kalb, The Nixon Memo

Hanna Krall, Shielding the flame: Intimate Conversation with Dr.Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent : The Political Economy of the Mass Media

Robert Boynton, The New New Journalism

Dave Cullen, Columbine

Max du Preez, Palle Native: Memories of a Renegade Reporter

Sebastian Junger, War

Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air

Greg Marinovich, The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War

Hans Rosling, Factfulnesss: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Jon Swain, River of Time

Michael Herr, Dispatches

Antonio Rubio, El Origen del Gal: Guerra Sucia y Crimen de Estado

Marie Colvin, On the Front Line: the Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin

Maria Angelica Correa, A Ese Muchacho lo van a matar

John Pilger, Heroes

Oriana Fallaci, Interview with History and Conversations with Power

Markus Feldenkirchen, Die Schulz-Story

Ryan Holiday, Trust me, I’m lying

T S Satyan, Alive and Clicking

T J S George, Lessons in Journalism: The story of Pothan Joseph

Nils Ufer, Den nøgne journalist

Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life

Charlie LeDuff, Shitshow: The Country is Collapsing but the Ratings are Great

Chris Hedges, War is a force that gives us meaning

Willie Morris, North Toward Home

Jacques Pauw, The President’s Keepers

Paul Krassner, Impolite Interviews

Aman Sethi, A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi

John Hess, My Times: A Memoir of Dissent

Jorge Ramos, Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era

 

Essays, fiction and literary non-fiction (and borderline cases like Capote, some of Kapuscinski, Thompson)

Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Other

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island

Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan

Evelyn Waugh, Scoop

Vasily Grossman, Life & Fate

Heinrich Boll, The lost Honour of Katharina Blum

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

Hunter S Thompson, The Rum Diary

Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities

David Foster Wallace, Consider the lobster

Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs

Jim Lynch, Truth Like the Sun

Eugenio Corti, The Red Horse

Erich Hackl, The Wedding in Auschwitz

Book recommendations from #academicsquadgoals

The inimitable Shannon McGregor and Sarah Bachleda has collected some book reading recommendations for political communication scholars at the 4th annual #AcademicSquadGoals mentoring happy hour at the American Political Science Association annual meeting this summer (more here #academicsquadgoals and on Twitter here).

Shannon kindly suggested I post them here to make them more widely available.

Here goes (and many thanks to Shannon and Sarah for collecting and sharing) —

Old, Educated, and Politically Diverse: The Audience of Public Service News

Public service media are often widely used, highly trusted, and do not face the business pressures with which their private peers have to contend. But a closer look suggests that the challenges that face public service media news provision are bigger – much bigger – than is commonly acknowledged, even in countries with a long history of strong public service media.

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We use survey data from the Digital News Report to analyze the audience for public service news and find that it is old, educated, and politically diverse, and that public service media in many countries fall far short of the ambition to provide a near-universal news service, especially online.

That’s the key finding in a new Reuters Institute report, led by Anne Schulz, working with David Levy and myself.

Read the full report here.

Edelman Career Award to Ann Crigler and Paolo Mancini

I’ve served as chair of the American Political Science Association Political Communication Section’s Murray Edelman Distinguished Career Award award committee, serving alongside Holli Semetko and Markus Prior. The award is given every two years to recognize a lifetime contribution to the study of Political Communication.

I’m delighted to share that the award this year is going to Professor Ann Crigler from the University of Southern California and Professor Paolo Mancini from Università di Perugia, both of whom I have learned a lot from, and both of whom have demonstrated the value of collaborative work.

Below is the award text.

The award committee for the 2019 Murray Edelman Distinguished Career Award, which recognizes a lifetime contribution to the study of Political Communication and is awarded every other year, consisted of Holli Semetko, Markus Prior, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (chair).

This year, the committee made a unanimous decision to recognize two scholars for the contribution each of them have made through their lifetime of service and their scholarship, individually and with various co-authors.

We would therefore like to congratulate Professor Ann Crigler from the University of Southern California and Professor Paolo Mancini from Università di Perugia, who both will receive a Murray Edelman Distinguished Career Award from the American Political Science Association Political Communication Section this year.

For both Professor Crigler and Professor Mancini, we would like to briefly recognize both some the scholarship they have done as well as how they both model scholarship in a way we can all draw inspiration from.

For Professor Crigler, we would in particular highlight her ground-breaking and wide-ranging work including her 1992 book with W. Russell Neuman and Marion Just “Common Knowledge” on news and the construction of meaning, as well as her 1996 book “Crosstalk” where she with a team of five co-authors examine interactions between citizens, candidates, and the media in a presidential campaign. Among her extensive record of work on political communication, public opinion, and political psychology, these books are just two examples of theoretically ambitious, methodologically innovative, empirically grounded analysis of substantially important questions that has helped the field as a whole advance.

