If you are not perplexed you should be.
That’s the first line of a new book about the potential of the web, by Charles Leadbetter, and you can browse it here. Refreshingly, it looks back into history for clues as to how the web can and might work for the common good – to pre-industrial models of resource sharing and organisation. Some sort of utopia starts to emerge from its pages, with hippies and peasants and geeks and artisans working in self-organised communities based around a caring, sharing web.
But this book – along with another reviewed as a pair here also raises worrying questions about whether the future will need journalists.
And that’s not so much perplexing as downright alarming. At the onset of the web’s presence in journalism, the threat seemed far away and manageable. Many years ago, sitting in a room with two local newspaper editors, I asked what they were looking for in new trainees. Law and spelling, said one; the ability to use a video camera, said the other, and we looked at him like he was mad. I can recall, less than a decade ago, having to queue for the ‘email computer’ in a newsroom, and listening to a distinguished colleague trying to impress people by saying ‘the internet is going to be big’.
Things got a bit clearer: the journalist of the future was going to be like the one of the past, just with a few bits bolted on. If you wanted a picture of him, he sported a trilby-mounted video camera, and wore a trench coat with an extra large pocket to accommodate his increasingly bloated copy of Essential Law. As time wore on, the picture changed so he looked like some kind of robo-reporter with a bag for a laptop, a pocket for a Blackberry, space in the wallet for the PCC code and a wheelbarrow for the broadcasting equivalent…
But now it really is perplexing. Recently, for example, Press Gazette reported that the Guardian is clearing out some old journalists to make room for ‘geeks’ as convergence bites ever deeper. Yet, the next day, I could still find myself on the phone to someone at News International keen to tell me that their new press covers an area the size of 11 soccer pitches, and has its own slip road off the M25. Print is not, it seems, dead or even dying.
In the meantime, some things never change and those learning about journalism on our courses or elsewhere still need to concentrate on the fundamental skills and knowledge areas (writing, interviewing, law, government and the rest), as well as mastering a range of standard software for multi-platform production so that no new technology will ever surprise them the way it continues to surprise some of their elders.
But the extra ingredient for thirving in the kind of media world to come is education, not training alone. The kind of education that stretches the mind so that new journalists are flexible enough to cope not just with the known knowns, but the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. You know what I mean.
So, to illustrate this, perhaps we don’t so much need a robo-reporter graphic as a cross-section of the ideal journalistic mind. As a bit of light relief, that’s why there’s one at the top of this post.