Reuters Journalism Fellowship, Oxford

Posted on September 30, 2008

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Enough of these frivolous postings Zoe!

To redress the balance between the vacuous and the worthy, here’s the text behind an address I made last Saturday at the Reuters Journalism Fellowship Programme’s 25th anniversary event at Oxford University.

I took part in a Moral Maze style debate (yes there is more to be than blogging about boys). The topic was “Good journalism is in crisis“. I was on a a team alongside Charlie Beckett, Mehdi Hassan and Bill Dutton that opposed the motion.

Not the easy call that you’d imagine, is there is much to lament about the current state of British journalism. But ultimately I’m optimistic… anyway, enough rambling from me. Below are my thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Firstly, I take issue with the question. The suggestion that journalism is NOW in crisis implies there was a time when all was well and good.

I admit my daily experience of our trade is a far cry from the exploits of those who inspired me like Hunter S Thomson, Joan Didion and Harold Evans.

But I’ve read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and you can call it the arrogance of youth but really I don’t believe there ever was a Golden Age of journalism.

If there WAS ever a time for journalism to sit on its laurels and feel contented with itself, surely THAT was the moment when it needed to engage in a bit of introspection.

A trade that consists of people who ask questions for a living is always going to go through changes.

The advent of commercial television broadcasting, Murdoch’s moves at Wapping and the boom in 24-hour news are all examples of the seismic changes journalism has gone through over the past century.

These testing times are not crises, they’re opportunities that, when embraced, force journalism to raise its game.

“New media is killing journalism” was the plainly hysterical title of a World Press Freedom day debate that I thankfully missed earlier this year.

But as reporter at Press Gazette I did sit through my fair share of hand-wringing lectures on how the internet has stuck the knife into the heart of journalism.

It’s wrong to blame the internet for our woes. It’s the democratising potential the web offers to journalism that keeps me in this trade.

 

In 1960 journalist AJ Liebling said – “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own it”. 

That potential liberty is now within reach of the masses, anyone can with access to a computer can publish content.

But this reality, which I personally find exciting, shouldn’t cause journalism to have a nervous breakdown.

 

Journalism is not in crisis, rather the public has sent us to sit on the naughty step.

Instead of indignantly stamping our feet and wailing about how unfair it all is, we should use it as an opportunity to learn from our past mistakes, embrace new opportunities and ditch some of our unacceptable behaviours.

It’s serves no purpose to be resentful that users are deserting what we’ve traditionally sold to them.

If they’re not distinguishing between ‘Journalism’ and ‘Content’ we must focus on the message as much as the medium.

The public remember our failings over WMDs, the controversies over Hutton, the New York Times’ Jayson Blair incident and allegations of TV fakery in Britain.

The old order of journalism has many questions it has to answer.

 

The digital revolution is a phrase that I’ve long loathed. But the more I think about this question, the closer I come to the conclusion that this is what we’re going through.

Whether a revolution appears as a crisis depends on where you’re standing.

For the bourgeoisie, the French revolution was a crisis, for the disadvantaged, it was an opportunity to change the status quo.

 Similarly while it may be a catastrophe for some older correspondents who take issue at the idea of having to blog, or self-edit their packages on Avid, for skilled young journalists who been cutting video they’ve shot on their mobiles for years, new technology offers another medium to tell great stories.

We ARE in a new age.  And it’s not going to be the last challenge we face.

But good journalism is not in crisis. This period of self-assessment we’re in has seen the rise of a much needed academic assessment of our trade.

Combined with the process of trial and error with new media I’m convinced this will lead to a much needed maturity in journalism that will help distinguish GOOD journalism from the masses of content that is on offer.

Quality will always be at a premium.

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Posted in: media