For Professor Mancini, beyond his important role in the development of political communication as a field of study in Italy specifically and Europe more broadly, we want to highlight his pioneering role in developing comparative frameworks for and perspectives on political communication. This has been driven by his own single-authored publications as well as a number of important articles, edited books, and monographs with different collaborators, including both the “Politics, media, and modern democracy” edited with David Swanson in 1996 as well as his collaborations with Daniel C. Hallin on a number of projects including their 2004 book “Comparing Media Systems: Three models of media and politics.”

We want to recognize both Professor Crigler and Professor Mancini for their individual lifetime contribution to the study of political communication through their scholarship. We would also like to recognize how they both model scholarship through their life-long commitment to a combination of individual and co-authored work, and want to underline that the two Murray Edelman Distinguished Career Awards given today demonstrates how one can advance the study of political communication theoretically, methodologically, and substantially in a collaborative fashion, and how important it is that we as a field recognize and reward everyone involved in such collegial work.

Hopes for journalism

Jay Rosen publishes a list of his “top problems” in journalism from time to time, and Jeff Jarvis has chipped in with his worries.

I encourage you to read both, and think of your own problems and worries (and there are plenty of both), but wanted to add my own list of hopes to supplement.

 

Good journalism stands out, creates public value, and is rewarded for it

… not everywhere, and not always as much as one would hope, but the fact that publisher after publisher, from local media group AMedia in Norway over digital-born sites like Mediapart in France and national titles like Dagens Nyheter in Sweden to international brands like the New York Times report that exclusive stories, well-reported investigations, and original angles are among the key drivers of loyalty and subscriptions gives me hope that good journalism and good business can go hand in hand.

 

The next generation of leaders in news are amazing and unafraid…

… they care about their mission and their profession, they are proud of journalism’s history but not stuck in its past, they actively want to change and to work with colleagues across editorial, product, and business because they know no one can do it alone. I can’t be a pessimist in a world with people like Melissa Bell, Peter Wolodarski, Niddal Salah-Eldin, Supriya Sharma, Gary Liu, Angela Pacienza, Alvin Ntibinyane, Hannah Suppa, and countless others like them leading the profession and the industry towards the future.

 

We can fight the tide of misinformation without sacrificing our liberties to censors or filters…

… as demonstrated by all those doing pioneering work rejecting both, on the one hand, the draconian measures pursued, sometimes deliberately and with open eyes, sometimes in good faith but poorly thought through, and, on the other hand, the unacceptable status quo daily further undermining trust in the institutions and infrastructures that enable free speech. Just look at the work of Claire Wardle, David Kaye, Joan Donovan, Will Moy, and their colleagues and counterparts.

 

The best journalism today is better than it has ever been…

… taking on everyone from the most powerful politicians to the biggest companies in the world, exposing them to public scrutiny, holding them to account for what they do. More broadly, at its best, journalism today is more accessible, more timely, more informative, more interactive, more engaged with its audience—and frankly less arrogant—than in the past. Every day the work of everyone from Julia Angwin, Hannah Dreier, and Marty Baron in the US to Carlos Chamorro in Nicaragua, Maria Ressa in the Philippines, and Siddharth Varadarajan in India and many more across the world fills me with hope for the future of journalism.

 

There is plenty to be worried about – the world is a worrying place – but this, the people mentioned, and many others like them I meet at the Reuters Institute and across the world, makes me hopeful. They are not flights of fancy, or a false balance to counter others’ problems and worries — they are reality-based grounds for conditional optimism.

How do local journalists think about editorial quality in a changing environment? New article

How do local journalists think about editorial quality in a changing environment?

In a new article led by Joy Jenkins (who did amazing work for us at RISJ on local news), we use in-depth 48 interviews from across Finland, France, Germany, and the UK to identify the main value aspirations, and find a focus on traditional values like proximity and public service but also on popularity.

Thus, while some critics and commentators see quality journalism in opposition to popular journalism, our interviewees see quality and popularity as going hand in hand.

Abstract below, full article here.

Local media around the world are facing challenges, including shrinking staff sizes and diminished advertising and subscription revenues. They are also working to adapt their editorial processes to meet the needs of online audiences. This comparative study used in-depth interviews with managers, editors, and reporters at local and regional newspapers in four countries to examine how they define and distinguish quality journalism and the challenges and opportunities for producing quality work in the digital environment. The findings show that local journalists remain focused on providing journalism that serves the needs of their communities, reflecting traditional news values, such as proximity and public service. However, their considerations of quality local news are also evolving to embrace forms of journalism that can draw broad online audiences, such as service, solutions, and constructive approaches. While normative theories and some critics may place quality journalism in opposition to popular journalism, local journalists in practice do not see quality and popularity in opposition but as going hand in hand.