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Journalism disrupted

Helen Merrills reports from Professor Jane Singer’s inaugural lecture

The journalism industry is changing. News is instant, incessant and delivered in a varietynull of formats. Newsrooms are shrinking and traditional business models are failing. With the explosion in social media, everyone has the capacity to report.

In her inaugural lecture, Jane B Singer, Professor of Innovation Journalism at City University London, looked at the various factors influencing the journalism industry. Her retrospective examination of how journalism has adapted to the massive changes brought about by the Internet and social media offered some clues as to what the future might look like.

Her talk focused around three main themes:

  • Journalistic identity. Singer argued that journalists have a very strong sense of professional identity - 'once a journalist, always a journalist.' Social media and 'citizen journalism' (whereby 'normal' people are reporting news) challenge the distinctness of that identity.
  • Journalistic practice. In the age of the Internet, ways of doing journalism have changed almost beyond recognition. The nature of the tasks, and consequently the skills required, have diversified. Social media and other forms of two-way dialogue have created new relationships between journalists and audiences, including new ways in which journalists can be held to public account.
  • The business of journalism. Declining readerships for print publications and the consequential declining ad revenues have changed the business model of news forever. News is consumed in a more fragmented, diversified fashion, and competition among media outlets has exploded. Many business leaders initially mistook the changes brought about by the Internet as a cyclical change, almost a passing fad. This misinterpretation of what was in fact a seismic structural change left many traditional outlets floundering to catch up.

Twenty years after the Internet, we do not have old newsrooms plus the Internet, we have new newsrooms

Singer then juxtaposed these overarching themes against individual reactions to change. She guided the audience through the 'change journey' that individual journalists have taken through this structural shift:

  • Trepidation. New methods, models and media are typically met with initial fear: "I have no idea how this works!"
  • Resistance. Change is often met with resistance, which some journalists wear like a badge of honour. Resistance has been used as a way to protect their sense of professional identity: "It doesn't matter because it is clearly going to result in ethically problematic journalism, and I don't really need it to do my job well."
  • Realisation. Eventually, however, journalists come to see change as both inevitable and potentially valuable. At this stage, growing numbers embrace new ways of working: "Hang on, this might actually be useful."
  • Adoption. From the Internet to social media, many innovations that initially seemed threatening have come to be seen as something journalists "can't imagine living without." The result, Singer argued, has generally been better journalism - more engaging, more multi-faceted, more accessible to more people in more ways and more places.

News organisations also have struggled to adapt to digital changes. However, Singer gave some examples of recent innovations in pursuit of revenue options that were both new and diverse. From membership clubs (The Guardian), to event hosting (The Texas Tribune), and crowdfunding, news media are responding to the disruption of the past 20 years in ways that suggest viable ways forward.

"Twenty years after the Internet, we do not have old newsrooms plus the Internet," Singer said. "We have new newsrooms."

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