Is journalism dead?

A while ago on Quora somebody asked the question “Is journalism dead?” with the perhaps more realistic subheading “Is journalism a dying field?” This got me thinking about how journalism has changed in the last few years. Answer below:

As someone who has worked on both the editorial and commercial sides of news organisations, I would say that journalism is far from dead. What we are seeing is a change in the way that journalists operate, a change in how we pay for them and a change in public perception about what they do.

Journalists no longer occupy an elite, authoritative platform from which to broadcast to a captive audience. News, like politics, has always come in different colours and has seen its audience divide along similarly tribal lines. If you’re a US Republican, chances are you like Fox. If you’re a UK liberal, chances are you like the Guardian. But unlike political allegiance, which remains divided into large, partisan groups, news has fractured and segmented. News now comes not only in many different colours but many shades of the same colour, whether it’s a web, mobile, print or broadcast operation.

What this means is that the traditional media monoliths no longer have a monopoly over their readers. People can sample from all over the news spectrum because there is so much content out there to choose from. Thus journalists now have to pay attention to how their readers are reacting to their content and engage with them to justify their attention. Journalists must understand that their content is now part of a conversation, not a broadcast, and must be part of that conversation if they want their shade of news or opinion to be read and engaged with.

The organisations that are better at this see a much higher rate of engagement. People stay on the site for longer, click-through more pages and ally themselves more strongly to that particular media brand. In the long run this makes them more likely to register and/or pay for the product. Registration means more valuable and cleverly targeted advertising, subscription means cash straight into your coffers. They are also more likely to buy into alternative offerings, whether it’s a conference or a learning course. The result, in an ideal world, is that journalists get paid and journalism doesn’t die as a career.

But we’re far from there yet. Major newspapers are still hampered by the awful paradox of print operations that are too expensive to run indefinitely but too lucrative in ad revenue to ditch immediately. These papers will continue to suffer and many people will lose their jobs. Some of these people will go to work for smaller, digital-focused operations in niche areas. Some will go to content factories such as Gawker or the Daily Mail. Others will leave the field entirely and move into PR or copywriting. Eventually the larger newsrooms will become sustainable operations at a much reduced size and level of influence, but not all will die. As alternative revenue sources pick up in strength (conferences, events, education), these sources might subsidise growth once again and we’ll see a continuation of the kind of quality, high-investment journalism that we’ve taken for granted for so long.

Ultimately, it’s as it ever was – journalism has always relied on subsidy, whether it’s from proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch (the Times hasn’t made money since god was a boy) or advertising, or both. The cleverest publications will combine ads, subscriptions and other commercial ventures to support their editorial operations. The most focused, most resilient and valuable news brands – the ones that prove to their readers that they’re worth it, will survive, and their brand of journalism will survive with them. The ones that don’t will die, and their brand of journalism will die with them. After all, this has always been a cut-throat business.

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