When I was in journalism school, I was told the media existed because they need to inform the people. It was up to us, the Guardians of Democracy, to decide which information people needed to know most and to tell them this by creating content. We were the middleman between the things that would happen in the world and the things that people would need to worry about while having breakfast at their kitchen tables. Although we never called ourselves middleman, because that sounded like we were selling insurances, which we were not. We were selling information in the form of content.
'we had a mission: bring information to the people, instead of selling our souls'
As Guardians of Democracy, we sometimes felt trapped. Those media owners just wanted to make a big profit. While we had a mission: bring information to the people, instead of selling our souls. This raised questions on how to be a good journalist when, in the end, it all boils down to make the newspaper sell. Nobody ever questioned our mission.
Is my mother really my mother?
We really weren’t looking ahead of ourselves. It was 2005. In my school one could specialize in newspapers, radio or television. Internet was often considered an unreliable source. Anyone could put anything on Wikipedia. So any essay containing a Wikipedia-url was to be revised. Digital was dirty. Newspapers ruled. Even though sales had already began to go down. Nobody asked questions like: will newspapers, as we know them today, still exist in ten years time? Or twenty? Questioning that was like questioning if your mother was really your mother; pretty much taboo. Free newspapers were heavily criticized, even though they were often the only ones to hire new people, see their print runs grow and make a profit.
Digital was dirty. Newspapers ruled.
Today, all but one of the free newspapers in the Netherlands have disappeared. They have been replaced with phones that are glued to the palm of our hands. Everyone is online. Always. Everywhere. We have access to an amount of information that cannot be expressed in numbers anymore. Let alone be matched by a free newspaper. It’s all there. Almost always for free. Bye, bye free commuter newspapers.
A horrible sight
For the past ten years I’ve seen this happening: tech disrupting media. Looking at the traditional media landscape was like looking at an epic World War I battle: a lot of casualties and nobody gaining any ground. I’ve seen lots of local newspapers disappear. I’ve seen national newspapers reorganising again, and again, and again. I’ve seen magazines being taken off the shelves, being replaced by emptiness, as if they’ve never existed. I’ve seen the Dutch World Radio station being taken from the air, because it was still broadcasting radio and failed to adapt to the fact that in 2012 there’s also Internet in France, just as in almost any other place in the world where the Dutch might work or enjoy a holiday. Budgets for public television have been cut by one third recently. And of course it will not stop there.
'I’ve felt frustrated. Angry. Helpless.'
I’ve felt frustrated. Angry. Helpless. I even left the journalism business (after working for one of the free newspapers) and went into communications. Only to learn my true passion is to be a journalist. So I decided to have a really good look at the blood-covered media landscape and reflect on what I learned about journalism in school. Is it really my mission to bring information to the people?
Well, it’s not.
The rabbit under the truck
For a long, long time, the media have monopolized information. But they’ve lost this monopoly. Tech has crushed traditional media like a truck running over a rabbit, leaving nothing behind but a print of the bunny on the tarmac. Why? Because tech has set the new price for content: Free. Every media organisation that is still creating, publishing and selling content, is like a rabbit on the tarmac; seriously at risk if they don’t radically change their business models soon.
With the Internet, pretty much the answer to any question can be found online. Maybe not by just entering it as a query into Google, but it’s very likely the information is out there, somewhere, and probably for free. I say ‘pretty much’ and ‘very likely’ because of course not everything can be found online. But if it isn’t there yet, it can be created by anyone, anywhere and distributed for free. It’s not just the media informing the people anymore, the people inform themselves. I say it again: the monopoly on information is over. Really. Selling bare content will become tougher and tougher.
This could make me feel very, very depressed. But I’m not. I’m happy. Happy, because I finally realise what the mission of a journalist should be: be a guide. A really good one, that’s to say.
Let me guide you
Jeff Jarvis, one of the most radical thinkers in this new media-era, puts it very straightforward: journalism shouldn’t focus on creating content, but on providing a service. With the abundance of information available to us, we face a huge new challenge: how do we get the information that can actually help us to achieve what we want? Our time is limited, so we need people who sort this out for us, fill the gaps and present it all in a comprehendible way. That’s what a really good guide does. He or she leads you to the places you are interested in most, gives you the information that you want to know in an understandable way and by that makes your holiday very worthwhile. That’s exactly what todays journalists need to do.
To be a good guide, you need to know your client very well. If I’m thinking of buying a house, there’s a lot of information that can help me. I want more than articles telling me houses in good areas are being sold for higher prices again because of demand and lower interest rates. I want to know how much prices have gone up in neighborhoods that interest me. It would be very helpful if I could find similar neighborhoods where prices haven’t exploded yet. Or what if I could tap into the knowledge of the community? Many people probably have experiences with real estate brokers, both good and bad. I would really like to know their recommendations. These would all be valuable, time saving services to me. I probably wouldn’t mind to pay for it. But maybe I don’t even have to, because a mortgage bank sees these services as a great opportunity to advert their low rates.
Another example. Lets say this whole boat refugee situation really disturbs me. But all I see and hear is how nobody wants to solve the problem, because by allowing people in, many more might follow. I want something to be done though. First I want to fully understand what’s going on. I want graphics, video’s, pictures. But it all has to blend together. One big, interactive overview. Where are people coming from? What is going on there? Who are these people, are they really ‘economic refugees’? If they would be allowed in, where would they live? How much would that cost? Then I want people with ideas on how we can help these refugees to explain it to me. What do the politicians I voted for think of these ideas? Maybe I don’t want to vote for them anymore if they persist in not allowing refugees to enter the country…
By not only informing people, but by actually helping them to use the available information in their best interest, journalists will prove themselves valuable again. And by creating value, there will be payment.
This is, and I profoundly believe this, the future of journalism. And it is an exiting future, because the way we create value will not be static. Our services will change depending on peoples needs. We will have to continually reinvent journalism. Just like tech companies continually reinvent tech to better fulfil our needs.
We need new businesses
One thing is for sure, existing news organisations will have a very hard time to adapt. They’re big, slow and often still much focussed on what they always did: create, publish and sell content. That’s why we don’t just need new media business models as Jeff Jarvis suggests. We need new media businesses. To adapt at the speed at which technology is changing the way we can create, access and share information.
These new businesses are being started now. They are reinventing journalism.
'I want to reinvent journalism'
I want to reinvent journalism, because I want to be a guide to people and communities and help them to accomplish what they need and want.
Before I became a journalist, I always thought journalists can change the world. Instead too often I found them to be storytellers guarding their content instead of democracy. Now I know I can change the world. And I’ll start by reinventing journalism. Today.
Soon more on
- Loving your audience, and knowing everything about them
- The world changing power of constructive journalism
- Trendsetters: changing the news for good
- Reinventing journalism: this is how