Journalism must regain its role in bringing power to account

The Future of Journalism series: part 4 The worldwide move to paywalls is seen as a temporary solution to journalism’s problems. Quality, not quantity, of information will be key

“In embracing media entrepreneurship, young journalists have to both look at audience (how they engage with that audience), and examine who or what is not being served by traditional media.” Photograph Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“In embracing media entrepreneurship, young journalists have to both look at audience (how they engage with that audience), and examine who or what is not being served by traditional media.” Photograph Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mon, Jun 30, 2014, 06:13

Like their counterparts in the industry itself, journalism schools have been coping with the massive changes in media in a variety of different ways. Some have tagged on courses in online journalism, others are experimenting with converged newsrooms, while “outliers” are calling for a complete rethink on who or what we define as journalism or journalism education.

The teaching hospital model, whereby journalism courses are more closely linked to industry, concentrating upon both innovation and research, has gained huge traction in the United States, where bursaries and endowments have seen industry invest millions of dollars in research centres for journalism and media within universities and colleges. The underlying hope is that innovation at university level will put old media at the forefront of change, as opposed to being dragged kicking and screaming behind it. Its critics, however, argue that journalists are not professionals in the same sense that lawyers or doctors are, and that media is undergoing the kind of massive systemic change that makes it totally unlike medicine. They also posit that its older practitioners are so entrenched that they have little to offer young journalists, who must be the ones to carve out the next era in journalism.

In the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology we subscribe to both parts of the teaching hospital model – forming links with industry around research and innovation; and the “outliers” model, which argues that digital media entrepreneurship is at the core of journalism’s future. Neither option is without pain. Both have proved challenging and rewarding in different ways.

In embracing media entrepreneurship, young journalists have to both look at audience (how they engage with that audience), and examine who or what is not being served by traditional media. But most of all it allows them to take risks. So a website and app for the deaf community, a sports news website aimed at women, or an online agency selling content could all be researched and costed as part of their final-year course work.

Slow journalism

As journalism contracts, so does its ability to take those kinds of risks. And the time needed for both innovation and what has become known as “slow journalism” becomes a luxury. But it has proven returns. As Slate editor David Plotz explained to Megan Garber of Nieman Lab: “In order to really thrive, in order to have the kind of committed, excellent, well-educated, media-engaged audience that we’ve always had – and to build that audience – we had to do something more than just 1,500-word pieces and more than just explainers.”

In allowing months to be spent on research, Slate stories garnered millions of readers and its journalists were re- energised. But like other news and magazine websites it is still working out its core revenue model.

The worldwide move to paywalls has been termed by some as a temporary solution to journalism’s problems. Analysing that change, Ken Doctor of the Newsonomics website pointed out last year: “It will be hard to explain to people in 2020 how the early ‘online newspapers’ were free for 15 years. Now the challenge is making them work, and offering the customers more for their money. That’s a big topic for 2014 and the years beyond.”

In making the point that news outlets will have to offer their customers more for their money, Doctor has possibly hit on a major aspect of what will both make paywalls work and guarantee journalism’s future. Quality, not quantity, of information will be key.

In broadcast media the rise of reality TV occurred partly because it guaranteed audience and it is relatively cheap to make. But it also deskilled a generation of producers who had so bought into formats that trying to do anything more creative could be a form of career suicide. The excitement of digital grazing across platforms and being sent interesting links to articles by people you have never met also has a downside.

“Google and go” has undermined journalism as well as leading to speed- driven conclusions. Click-baiting and eye ball aggregations do not reflect the reality of user engagement. The majority of people who access news online may be spending such a tiny amount of time on a particular site that they cannot be calculated to increase advertising revenue. Research on paywalls, leaky or otherwise, shows that engaged readers or loyal fans are more likely to pay subscriptions and spend longer reading stories and therefore are truer indicators of what your audience is. They are also the ones who will remain core readers only if given unique and interesting content.

While news outlets invested heavily in going digital, they cut back on newsrooms. News costs money. One theory has it that paid content will be only for the wealthy elites. But that presupposes that journalism will remain static and that no one will fill the gap if news outlets go to the wall.

So-called niche sites that have been successful with paywalls have recognised that their core worth is based on the uniqueness of their offering.

In Ireland the Farmers’ Journal has increased its circulation and introduced a metered paywall, giving lie to the belief that all journalism is doomed. Journalism will continue but it will be those who know their audience, engage with that audience and provide depth and substance who will survive. Future-proofing will include using data journalism tools to tell stories that would otherwise be hidden from public view, “long reads” and ensuring your staff hires reflect the diversity of the society you are reporting on.

Working as a television and radio producer during the growth of online sites and commentary led to a type of Damascene moment in my own view of journalism. Some of the political bloggers and writers on websites, for example, were more accurate in their analysis of Irish politics than the people I was inviting onto current affairs chat shows. They were irreverent, challenging perceived wisdoms – such as the genius of certain politicians; they could do constituency analysis; and they knew their political history. The “bitter little people” – as some of the commentariat labelled their online rivals – weren’t always right but often they skewered the accepted analysis of events and in the process made for interesting and engaging reading.


One US-based journalist I met at that time proffered the view that as more and more experts took to blogging about politics, business and technology, journalists would find themselves out of a job unless they too specialised. It’s a stance that has been taken up by the Columbia graduate school of journalism in the US, which now offers master’s degree students the chance to combine three or more years of professional journalism experience with a concentration of their choice.

The era of the specialist may replace the journalist as all-rounder, but the core values of journalism – truth, accuracy and fairness – are needed now more than ever. The move to online has thrown up challenges around ethics, privacy and balanced reporting that will have to be addressed sooner rather than later. Editors, journalists and producers may have to upskill not just in digital technologies but in law, ethics and issues such as the right to privacy and the right to be forgotten. This will separate valued and trusted providers of news from their shakier rivals. Most of all it will require testing of some of journalism’s shibboleths, including defining what news is, or indeed what is worthy of coverage.

When I started in newspapers, in the Irish Press newsroom, the road test for a story was the question: “Of what interest is this to the woman running a post office in Donegal?” It was a way of cutting reporters to size and reminding them to always, always, think of the reader. The editors I worked with back then were passionate to the point of zealotry. And they symbolised a lot of what journalism badly needs to regain, a sense of belief in its importance, minus the arrogance that has often led to its bringing comfort, as opposed to accountability, to power.

Kate Shanahan is head of journalism and communications at DIT; journalist; and former broadcast series and executive producer

Series continues next Monday

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