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?