Then, now, and always
A few lessons learned from the industry’s best, and those who are on their way up.
By Riley Wilson, Future News Worldwide 2017 Australia Delegate
It started from a young age. It started with curiosity and passion, with questions and answers and a resolution to know the whole truth. And it started with people.
It grew, and before I knew it, it was a consuming and invigorating profession, bound to my being with equal parts hard work, drive – and people.
One thing led to another, and soon I was on a plane to Scotland’s capital city in preparation for a symposium of the very best of the global youth media scene: 100 delegates from 42 countries (a seemingly paltry number, upon reflection, given the 2000 applicants worldwide) thrown together in the halls of Scottish Parliament. Conversation was lubricated by curiosity, a mutual sense of purpose, and deep-fried haggis balls: a stellar combination by any metric.
The unique challenges of our respective countries, and the issues deeply pertinent to our national agendas, became immediately apparent. Political transparency, the role of the media in uncertain spaces, economic policy and financial (in)stability emerged as common themes.
Technology is altering the climate in which we’re operating; in some countries, social media platforms have altered the legacy systems – TV and radio broadcasters, newspapers and magazines – that have long commanded the general attention. In other countries, a surge in the availability of technology has leapfrogged the website entirely and created mobile-first users who engage with content in second-to-second chunks. Disruptive platforms and immersive concepts are forcing journalists, editors and news organisations to re-examine the processes in which they’ve succeeded in the past. But, as Google News Lab’s Matt Cooke said during a workshop on Google’s many tools for journalists, the medium should never get in the way of the story. The latter comes first; technology second.
And then there’s the issue of financial viability, a topic close to my heart given the recent editorial restructures across some of Australia’s most significant newsrooms. As global players such as Facebook and Google take the biggest piece of the advertising pie, the financial bedrocks on which many media institutions stand are being ripped from beneath them (or, rather, have disintegrated at a rapid pace over the past five-to-ten years). New models – pay-per-view, a la Netflix or Spotify; subscriber-first and locked content; partnerships with such aforementioned technology titans – were hot topics at the conference, given the dissolution of the paywall and a general melancholy towards paying for news. There’s no shortage of stories, as Deborah Rayner of CNN said, and “it’s up to us to tell them in engaging, compelling and truthful ways”.
The ‘How do we meet the challenges facing journalism?’ panel discussion opened on the topic of financial strategies for journalism and news media in the “white noise” environment, where organisations are fighting for attention online. The Economist’s Adnan Sarwar outlined the importance of young people learning what’s valuable in the news environment, and understanding what’s worth paying for. The Sunday Times’ Christina Lamb emphasised that journalism is expensive “and people should pay for it”.
The conference was gifted with a plethora of professionals who had experience with war correspondence and crisis reporting. In the stories of The Herald’s David Pratt and Lamb, we heard the stories of children and families stuck in circumstances beyond their control; soldiers on missions bigger than themselves; communities destroyed by agendas greater than the constraints of their cities. We heard the stories of people, just like ourselves, in situations that reminded us of our humanity. “The power of stories, first and foremost, comes from people,” Pratt said. From Lamb’s many journeys telling the stories of humans in extraordinary circumstances, she resolved: “These people with real inspiring stories are what we need right now.” In darkness, humanity is the light; journalism can be the conduit.
When discussing the power of the interview subject, BBC’s Murdoch Rodgers reminded us that “it’s their voice that needs to be heard. Not yours”. There’s a responsibility and trust tied to storytelling, and it’s a weight that can’t be taken lightly. Again, at the core of it all – of all the issues, trials and tribulations – is people.
Charles Lewis, a FNW speaker and – among other things – the founder of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (a group of journalists responsible for the distillation and dissemination of the Panama Papers), believes that now is the most exciting time to be an emerging journalist. Technology is aiding collaboration across borders and beyond barriers. For its Panama Paper coverage, ICIJ brought together 400 journalists in 76 countries on 6 continents at over 100 newsrooms to tackle one of the most significant data leaks in modern history.
“The idea that that could even be attempted, let alone accomplished, is extraordinary,” Lewis says. “I would call it a new golden age of journalism where multiple media forms is the new norm.
“We don’t just want to know about it here; we want to know about how it is elsewhere and how it compares.”
Journalistic storytelling in the 21st century, he said, is about more than what’s going on in people’s backyards. And that makes now “a wild and thrilling time”.
“Journalism has always been organised by geography and now, increasingly, we are – as we should be – interconnected beyond borders and the issues that affect communities in Australia or Europe or South America…and people are starting to realise the commonalities,” he said.
Changing technologies and a growing access to them has meant that stories are reaching global audiences, and stories are seeking global angles. At the same time, our media climate is changing. We’re facing challenges now that were near unimaginable just a decade ago. But, if Future News Worldwide and the exemplary young people I had the pleasure of learning among are any indication, we’re changing with it. The key is to not forget the core of our stories.
“Young journalists starting out have to find a newsroom with integrity, and strong values, and respect for the individual,” said Lewis.
“The newsroom atmosphere and finding good people doing good work is the key.
“If you find people that you like working with and subject matter that you enjoy covering, then you’re very close to the promised land.”
People are the centre of this industry. There were 100 future leaders in attendance at Future News Worldwide, all keen to make a difference and alter the trajectory of what journalism might become. But before they’re journalists, they’re people. It should be that commonality that leads us to the issues we need to uncover, the challenges we seek to overcome and the questions we strive to answer.
People are our stories. People are our storytellers. People are our audience.
In a changing environment, one thing we all have in common – as journalists and global citizens – is a shared humanity. It’s people we write about, people we write for, and people we want to give a voice to. It was all about people when we started. It’s all about people now.
Beyond #fakenews, murky political waters or the death of the homepage, it always was – and it always will be.