What can we do for journalism?

When I think of journalism I think of the journalists who do it and the people they do it for, and the question for me as new Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford is what we can do for them through our activities, including our journalism fellowship program, our leadership development programs, and our independent research.

Nobody knows better than journalists that journalism is not perfect. It ranges from the heroic to the humdrum. Some of it is amusing and useful, a bit of it is crap or even outright dangerous, even as much of it is informative and empowering—everyday reporting in some ways as important as the occasional big stand-out investigations. When I think of the people who do it, I think of the journalists I’ve met in newsrooms across the world and through the Journalism Fellowship program at the Reuters Institute, journalists who have done it all, from the daily grind to outstanding examples of determined reporting in the face of extraordinary obstacles—like the Mexican journalist Juliana Fregoso, who told me the advantage of reporting on organized crime as a woman in a society with a strong strand of machismo culture was that the cartels would warn female reporters before they killed them, or Ntibinyane Ntibinyane, who was detained and threatened by Botswanan security operatives when he and his colleagues tried to investigate whether the president was using public funds for renovations at his holiday home, but who persisted and went on to obtain satellite imagery to document that that was indeed the case. They are just two examples from the many amazing journalists we have hosted.

Ultimately, most journalists do what they do for the public. Journalism exists in the context of its audience, and its social role, its political importance, and the entire business behind it is premised on that relationship. When I think of the people journalists do journalism for, I think of my nephews in Denmark, one a plumber, the other probably heading to university. Like their counterparts across the world, they are part of a generation that will never be regular readers of a printed newspaper or routine viewers of television news bulletins. They have the same need for accurate, accessible, diverse, relevant, and timely independently produced reliable information about public affairs that my generation and my parents’ generation have had. But like most everybody else under 40 they will never miss the 20th century media environment I grew up in. Their media environment is defined by digital media, mobile, and by platforms, and they have no sentimental longing for paper or broadcast. Why would they?

For both journalists and the public, the basic journalistic aspiration of finding truth and reporting it is of enduring importance, as are all the ways in which journalism can empower people by helping them keep informed about, oriented in, and engaged with the world around them. Even as much else change, core elements of the craft of journalism, and many of the fundamental challenges, remain constant—like holding power to account, whether people in public office or private interests who shy publicity, like clearly narrating complex problems in real-time, like making the significant interesting and the interesting significant.

In my office, I keep a picture that reminds me of these challenges, and why they matter. It is from the Atocha Station in Madrid, one of the places where an al-Qaeda terrorist cell set of bombs March 11 in 2004, killing 192 people and wounded thousands more three days before Spain’s general elections. Leading members of the governing Partido Popular claimed that Basque terrorist separatists were behind the bombings, even in face of mounting evidence that radical Islamists were responsible. Some news media accepted, publicized, and stuck by the ruling party and its line even as voting grew nearer. Others, like El Pais, questioned it, and reported the truth in advance of the election.

A man pays his respects at memorial site at Madrid's Atocha station.

Picture © REUTERS/Susana Vera

I keep this picture as a powerful reminder of the enduring importance of journalism’s commitment to finding truth and reporting it – quickly, in the face of much confusion and competing claims – to meet people’s need to be informed and empowered to make their own decisions.

This commitment is timeless. These needs are constant. But much else in journalism is changing, often in challenging ways.

The question for me as incoming Director of the Reuters Institute is thus the one I began with—what can we do to help journalists (and all of us who rely on journalism) reinvent the profession and the industry that sustains (and sometimes constrains) it the 21st century so that journalism can inform and empower the public in the future?

There is no question for me that continued, radical, and sometimes painful professional and organizational change will be a necessary part of that reinvention.

My theory of change is this—we at the Reuters Institute cannot change anything.

But we can empower those who will shape the future of journalism—especially in the profession itself and in the news media industry, but also in technology companies, amongst policymakers, in the academy, and in the broader public. We are not an advocacy group or a lobby organization, but we believe in the power and purpose of independent journalism and we want to help.

My vision is a Reuters Institute that empowers a new generation of leaders in news and help them reinvent the journalistic profession and the organizations that enable it, a generation who on that basis can face the opportunities and challenges offered by a changing audience, technology, and political environment from a position of strength.

