I gave a presentation this week to a group of journalism students at City University, London about The Future of News. You can read a summary of what I said below. In case you're wondering why I'm talking about commercial funding, as I've explained before outside the UK the BBC's English TV and internet services are commercial and supported by advertising as of course are most other news services.
In Sidney Lumet's 1976 Oscar winning movie Network Peter Finch, playing deranged news anchor Howard Beale, rails at his audience about the banks going bust, environmental crises, crime on the streets, politicians and the media. "You've got to get mad!" he tells them. It seemed an appropriate way to start a talk to a group of City University students about The Future of News.
Because 32 years later we are still dealing with many of the same issues (economic crises, political apathy, a crisis of trust in the media) and anyone setting out now for a career in journalism needs to motivate themselves to overcome a vast array of forbidding problems. I didn't tell them anything new - the themes are now familiar.
Technological change is transforming how news is produced and consumed. Audiences are fragmenting and undermining the economics of commercial news operations and the more open, interactive and inclusive nature of the internet is challenging the culture and conventions of traditional news organisations. The media pages and blogs are full of counsels of despair about the future of serious journalism. But I prefer to side with Tom Curley, the President of the Associated Press news agency who said last year:
"The adjustment we're being asked to make is to a world of increased access, new competition and different business models. It's not about easing onto the obit page."
We are only at the beginning of the transformation of the industry - in much the same way as the music industry is also being changed totally by digital technology. As for the future, in Donald Rumsfeld's words, it's full of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. It seems to me the known knowns will be a continued need for information about an ever more interconnected world; an appetite for storytelling in a way that engages interest, a need for analysis and explanation and an opportunity to debate and discuss.
But these things will increasingly be delivered through an internet that is more tailored and personalised thanks to data-driven services, video-rich and live (in the way we can now take video comments on some issues for example) and more open networks of people and information rather than closed systems offering limited and pre-determined choices.
But there's a paradox here. Just as the number of global channels and news sites online explodes, what it hides underneath is a contraction of international newsgathering. Costs are being cut, overseas bureaux closed, staff laid off.
One academic study [pdf link] said that only the agencies, Reuters, AP and AFP plus the BBC now maintain extensive international newsgathering resources. Link journalism, like The Drudge Report, for all its interest and benefits, is no substitute for original reporting. New models are emerging - like GlobalPost and Global Voices - but it's early days.
There's just that troubling issue of how commercial organisations get an audience and advertisers to pay for it. Newspapers and broadcasters have lived for decades by selling audiences to advertisers. Now the number of eyeballs per page or per programme is falling - but we have much greater detail and granularity about where they are going and what they are doing online. Media organisations have to find a way to extract the value from that.
The risk otherwise is that long standing newspapers or stations will disappear.
Those students just setting out on their journalistic careers will need to be multi-skilled, commercially savvy, creative and confident. They need encouragement - their generation has to reinvent the business of journalism.