Dead Man's Shoes won't save journalism

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Sometimes in the hectic rush towards a digital future for journalism, it’s worth stepping back and looking at the major structural issues that need to be addressed as part of that change. There’s a post on the Media Briefing that makes a good starting point for thinking about the staffing, management and training issues we have to get right – at least, if we want traditional media businesses to survive this transition.

Greg Hadfield makes some valid points about where the digital strategy is being driven in major publishers:

In some cases, digital strategy is led by those with technological expertise; in others, it is in the hands of commercial colleagues. Occasionally, excessive influence is exerted by people with no record of achievement in journalism, technology, or business. In a period of speedy transition, this may be inevitable. Even the youngest of today’s national newspaper editors had arrived in Fleet Street before the web became mainstream – while those who arrived after, say, 1999 have not yet reached the peak of their profession.

This is a transitional problem, of course, one that might appear that it will be solved over time. But there are other dangers, because if our education system isn’t right, these problems will propagate over time. There’s a great piece on Media Shift looking at journalism academics and the training they provide:

I am writing this article on an iPad which is tapped wirelessly into a coffee shop’s WiFi. The device knows where it is in space and, if I allow it, will broadcast that information to any application I choose. Nearby, a young man browses the web on his iPhone. A woman is using a Blackberry. We are all online, all wireless and all capable of sending video, audio or text anywhere in the world.

<p>In an instant, I could convert my iPad into a magazine-style newsreader using one of a dozen applications such as Flipboard, River of News, Early Edition or FLUD. Beautifully formatted pages, filled with images and videos which my social media friends have flagged, will flow and slide across the screen.</p>    <p>[....]</p>    <p>But, despite that, much of the fundamental (and sometimes final) training we offer journalism students is dished out as if none of it were happening. As if the boulder-sized granularity of the news cycle had not melted in a quicksilver stream. As if the line between author and audience has not been smudged to grey and as if, really, nothing much had changed about the fundamentals of journalistic narrative, despite a wholesale remaking of the information landscape.</p> 

Too many of our educators are trapped in the same headspace as those editors, aware of the digital revolution, but not really engaged with it. There are exceptions – I’ve had the pleasure of guest lecturing at Cardiff at the invitation of Glynn Mottershead for the last two years, and City University has just taken the admirable step of recruiting Paul Bradshaw, one of the leading thinkers (and bloggers) about the new era. They aren’t the only prominent educators who “get” digital, but they are, I feel, exceptions rather than the rule.

And so, I don’t think we can afford to wait for time to solve the problem. I think Greg Hadfield was spot on when suggested that editors need to assert themselves more over the commercial and technological sides of the business – but there’s a caveat with that. They do need to surround themselves with people who do understand the digital environment, and trust their advice. In essence, they need to trust in their own judgement on news values, but be prepared to see those expressed in wholly new ways by those who report to them. As I mentioned earlier in the week, sometimes we cling too fiercely to the trappings of the print era, rather than the fundamentals of journalism.

This, though, is psychologically tricky. We’re asking people who have spent decades climbing to the top of their profession to accept that some of the skills that got them there aren’t as important as they once were. People near the top might have to accept that they may never reach that pinnacle, because a younger generation has a new set of skills that might usurp them. And there’s nothing quite as tricky to manage as people who, with good reason, feel threatened.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.