SCAN had the pleasure of interviewing the former chief editor of the Guardian newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, to discuss the future of journalism and challenges for the profession.
Journalism is a popular, if slightly daunting, career path for students of all disciplines from English Literature to History and Politics. Rusbridger has seen the profession change from a print-based monopoly on information, to the present reality of 24/7 news coverage which is predominantly online. The factors that made journalism the career for Rusbridger still hold true today through the vocation’s ‘variety’ and sense of duty to ‘bear witness to the world’. In today’s media landscape there are so many different interpretations of what ‘journalism’ actually is that it is difficult for the journalists themselves, never mind the public, to define what it is that journalism does. There is a staggering gap between how The Sun views journalism and the New York Times- ‘If there was that degree of difference in brain surgery people would be saying how can I trust that when you can’t even agree amongst yourselves’!
The solution to defining journalism lies in another problem for the profession going forwards- how to separate proper journalism from fake news. There is a tendency among journalists to laugh at social media’s citizen journalism as opposed to professional work- there is a belief that the public will miss journalists if they cease to function.
‘That message isn’t going through’ as people don’t consider journalism to be the vital service that it is. According to reputable measures of trust ‘journalists tend to be at the bottom’ and this poses a genuine threat to democracy. One of the key pillars in a democracy is a strong and independent press that can hold all other forms of power (and fellow media institutions) to account. People are just more skeptical of newspapers along with journalists as they are not the sole gatekeepers of information anymore, as they were in the age of the printing press. Rusbridger said that ‘a lot of that is really healthy’ as journalists can’t ask for ‘blind trust’ while warning about the failings of citizen journalism and social media.
Rusbridger explained that there is a key distinction between ‘subjective and objective journalism’. If you asked an American journalist which category journalism falls into they would say that it was objective. In the UK most journalists would say ‘that’s b****cks, the moment I choose my first sentence in my story I am making a subjective choice’. There needs to be a serious rethinking of how journalism changes to gain the trust of the public again, there needs to be analysis ‘of how and why we do things’. The younger generation is vital as they are ‘not asking for £40,000 a year’ and can help ‘reframe and remake’ how journalism is done.
Rusbridger acknowledged how different it was to get into journalism compared to how it used to be done: ‘work for the local paper for three or four years and if you are lucky you go and work for Fleet Street’. While ‘everything has changed’ it is clear that it is not all bad news for prospective journalists looking to break into the field. While the traditional route is now nearly impossible, due to the ever-decreasing numbers of local papers, there are numerous opportunities presented by the new digital world. Today, anybody can write, challenge, and commentate on the events of the world- Rusbridger said that ‘you can get on anybody’s radar’. This is a far cry from the world where people had to get their news from newspapers and only then what the editors of those papers deemed important. As technology rapidly advances new opportunities for the younger generation are presenting themselves. Rusbridger highlighted that only the young have the ability to capitalise on these openings as we ‘haven’t got any money’ and can act as the disruptors which established organisations cannot.
The advance of technology also poses the potential for an existential threat to journalism, in the form of AI. While we are not nearly at the stage of all powerful AI, there are already algorithms which can report on sports matches reliably and efficiently. Microsoft recently made 27 people redundant in the UK as AI filled their places. While this is a justifiably terrifying prospect for aspiring journalists it can present progress and improvement instead of the end of journalism. While sports commentary and story selection may be soon the domain of algorithms Rusbrisger thinks it has the potential to free ‘up money for what has to happen’ in areas such as investigative journalism. He commented that while AI may reduce the number of journalists but there will always be ‘lots of things that do require the human brain’.
‘There isn’t enough money or security in it if you’re not incredibly committed’ was Rusbridger’s advice for up and coming young journalists- you’ve got to see it as a ‘vocation’ and a vital public service which is increasingly important. ‘You have to be realistic looking at the media landscape and thinking where you fit into it’ whether that be starting up a local paper in Lancaster as the current coverage isn’t good enough or using new technology to invent new ways of spreading information and news. In a way, it has never been easier to get your words into print, which Rusbridger emphasised as ‘it is really important to build up an archive of what you do’. As it is so much easier to get your voice heard, you’ve got to prove that it is a voice worth hearing in the quality of your work.
The future looks uncertain for journalism as the old economic model of selling newspapers and getting revenue from advertising dries up. It is more important than ever that young journalists take up the cause of spreading reliable information that can help shape the discourse around issues that affect humanity’s future such as climate change and coronavirus.
Rusbridger asserted that ‘it matters if we believe that the fires sweeping through the West Coast of America are caused by poor forestry management or climate change’. If we dismiss these fires as many media outlets have done and simply say it was poor forestry management then no policy changes will occur, it will be put down as a human error. Rusbridger pointed out that if what is actually causing the increasing fires and hurricanes is climate change, it could prove ‘cataclysmic to the human species’ and journalists need to point out the facts of the situation. There are more issues, such as the ongoing pandemic, that require accurate and informative journalism. In summary, there truly has never been a greater demand for the younger generation to invigorate journalism and show people why it is a necessary public service.