Saving journalism, one summit at a time

November 11, 2008

World Economic Forum Summit on the Global AgendaLike Jeff Jarvis, I too was in Dubai for the World Economic Forum‘s inaugural Summit on the Global Agenda. Charlie Beckett (whose upsummer is here) and I were in the Future of Media group. So what was our diagnosis of the state of journalism?

Well, here it is. We did talk about censorship and values – but remember what Oscar Wilde said about a camel being a horse designed by a committee:

“We live in an over-connected, under-informed world.”

The revolution in information technology and communications has probably hit no sector harder than the news media itself. No other business has found its role so fundamentally challenged, its value and worth called into question and its organisational and business models threatened to the point of extinction.

The same technology that has allowed people to create and share content has also undercut the media providers that served their communities with information. As blogs and social networks shine a light on new areas of the world, in other places news providers are switching the lights off – shutting down, cutting reporting jobs and coverage.

But throughout that change, the professional, public purposes of journalism – to stimulate, educate and inform public debate, and to call to account – remain vital to the process of improving the state of the world.

Journalism fosters civic engagement. It provides much of the raw material for the public sphere. The question that faces us now is how we pay for that, when good journalism is no longer good business.

“Journalism is vital to help societies develop.”

The challenges facing news media are not just financial. They are also educational, legal and social. The world is not an open book. Much that should be made public remains hidden, or is only discoverable with time and effort.

The news media helps contest and scrutinise decision-making – or at least offers the potential for scrutiny – and that remains crucial in both a positive and empowering sense, and in negative sense as a check on corruption.

Intervention by journalism helps keep societies open. But that intervention can also threaten the people and the publications (in whatever media) that produce it.

Censorship and self-censorship remain fundamental barriers to progress in many countries. Censorship is not just a state issue – interventionist ownership can also prevent the news media from providing the scrutiny societies need to develop. All types of censorship undermine the credibility of the established news media.

Journalism needs to be reliable and credible, and that requires training and professional education – especially in societies striving to develop open and representative government. A missing component in many developing countries is a lack of professional journalists.

Even well resourced and well respected media companies have been caught out by the increasing ability of audiences to catch out their failings.

The question is – how can we save journalism to help it save the world?

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