Serious journalism in the era of digital disruption

Sunday, May 8, 2016 at 11:53AM
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At this year's Oscars, one of my favourite films of the year - Spotlight - won best picture. The movie - set just 15 years ago, at the Boston Globe - was a moving tribute to the power of serious journalism to change the world and be a transformative force for good.

Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe's year-long, exhaustively researched investigation of widespread physical and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, revealing a "decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston’s religious, legal, and government establishment".

It is a great movie that also reminds us of the once-awesome power of newspapers (a power the movie hints was already on the wane in 2001). After watching the movie, I found myself nostaglic for the time when newspapers - and serious journalism - mattered much more than they do today.

The media world has changed a lot over the past 15 years, and it's still changing. This 'disruption' in mainstream media was the subject of former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse's latest book, Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution, which details the ongoing crisis in serious journalism in the digital era.

To be honest, I was expecting more from Stackhouse on the impact on media of the digital revoltion than I actually got out of his book. He makes a number of obvious observations about what went wrong in traditional media - namely, an inability and unwillingness to change or adjust to the rapid digitization of information. However, I did appreciate Stackhouse's first-hand analysis of where and when the newspaper industry could have acted sooner to respond to the digital revolution...and didn't.

Stackhouse details how media - including his own paper - finally began to understand the threat the digital revolution presented to traditional channels (newspapers, radio and television) and their long-established revenue models. Late to the party, they're now desperately trying to catch up.

The changes in mainstream media have not been kind to the public relations and communications business, either. We still have clients who want mainstream media coverage for their news, which they rightly see as the most prestigious and credible way to get their message out. But who do we pitch to? Many of my contacts have retired early or taken buyouts from media owners desperate to cut costs. Media are trying to function in a world where there's more news than ever before, and fewer people to report on it.

Stackhouse also notes in his book that many credible news organizations - including the Globe - have resorted to imitating the 'quick-hit' approach to journalism of Buzzfeed, replacing well-researched stories with what they call "listicles" (the practice of turning serious news articles into lists or photo/video/Twitter highlight reels). The funny thing is, it works for them, too.

So where do we go from here? I believe we need serious journalism - and smart, savvy, talented journalists - more than ever. In a functioning democracy, it is essential that we have reliable, credible sources of information that adhere to some kind of established set of rules around the treatment and presentation of facts.

In order for serious journalism to thrive, news organizations have to disrupt their own business models and find new ways of funding the kind of old-school, well-researched investigative journalism that the public still desperately want - and deserve.

Stackhouse sums it up well in his book:

If the decline of serious media continues, it stands to weaken...democratic muscles, and diminish us all. Yet if the spirit of genuine inquiry and truth telling can be sustained, journalism will stand to strengthen democracy for a digital century that is just beginning to transform our world.

I couldn't agree more.

This blog was originally published by Lesli Boldt on LinkedIn.

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