The Future of Journalism

How can traditional news organizations compete with oceans of user-generated content and super-sophisticated search? Why pay for foreign news bureaus when consumers can simply visit local provider websites? Does the slow death of newspapers foreshadow the fate of journalism as we know it? Helen Boaden,a multi-award winning reporter and Director of BBC News, is the first woman to run the world’s largest and most trusted news organization. She came to campus to share her thoughts.

Over ninety students, Nieman fellows and practicing journalists packed into an Aldrich classroom on Nov. 6, 2007 to hear Helen Boaden speak on the future of her industry, at a talk co-sponsored by the Business, Industry and Government Club and the Women’s Student Association. At the end of her thoughtful and well-researched speech, she showed an 8-minute film on how the BBC would report on a 2010 terrorist attack on Waterloo station in Central London, and how such news would be consumed.

The film touched on key themes that she had raised in her speech. On the production side, one theme is the increasing prominence of content produced by eyewitnesses, not professional journalists. In the movie, a bystander who escapes without injury takes footage with her videophone and uploads it to BBC web site. She is then contacted by the presenter, who would like to conduct an interview. On the sidewalk, she pulls her laptop out of her bag, logs on (presumably over a WiMAX connection) and, using the webcam in her laptop, is interviewed by a journalist in the studio. In the weeks following, she produces a series of podcast audio blogs from her bedroom on reflections.

On the consumption side, the exploding number of choices open to news users is another theme. In the film, a businessman receives a travel alert on his handset while he waits for a cab. Eager to find out more on the news story once inside the taxi, he chooses to use the big screen interactive display in the car, and not his handset. Once on the train platform, he then watches the webcast of the eyewitness from his handheld. Back home from his trip, he chooses from the BBC’s internet-inspired interactive TV platform beamed on to his wall.

In such an environment, it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of journalists and the entities that employ them. How can a professional reporter compete with eyewitnesses who carry video equipment in their pockets and purses? The importance of original content seems to be declining: in one unsettling observation, Boaden noted that while the BBC was ranked first for trustworthiness, and CNN second, Google (which produces no original content whatsoever) was the world’s third most trusted news producer. And if that isn’t bad enough, consider the effects of user choice: consumers will find ever more innovative ways to skip around advertising; and in many cases, particularly in times of peace and prosperity, show relatively little interest in foreign news. How then can firms continue to pay for expensive foreign news bureaus, or even for expensive investigative journalism at home? The BBC, for example, is the only foreign news producer with a permanent presence in Kabul, Afghanistan. And if such firms do cut back in these areas, what will be the ultimate effect be on liberal democracies? Responsible citizenship, Boaden reminded the audience, is like responsible consumption: it depends on being well informed.

Even the BBC, which enjoys a particularly privileged position among news organizations because it is funded by a tax in the UK and shows no advertising, has felt some of these changes. It pumps out 120 hours of output for every 24-hour day, employs by over 2,000 journalists, reaches 270 million homes around the world with its BBC World Television offering, and produces its World Service radio service in 32 languages. Yet it has seen its TV audience in the UK drop by 35% since 2000, and it has lost 2 million under-35s since 2001 for its news bulletins. And Boaden acknowledged that considerable uncertainty accompanied the trend of rapid audience fragmentation. Video on mobiles, for example, was widely expected by media pundits to become a key market. Yet in the UK, it hasn’t taken off.

Nevertheless, against this background, Boaden remains optimistic. The ongoing need for accurate content that consumers read or watch may paradoxically become heightened as more content is produced. The faster content is written and disseminated, the quicker rumor can become “fact.” As technology advances, sophisticated hoaxes are easier to produce and spread. In such circumstances, reliability is ever more important, and thus the old-fashioned training of journalists. Indeed, not even the collected reports of several eyewitnesses can always be trusted. In a recent high-profile case of mistaken identity in the UK, an unarmed Brazilian electrician was shot by police marksmen who suspected him to be a terrorist connected to the London Underground bombing of July 7, 2005, which had taken place only days beforehand. Almost all those who saw it happen claimed that the Brazilian had jumped a ticket barrier trying to escape, and this was how the story was widely reported. In fact, it had been the chasing police officer who had jumped, but no-one had tried to fit the eyewitness accounts together.

This then, is where traditional news organizations can continue to stay relevant and add value. Accuracy, of course, though necessary, is not sufficient. To attract and retain audiences, news-gatherers and broadcasters must also make an impact. The short run pressure for impact can make for increasingly shrill or emotive reporting, to which audiences eventually become inured. Ultimately, according to Boaden, impact will come not just from giving audiences what they want, but also informing them about important things that they didn’t know. People are as curious as they have always been. They wish not only to be entertained, but also to be challenged, no matter what technology is available to them. As Ed Murrow remarked in 1958 to the Radio-Television News Directors’ Association in Chicago, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.” “Journalism,” Boaden noted, “is still about content – that’s the open minded seeking of stories which are significant; proper facts; rigorous analysis; fairness and transparency – and very good story telling techniques.if we hold fast to the principle that content is king, then the future of serious journalism is assured.” The editors of this newspaper would undoubtedly agree.