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When I'm speaking at a news media conference and trying to explain the importance of experimentation, I often use the spaghetti-throwing image. To find out what works in a world which has been disrupted by change, you need to throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall to see which bits stick.
You'd be surprised how few media companies grasped this fast enough when the decline of printed newspapers was accelerated by the mass adoption of broadband internet. Without a sufficient quantity and quality of experiment, new ways of doing things won't be found. Innovation is deviation and without licensing deviants to try the unthinkable, media companies won't find ways out of their dilemmas.
And spaghetti-throwing is starting to get results. British journalists, stuck in a downward spiral driven by phone-hacking, financial squeezes and job cuts, often fail to see a pattern in the scattered, fragmented evidence of change around them.
I've just published a book which set out to discover what was happening to journalism. I had an idea that the prevailing story of doom and gloom didn't capture what was actually happening. There's plenty to be pessimistic about: established newspapers and start-ups struggle with dreadful pressures. Jobs in mainstream journalism are cut; finding start-ups which will pay for stories is by no means easy.
I'm not minimizing the difficulties, but journalists and those who care about it need to look at the whole picture. I came to the conclusion that not only was there plenty of spaghetti being chucked at walls – but that enough of it was sticking to make the difference. There is enough innovation, re-invention and high-quality experiment for confidence that journalism will change but that it will not go under.
I'd better say upfront that this isn't a strictly scientific conclusion. There are rough estimates of how many local news online sites there are; analysts like Damian Radcliffe (for Nesta) and groups like Talk About Local have estimated several hundred functioning local online sites in the UK. But the number can't be nailed because so many come and go so quickly, because of the definitional problems of working out whether a site or blog carries "news" and "journalism" and because what are sometimes semi-private social networks are hard to find and track.There is enough innovation, re-invention and high-quality experiment for confidence that journalism will change but that it will not go underGeorge Brock
But what is far more important than these issues is the plain truth which strikes anyone who looks at the long, multiple waves of change going on in news. Enough of these many and varied projects are working, and have now been working long enough, to give confidence that the big central problem – what's journalism's next business model? – will be solved.
I doubt that there will be a single new business model to replace the cross-subsidy of news by advertising which gave journalism a stable platform in the second half of the 20th century. The routes by which information now travels in society are so much more complex than in the era of one-to-many industrial media that there will be many business models in varying combinations.
A local site like SE1 on the south bank of the Thames in London, now 15 years old, makes its fragile income from advertising and one of its self-appointed tasks is to report the multi-million redevelopment controversies at the Elephant and Castle – a subject largely abandoned by print. Neither the journalism nor the business model have redesigned the template. What has brought SE1 and sites like it from the Isle of Wight to Sheffield through the tough early phase is determination, hard work and laser-like focus of knowing what information is valuable to the community.
Elsewhere we see another old pattern in a new generation. A site starts by seizing everyone's attention by any means possible; having grabbed the audience, the site turns its attention to harder reporting. Buzzfeed, the brainchild of Jonah Peretti who was key to the huge stir the Huffington Post created when it started, began as a slick site on which people bored at work could find funny videos to swap. Buzzfeed has moved into political reporting and intends to do business and international soon.
The vaster greater quantity and velocity of information can change how people see value in journalism. If individuals with access to the internet can discover a great deal more for themselves than they could before, they expect people calling themselves journalists to add further value.
I think there are four "core" things which journalists tend to do better if they are trained and experienced: verification, sense-making (interpretation, analysis, context), eye-witness and investigative reporting to disclose what people want to hide. That does not mean that these things are always done well or always done best by people calling themselves journalists. But that list points to areas where journalism – local, national, international – ought to be able do something useful. In short, journalists have to show that they can take the values of the past and adapt them to new conditions.
Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News, published by Kogan Page is available at this link.
George Brock, professor and head of journalism at City University London, is the author of Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News, published by Kogan Page