Let me explain. I’m at a super-smart gathering of media academics and practitioners in sunny LA, at USC’s Annenberg school for communication. The conference is called Re:Public, is organised by Harvard’s Berkman Centre, and has proved quite fascinating. We’re talking about media, its relationship to democracy and society, and how technological upheaval and rapid change is changing everything.
There’s been some searingly clever thinking presented by speakers including “superstar socialologist” Manuel Castells and Cluetrain Manifesto author David Weinberger. We’ve had breathtakingly pretty graphical representations of the blogospheres presented by Berkeman’s John Kelly. A variety of smart industry figures have given their thoughts, led by the BBC’s Richard Sambrook and his provocative keynote on the first evening. Participants are passionate, and concerned, about the state of journalism, and the world.
But, until Charlie Beckett from the LSE raised the point in a question during one session yesterday afternoon, there hadn’t been specific mention of user demand driving supply. As Charlie pointed out, there was a danger we were sitting around simply trying to work out how to continue doing what we want to (i) consume and/or (ii) continue producing. The group was, he suggested, ignoring the usefulness of the market in helping create journalism that was interesting and relevant (a theme he expands on in his blog).
I think Charlie’s right. The assumption among some here seems to be that either it’s not journalism that’s broken, or (conversely) it’s too far gone to rescue (and both views appear to live alongside each other, oddly). Neither diagnosis is a reason for action so in the meantime, goes the argument, let’s focus on the business model. Or the media landscape. Or the audience’s attention span. Let’s address class structure, or a digital divide, or the disenfranchisement that is the problem.
All those things are big, important things to tackle (although you might wonder if we in the media industries have the power to put them right). But no analysis can be complete without taking a look at how journalism – this information so vital to democracy and community – is actually delivered.
Taking a copy of the LA Times as an example, simply because it’s local and handy and described by one participant as the West coast’s most important news source, you have to say things could be better. For instance, this front page tale about safety checks on US airliners isn’t sure if it’s a human interest, business, aviation or travel story, and ends up being none of the above – at huge length. It sat, on the front page, alongside a long apology for, and probe into, a reporting cock-up on a story about an attack on rapper Tupak Shakur, also delivered at remarkable length.
Both stories were run without the design tricks we’re used to in Europe – big photographs, graphics, breakout panels. Because every angle had to fit inone long run of copy they struggled, structurally. Both were, as a consequence, real chores to read. They show, I’d suggest, that it’s not just the internet that’s driving readers away from print. [Later: Meanwhile, TV here veers between the highbrow of Sunday mornings and the crazily tabloid remainder. Fox and domestic CNN are almost comedic in their approaches to big stories. Finding a journalistic middle ground is proving difficult - maybe magazines?].
Serious journalism was described at the conference, repeatedly, as something like broccoli, or medicine the citizenry needs to spoon down, no matter how unpalatable, if democracy is to survive. That’s despite the fact investigative, or civic, journalism is still seen inside the industry as being at the top end of what we do. Yet I struggle to think of another industry that views its premium product as something akin to a nasty cough syrup – necessary, good for your health, but irredeemably foul-tasting.
So, a modest proposal: despite all the interest in non-commercial funding for civic journalism (which may just be an excuse for the actual journalism not to adapt, improve and reach out to more people), wouldn’t it be more exciting if all this change – in business, landscape, audience expectations – also led to experimentation with new, profitable ways for mainstream journalism to engage with the big issues in ways that were – whisper it – palatable?
And that, to return to the start, is why we need to ask people what they want from their news.
[Note: this post edited on 30/3/08]