Refresh, refocus and move forward. That’s how the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the University of Missouri recently invited journalists and researchers to think about the future of journalism. On the agenda were discussions about innovation and technology, privacy and security, freedom of speech and protection from government prosecution.
The first panel, “The Practice of Journalism: Privacy, security and the First Amendment”, addressed growing concerns about privacy intrusion and government overreach. “Never in the presidential administration, especially Democratic presidential administration, have there ever been so many prosecutions of whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act”, said Craig Newman of Freedom2Connect Foundation. As a result, journalists are faced with difficult ethical decisions balancing the public’s right to know and the need to protect classified information. Hawley Johnson from the Investigative Dashboard Project added that media in new democracies are even more vulnerable to this challenge.
While “shield” legislation has the potential to better protect journalists and their sources, it raises another set of thorny questions: In a time when virtually anyone with internet access can contribute news, who is a journalist? And who deserves protection from prosecution? Panelists pondered the difficulties that stem from old legislation being applied to a new reality defined by digital media. Are there alternatives to the legal and constitutional frameworks of media regulation in the Wild West of disruptive innovation?
Sustaining journalism also means sustaining journalism as a business, of course. Strategies to achieve that were debated by the second panel, “The Funding of Journalism: Practice, research and future”. Pekka Pekkala ( USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism) talked about the findings of his research project “Sustainable Business Models for Journalism” which followed the work of different journalistic startups around the world. Its key finding: advertisement remains the major revenue stream for the news media—despite the widespread rhetoric of innovation. Pekkala, himself a tech writer who has been following start-ups to discover the ways they make money, said: “It was kind of surprising, at least for me… I do similar work among journalism start-ups and I find that they are still selling advertisements.” Other revenue streams, such as event marketing, consulting, syndication, and book printing, show some promise but they lag behind the selling of ads. The report also found that many journalists working for startups lacked business skills. For many interviewees the biggest step was to recognize that in order for a journalistic startup to be profitable they had to do the business part along with reporting.
The session also touched on the issue of content personalization based on users’ web histories, preferences, and individual behavior. On the one hand, newsrooms want to tailor their content for individual users. On the other hand, they feel the need to fulfill their mission of serving public good. “We don’t have to oscillate between no personalization and personalization to one person,” said Bill Densmore, RJI consultant. “We create communities of interest where we customize information to these communities and where you feel a part of it.”
The final word of the conference went to Rob Barrett,Vice President for News and Finance at Yahoo! Inc., who talked about his vision of journalism (“After the Media Establishment: Who will the news players be in 2018?”). Concluding that established news brands will have to embrace social platforms as hubs for content dissemination, he stated: “At the end of the day, very few news brands will be able to survive without a relationship of some kind or use of a [social] platform.” And they will have to acknowledge the importance of free agents in the process of news production. At the same time, Barrett highlighted the importance of professional journalists: “The experience and skill set from news organizations and people with journalistic training is incredibly valuable in a tech-driven social universe like this.”
The recorded sessions are available online at www.rjionline.org.
Photo credit: Nick Olejniczak / Flickr Cc