When I tell people I’m training to be a journalist, most tell me I must be mad. They say newspapers are dying and there’s no future left in journalism.
Well I think they’re wrong.
Our recent lecture by BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones gave me a different perspective on the ongoing and occasionally overblown debate about the decline of newspapers (see @themediaisdying on Twitter for a flavour of the argument).
He argued that the whole notion of a golden age of journalism is pretty badly exaggerated. We might have grown up with images of a cynical hack turning up at the scene armed only with a notebook, a Trilby and his razor-sharp wits, but we all know that’s a bit of a myth. You only have to read Michael Frayn’s satire of Fleet Street, Towards the End of the Morning, to see how ridiculous these stereotypes can be.
Some aspects of news production probably are worse than they were 20 years ago, with fewer staff under pressure to produce news for multiple platforms. But the positive developments more than outweigh this.
Improvements in technology mean that we, as print journalists, have far more creative ways to tell a story than just the old black-on-white newsprint. We can use audio, video, interactive tools or maps. We can cover events as they unfold with live blogging, as in this minute-by-minute live coverage of the recent Labour leadership challenge. And we can engage with our readers on a whole new level by linking out to sources, and using blogs and Twitter.
Mr Cellan-Jones also pointed out that his blog allows him to cover many more stories than he would be able to on traditional TV news bulletin, with its strict time limits and demand for an immediate news hook. His blog allows him to show readers and viewers that he is on top of the little stories as well as the big ones, and gives dedicated technophiles a place they can go for regularly updated content.
The same is true of newspapers: there are no limits to publishing online, so journalists can follow up many different aspects of a story, whereas there might only be room for the main points in the print edition. This just shows how the web version can complement the print story. The content on the web will probably only get a tiny proportion of the readers of the print version, but it adds so much value for those who are really interested and want to know more.
Kicking it old school
So far, so good for new media. But do we have anything in common with that Trilby-hatted hack?
The answer is a resounding yes. As much as I love social media and am really excited by its potential uses in journalism, I’m a firm believer in the traditional journalistic techniques. Nothing can replace knowing your patch, cultivating sources, and being able to conduct a good interview and take it down in shorthand.
So I think Mr Cellan-Jones’ advice to us holds true. He said:
“Have a good grip of the old basics of journalism. I think those career skills are still valid. I think a lot of the essentials that have been around for 20 or 25 years still apply.”
But it’s perfectly possible to draw these different sets of skills together, to combine traditional methods with the new opportunities offered by the web. This coverage of Tony Blair at the Chilcot inquiry just shows how much more can be offered on the web for those who want more than just the print story. Mr Cellan-Jones concluded with some upbeat thoughts for us too:
“It is a lot more fun… It is a lot easier to do stuff than when I started. You have an instant playground out there where you can try it out and make mistakes.”
So what are we waiting for? Let’s get out there and do it.