Recent years have seen incredibly impressive examples of journalism and journalistic innovation. From new forms of storytelling, like the Daily Mirror’s Wigan Pier Project and the BBC’s experiment with telling the story of migration through a “takeover” of your mobile phone, over new forms of reporting like the Washington Post’s carefully orchestrated and reader-powered investigation of the  Donald J. Trump Foundation and initiatives like “My Country Talks” pioneered by Die Zeit or Rappler’s work on disinformation in the Philippines and joint debunking, fact-checking, and source verification work by collaborations like CrossCheck in France, Verificado in Mexico, and Comprova in Brazil, to classic investigative reporting ranging from individual stories like the Wire’s Jay Amit Shah revelations in India to the Panama papers project orchestrated by ICIJ and enabled by Süddeutsche Zeitung’s decision to share documents with a network of partners.

But for all these immensely encouraging examples of powerful, public-impact journalism, it is also clear that this is an incredibly challenging time for journalism.

The challenges are many and complex and include, at the very least—

External challenges, including (1) increasing political pressures from prominent politicians (in some countries amounting to an active war on journalism, in others attitudes ranging from benign indifference to barely disguised hostility), (2) the ongoing and inevitable decline of business models built around print and broadcast that historically funded professional news production, and (3) a changing media environment increasingly dominated by platform companies that presents both challenges and opportunities to journalists and news media alike.

Internal challenges, including existential questions (1) about what journalism is and what it is for, how it and the organizations that enable it can reinvent itself, (2) of how it can remain relevant and be genuinely valuable for the public as a whole and for us as individuals by keeping us informed about, oriented in, and engaged with the world when it is so clearly losing the battle for attention, and, in many countries, (3) how journalism can ensure that news is trustworthy and trusted.

There are no clear, singular, “right” answers to these challenges, or the opportunities that come with some of them.

We don’t have them at the Reuters Institute.

I most certainly do not have them.

But what we and I do have is the conviction that facing these questions will require a renewed commitment to core principles of journalism (like the ambition to find truth and report it), as well as continued professional and organizational change (with everything from forms of journalistic work to new business models to support it).

No one knows what the future of journalism is. But we know it will have to be different from its past. In some ways, we know that it should be different from the past.

Can we look at the question of whether journalism captures the full range of diverse groups, voices, and views in society and say that all is well? Can we look at some of the most important issues of our time, whether climate change, the financial crises, or political events like the Brexit referendum or the election of Donald J. Trump, and say that journalism has got it right? At its best, journalism is amazing—informative, empowering, really engaging and relevant, diverse and empowering. But much of it is not, and has not been. Journalists know this. The public know it. And we need to face that fact and think about how to do better in the future, and what kind of professional, organizational, and institutional change doing better will require.

My ambition for the Reuters Institute is that we help those journalists, editors, and others who will lead the profession and the industry on that journey into the future, and try to help them make journalism the best it can be. Help them though our fellowship program, which brings outstanding journalists from all over the world to Oxford where they learn from each other, benefit from our research, and engage with academics from many different backgrounds. Help them through our leadership development programs, where we host events for leading editors and executives and help them work through the challenges they individually, and the profession and the industry as a whole, faces. Help them through our independent, evidence-based global research, which address some of the core issues around journalism, news, and media in an accessible, timely, and relevant fashion. And through more than that, our participation in professional and industry events, our work with policymakers, our own events, communication, and much more.

Anyone who tells you that journey will be easy is a liar or a fool.

But it is an incredibly important journey. We at the Reuters Institute want to be part of it, and we believe we can help people make it work. Together, we won’t be trying to go back to the journalism of yesterday, but build towards a better journalism for tomorrow. For the sake of journalists all over the world, like our fellows. And for the sake of the public they do their journalism for, like my nephews, like you and me.

Note: I was offered the position as Director July 17 and will start in my new role October 1. I never for a moment doubted that this is what I wanted to do. I believe very strongly that independent journalism, with all its imperfections, is incredibly important. I believe in the mission of the Reuters Institute, I believe in our efforts at connecting practice and research, and I believe in the global community around the institute. I’m delighted and honoured that Alan Rusbridger’s public announcement of my appointment and the official release from Monique Villa, CEO of our main sponsor, the Thomson Reuters Foundation as well as from the institute itself was so well received by so many people from all over the world that I greatly respect, I won’t name anyone, but I’m glad that the people who responded to the announcement included all the different communities of journalists, editors, executives, technologists, policymakers, and academics that we engage with, and came from so many different parts of the world, reflecting our global orientation.

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