[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website. And thanks to my City students for the inspiration!]
I’ve just finished marking the essays my students at City University have to do as part of the course in online journalism that I teach. They’ve done some good work, especially the assignment where I get them to argue that the BBC should be forced to close down its online service because the license fee is really only there to pay for television.
They also seem to have realised that anyone who wants to break into professional journalism needs to have some sort of online presence beyond a Facebook profile, as it’s the first thing an editor will look for when they apply for a job, so there are a few new blogs and online publications out there that might not otherwise have appeared.
While City, like every other British journalism department, has realised that you have to teach people how to build websites, write copy that works online and use network resources for your research, I get to do the interesting bit about how the internet is changing the world in which journalists operate.
So we talk about citizen journalism, the way readers have become the ‘former audience’, how the commercial model which made newspapers possible is being challenged by Google and Craigslist, and the need for any professional journalist to have multimedia skills.
It’s been a stimulating class, not least because the different perspectives brought by Ahmet from Turkey, Mahmoud from Saudi Arabia and Lian from China challenge the western viewpoint I inevitably bring to these discussions, and partly because Anouk, Hazel and Lisa are always willing to dive in and disagree loudly with whatever I’ve just said.
I’ve been teaching the course for ten years now, but I’ve never actually managed to teach the same class twice because things change so rapidly that the revolutionary insights I bring to the one class became standard practice by the time a new academic year rolls around.
We’ve seen blogging turn from a curious habit of the self-obsessed into a defining use of the internet for all forms of communication, watched citizen journalism rise and become partly absorbed into the mainstream, and seen news feeds, aggregators and personal recommendations on social network sites replace the front pages of major news providers as the way people find out about breaking news.
The Guardian has gone from a newspaper with a nice website to an online information source that also publishes a dead tree edition, while the BBC’s Royal Charter now puts the internet on an equal level with TV and radio –whatever my students may argue about the matter.
Radio is undergoing its own reinvention as downloads and podcasts overcome old geographical and time-based constraints to allow any one of the net’s billion or so users to get any show from any station whenever and wherever they like.
The reinvention of television proceeds apace as services like the iPlayer and 4OD hasten the end of the broadcast model and move us to an ‘any screen, any time, any place’ model of programme distribution.
And new services like Twitter have started to offer alternative ways of getting the news, in the form of short updates about breaking news or links to longer pieces.
As I write this I’m also keeping an eye on the British Press Awards because they are being fed live to Twitter by the organisers. I’m also debating them with my Twitter friends, the online equivalent of watching the match in the pub, with the subtle distinction that I’m in Florida at the moment.
But we are not at the end of the process.
What has happened so far can be compared to the mild tremors felt before an earthquake. Most of the news we read, watch and listen to is still produced by people employed to do so; most online news comes from companies that have a presence in the offline media world; and while user contributions are solicited and broadcast, they are still complementary to the material provided by the professionals.
The scale of the changes in the practice of journalism and the economic models of the companies that support and sustain journalism is starting to become apparent in the predictions made by some of the key observers, and some of them surprise even me.
For example, at Media Re:public, a major conference on the future of what they call ‘participatory media’ in Los Angeles organised by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Solana Larsen surprised the audience by predicting that one result of the internet revolution is that there will be no foreign correspondents in five years time.
Solana is one of the managing editors of Global Voices, a site that offers easy access to many of the world’s bloggers and tries to ‘aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online’. She is also, I have to point out, a former student of mine and a dear friend.
And she is right. The idea of the ‘foreign correspondent’, sent off to a strange land to report on the activities of the ‘natives’ for the benefit of those who require their strange customs to be interpreted and sanitised is a relic of a pre-network age.
As the internet spreads there are more and more places where we can simply ask those who are living through the events what they think of them and seek insights and analysis from those who know the people and the places involved.
It’s an argument that Sameer Padania makes in ‘Reflecting the Real World 2’, a report commissioned by the One World Trust to look at how the media portray the developing world, but of course it applies to every part of the world and not just countries outside the West.
This change will ripple through the newsgathering departments of every major media company, and it may not be welcomed everywhere, but it is one of those big changes that is obvious once it is pointed out to you.
And there are many more to come in the next few years, as the network works its magic on the business of journalism.
The Former Audience:
Solana predicts no more foreign correspondents:
One World report says it too: