Sunday, 20 July 2008

What now for newspaper journalists?

I grew up with hot metal; visiting my mother's workplace as a youngster was a cue for ink-stained men to start shouting at me to 'mind yer fingers' and to keep away from the hot wax.
Of the eight papers I've worked for, six had presses rumbling away deep in the heart of their buildings. There's something comforting about hearing the press starting up; for me it signals that all is right with the world and things are proceeding as planned.

And, of course, the press at full speed instantly evokes the idea of breaking news; it's ironic when you think about it. Because recently I've been thinking a lot about where we are headed, partly sparked by Paul Bradshaw's Seesmic debate and partly by friends up and down the country telling me about impending cuts at their newspapers.
It's an uncertain time for so-called 'dead tree' media; just what are many of the people going to be doing in three years time? The answer for some, I suspect, is: Something completely different.

The word revolution is being bandied about by commentators but concept of evolution is rarely mentioned. No wonder, I guess, when those within the industry liken citizen journalism to 'tanks on lawns', as though we were engaged in a battle rather than a progression.

Nevertheless, a cultural shift is happening. I wouldn't say there are easy times ahead, but I'm not ready to throw it all in for a life in PR yet: I don't believe newspaper journalists are dinosaurs trapped in a Digital tar pit - what is more likely is that newspapers will become online publications with associated multimedia products.

So, if newspaper journalists are facing an evolution, how do we best equip ourselves to emerge from this period of transition and change? Some thoughts, for what they are worth:

Ask For Help: I'm lucky to have an amazingly knowledgable network of contacts courtesy of, among others, Twitter, Seesmic, the TM Leaders Course, and Flickr - and that's not counting office colleagues and contacts from previous roles. If I want to know something, I have a wide network to draw on, which I find increasingly valuable. If I have some thoughts about a subject then I also ask people what they think via this blog. Asking is something I've been doing all my career, armed with a notebook and pen. Now I can ask via video, SMS, forums, email, podcasts... any way to crowdsource that I want. And I get answers - sometimes ones that inspire a whole new set of questions, or that send me off down a new avenue. I find it indespensible.

Listen to People: People tell us things but we don't always hear them - it's just white noise while we wait our turn to speak. From a newspaper perspective that translates as: 'It's not news until I decide it's newsworthy'. If I'm not prepared to listen, then consider what I've heard before acting, I could miss valuable information. If newspapers have stopped listening to what people are talking about then we've forgotten the very reason for our existance. Journalists need to read people's blogs, follow forum posters (both those run by their newspaper and external sites), consider what is being discussed on social networks, videod on YouTube or photographed on Flickr. Through this we journalists can learn what is important to our audience and what, by extension, is important to us.

Embrace Change: I try to avoid responding to a suggestion with the words "yes, but..." but for some people,it's their automatic default position when greeted with new scenarios - and two words can do untold damage to people's confidence and enthusiasm. With print, "yes, but..." can be an important check and balance to ensure that things were carefully considered before time-consuming redesigns or expensive newsprint supplements are commissioned. But digital gives us more freedom to just try out new ideas. Want a new section? Add it to your website. Want a new columnist? Recruit a blogger. The possibilities really are endless online - we just need to be open-minded.

Evolve: I assumed the phrase 'survival of the fittest' referred to the supreme leaders in terms of mental and/or physical ability; now I believe 'fittest' means 'most fit for purpose'. As a journalist, my purpose is to tell stories - to find out things people are interested in, and share them. To be most fit for that purpose I have to be open-minded, willing to learn new techniques, techologies and concepts, and be prepared to give something of myself in return.

Share Knowledge: I think maybe some people are more willing to share than others, whether it's sweets, praise or ideas. But I believe those who do share, who can play nicely in this emerging new media world, are more likely to prosper. We should be sharing links on our newspaper websites in the same way we share links with each other on Twitter. If I find a link that I know some of my Twitter contacts will appreciate I share it - I don't worry about increasing that website's stock at the expense of my own, or sending eyeballs away from my page. When a website has a bunch of links for me so I don't have to go looking, I appreciate it. When it backs up its sources with external links, it becomes a more trustworthy, authentic source.

I was inspired to start this blog, to learn about new technologies and ways of communicating, to start opening my mind to the possibilities of the internet by a college course. I learn new things every day as a result of my networks, through asking, listening and sharing. Sometimes new ides work, sometimes they fall flat, but there are always more new ideas to try.
I won't accept we are facing the end of newspapers but I will agree that we are facing the end of an era. We need to accept our industry is changing and acknowledge that we must change with it. Then we can start seeing the opportunities that exist, rather than working on exit strategies.
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