Wednesday, June 16, 2010...9:00 am

#VOJ10: What's the value of journalism? Narrating the human condition

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In association with the Martin Cloake blog

So far, we’ve covered the need for a coherent set of standards for journalism, the question of whether the audience actually cares, or appreciates those standards, and the difference between literacy and communication skills. And, crucially, why sub-editors are the cornerstone of the media.

Now I’d like to look at this in a wider cultural sense. The recent Cumbria shootings underlined the importance answer to the question: ‘what is the value of journalism?’. In an interview, a local GP told the Radio 4 Today programme that “people need stories” to make sense of events that otherwise might overwhelm them, or that are too far out of normal experience to process easily.

Telling stories is essentially what journalism is. And that’s something that, as a species, I suspect we will never stop doing – bearing witness to things that happen, and then trying to make sense of them in a wider context (social, political, economic, whatever).

So I think the very question “is there still such a thing as journalism” reveals more about the anxiety of the industry than anything else.

The problem for journalists is that it used to be much harder to take part. You needed a printing press, or privileged access to someone else’s. Then you needed a way to distribute your work.

Such restricted access leads inevitably to guild-like rules for entry – not least of which was competence (though nepotism and luck doubtless played their part).

Ironically, just as publishing is democratising as never before thanks to an abundance of low-cost and pervasive technology, journalism, which claims it is speaking for its readers, is trying to prevent them from speaking for themselves.

As you say, it’s about access to the means of publication. What can journalism do when the people who need the stories can tell them too?

It’s a big mistake to demonise the tools that let readers bypass information’s former gatekeepers. It’s a bigger mistake to demonise people for producing content (even if it’s inane YouTube videos of kittens). Journalists have produced enough unmitigated crap over the years to be in no position to judge others too harshly.

Instead, I think we have to accept that our role is changing. We are no longer the gatekeepers of information. The best role for us now is probably managers of information. There is so much content flowing around the world that the best service we can offer readers is to understand it and filter it. And thinking of ways we can do that, and developing tools to let us do it, should be much higher on the agenda than shoring up the old model of journalism.

(Continued on the Martin Cloake blog tomorrow morning)

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