Thoughts on the future of journalism

“Journalists deserve low pay”. That is the incendiary assertion by Robert Picard, professor of media economics at Sweden’s Jonkoping University, made at a lecture at Oxford. The statement is bound to get the hackles of journalists everywhere up, but reading the argument carefully he makes some intelligent points about the future of the profession that are worth debate.

Actually, he starts with that assertion: that journalism is a profession. This is where the trouble started, he says.

The problem is that journalists currently argue that what they do is good in itself – that it has “intrinsic value” in moral philosophy terms. In times past, argues Professor Picard, journalists where much closer to the market – they wrote what people wanted to read and often then went out and sold the newspapers themselves. Now, he says:

It is clear that journalists do not want to be in the contemporary labor market, much less the highly competitive information market. They prefer to justify the value they create in the moral philosophy terms of instrumental value. Most believe that what they do is so intrinsically good and that they should be compensated to do it even if it doesn’t produce revenue.

Journalism consists of three processes, he argues: getting access to get the information, determining the significance of the information, and conveying it effectively. These things provide “instrumental value” – in moral philosophical terms valuable because of what they bring – insight, emotional and intellectual satisfaction and so on.

These are subject to market forces and the changing nature of technology has reduced the economic value of these things as they are all able to be done cheaply, if not for free, by many, many people.

If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable by and relevant to their audiences.

He concludes:

Finding the rights means to create and protect value will require collaboration throughout news enterprises. It is not something that journalists can leave to management. Journalists and managers alike will need to develop collaboration skills and create social relations that make it possible. Journalists will also need to acquire entrepreneurial and innovation skills that makes it possible for them to lead change rather than merely respond to it.

The demise of the news business can be halted, but only if journalists commit to creating value for consumers and become more involved in setting the course of their companies.

Clearly there big issues here – around the freedom on the press, and its role in modern democracies, for instance (we saw their effects in the UK in recently weeks in the Telegraph’s publication of MPs expenses claims. )

And in my own company great strides have been made in rethinking the role of journalists and working through the skills and technologies needed to allow us to compete in the new landscape.

But Professor Picard’s arguments do merit some consideration and debate, as most certainly we are moving into a new media landscape driven by technological advances and things will now return to past equilibrium.

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