This column, launching today, will be about where news media culture is heading. We are calling it The Next Journalism.
The subject matter will range widely. The search for new revenue to subsidize the mission of journalism will be part of the focus. So will experiments in how to use new technologies and platforms to gather and report news. The ethics and values that make news useful and reliable will be another topic. And a central goal will always be to understand the changing nature of how the public consumes and shares news. The column will not shy away from debate, though argument will not be the prime purpose.
It will be a reported column, one grounded in facts and offering new information. But it will be a column with a point of view.
With that in mind, readers are owed a few disclosures about the assumptions and predilections that will inform that opinions found here.
I believe that in some quarters too much of the conversation about the future of news leans toward the theological rather than the empirical. That may be understandable during a moment of change because it helps move people to think in new ways. Yet as the digital revolution matures, it can also become less helpful. It is important — and will become more important — to understand the world as it is, not only as we theorize it or wish it to be. In this space I will strive to approach topics with a cold eye and an open mind.
The ideas in this space will be grounded in history — not nostalgia. I’ve been a press critic, reporting on media, since the mid-1980s. The digital transformation is profound. It is also not unprecedented. One of those precedents is that many of the predictions about the future prove mistaken.
I also believe that having a point of view requires reporting and fidelity to facts. That means listening, looking at data, and letting people make their strongest case. Perhaps the best definition I’ve ever heard of objectivity came from the editor of an alternative newspaper who was denouncing it — or at least the shallower idea of neutrality. At her paper, she said, you cannot have an informed point of view until you have listened to all the other points of view.
Finally, I believe in the public and the power of community. The news has never belonged to journalists. It has always been the public’s.
As a formal idea, journalism was forged from the enlightenment and technology — first the printing press and then lowering cost of production. Periodicals were the means by which information and argument were made transparent to more people so that they could self govern. The first newspapers emerged from the coffeehouses of Europe located near shipping ports and published the manifests of the goods on board the ships and retold the tales from foreign lands revealed by those who disembarked.
In other words, journalism has always been conversation made public. And its function has always been what today’s technologists have come to call “social flow,” that range of action and reaction in a community as people discover and share new information and ideas, argue and try to resolve problems.
As new technologies formed — paper costs dropped and commercial advertising propelled by the industrial revolution spread — there came new ways to subsidize that social flow. Since 2000, the commercial equation that subsidized newspapers in particular has substantially collapsed. Display and classified advertising revenue did not migrate to the Web along with the audience. One of the great questions now is whether a new commercial equation will form to replace it.
The future of news, and to a degree civic life, will be partly determined by how we answer the existential question about the purpose of journalism: What is its real function? What is its essential social value? Or put another way, what new form should the social flow take today? (Thinking about these questions is also part of the mission of the American Press Institute where I work).
Journalism was never simply printing articles or assembling newscasts and selling advertising around them, though some thought of it that way. Journalism has always been a service connecting people to one another, to government, to goods and services, to social institutions and more — in other words, the creation of communities. Looked at that way, technology is no threat to journalism’s future. It is its opportunity. It is a new dazzling set of tools. It is, as it has always been, the next journalism.
Tom Rosenstiel is Executive Director of the American Press Institute, an author, journalist and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter @tbr1.