Engaged journalism Insight

“News for All” – Week Note 5

Although in some ways nothing particularly concrete has happened this week, it’s been an incredibly rich few days in terms of listening, learning and thinking about things that will undoubtedly be very important for my work. I’ll try to summarise some of those insights here.

Writing news stories is no longer a marketable skill

I’ve put that in a deliberately stark way, because I think this is the crucial part of the AI conversation that we’re not addressing enough. A lot of newsrooms are thinking about how they can use AI to enhance or augment their current workflows and editorial approaches. I’m increasingly coming to believe that that’s a complete waste of time.

There is a very near world in which people will be able to get most of what we currently consider “news” in search. That information, delivered by generative AI, will mean that users won’t need to go to news websites at all for simple “updates”. SEO will become largely pointless for journalism, and if we carry on with business as usual then traffic to publishers will start collapsing even more quickly than it already is. Ian Betteridge explains this very clearly in his excellent, recently launched, Substack.

But what all that also means is that just being able to write a news story will not be a skill that has any value. If we want to be journalists in 5 years’ time, we will have to bring something different to the table, and that will have to be things that a machine can’t do. I often characterise these human skills as connection, collaboration and care – where we focus on building genuine two way relationships with our users.

Understanding journalism as oppression

About four years ago, I was lucky to blag myself into a job as a Community Organiser at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It was a very different kind of job, which relied on building relationships with people and communities to tell stories from the ground up, rather than top down.

The beauty of the job was that every day was an experiment. There wasn’t a template or playbook for how to be a journalism community organiser and so we had the freedom to try things and keep what worked and ditch what didn’t.That experience was incredibly valuable and now informs all my work.

As part of the News for All project, we’re embarking on some participatory research with people and communities in Cardiff. This week we held an informal Q&A for people interested in taking part in that, and a couple of incredibly important things already stand out from those conversations:

  • People talked about how they think of journalism in the same way as they think of the police – as institutions which have a profoundly negative impact on their lives and don’t speak for or to them. If I’m honest, this was unsurprising to me because I’ve heard it a lot. Essentially, journalism thinks it is detached from systems of oppression and simply reports “objectively” on those systems. Not to come over all sociology professor on you, but the reality is of course that the institutions of journalism are mostly a fundamental part of those systems of oppression. That may feel shocking or upsetting for many people, but it is the reality. Until and unless we understand and respond to those widely held feelings, then we stand absolutely no chance of addressing the existential crisis of trust in journalism. Once we get into the formal part of the participatory research I imagine we’ll have a lot more to report around that.

 

  • The other thing which came across incredibly clearly was the subtle and nuanced understanding that the group had of how the media works. They know exactly how the politics and economics of journalism drive the kind of content that’s produced and why it doesn’t meet their needs. To revisit a them from last week’s note – they don’t need a news literacy programme, they just need better journalism. Perhaps if we start by not patronising and talking down to people, and instead valuing their wisdom, then they might think better of us. Just a thought?

The life cycle of a story and the wisdom of the community

Bringing some of those ideas together – around building direct and meaningful relationships with users and seeing them as sources of genuine insight – I had the latest in a series of conversations with Francesca Dumas from Contribly this week. Contribly is a suite of tools that are designed to harness the power of connection – making it easier to collect and publish community insights. While it’s not for me to recommend (or otherwise) the product itself, I’m fascinated by the possibilities tools like this open up.

For example, 20 Minutes in France gives users advance notice of stories they’re going to write about, and asks them to contribute to inform those articles. Even post-publication, if new and important information is submitted, the article is updated to reflect how things may have changed. I’m really interested in how journalism might be less “static”, and how stories might shift and adapt to have longer life-spans. In this way they might better reflect the way the world actually works – constantly evolving and changing, rather than constrained by structures which don’t allow natural flexibility or growth.

Why I also love this approach is because it centres the wisdom of the community – the people who will generally understand the nuances and implications of a story better than any journalist. I think about this as journalists becoming facilitators rather than auteurs. Of course there may well be space for lots of different kinds of journalists, but if we want to build those genuine long-term relationships that will give citizens a reason to interact with us rather than generative search, then this feels like a useful starting point.

Joining the dots

Of course these aren’t separate thoughts, they all lead to the same place. The role of the journalist should, must, will change –  sooner rather than later, and whether we like it or not. I happen to like what that sort of journalism looks and feels like. By centreing both the needs and voices of our citizens we have a chance of building a more valuable future for journalism, and therefore a more sustainable one.

I went to my Cardiff University Induction this week, and was really struck by something the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Damian Walford Davies, said about the institution. He talked about how he loved it enough to want it to change. Sometimes I worry that I’m too negative about the institutions of journalism, but I think this is it. I love journalism enough to want it to change.

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.

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