By Georgia Thomas
Recent years have been a bumpy ride, but the future’s still bright for us journalists.
Sitting in an Uber on my way home from a night out, I was having a chat to my driver. During our lively back-and-forth, she asked me, “what do you do with yourself?” I told her I was studying journalism at RMIT.
“Well,” she paused, and shot a conspiratorial glance my way, “you made a mistake, didn’t you?”
I was surprised by her honesty, but I knew exactly what she meant. What could possibly drive someone to pursue a career in an industry that is, in the eyes of many, on its last legs? As a final-year student, concerns about the future of journalism constantly ring in my ears.
In recent years, the media landscape has become beset by chaos and turbulence. Technology has toppled the proverbial wall between producers and consumers, and audiences have become closer to journalists than ever before. Perhaps the largest casualty of the digitalisation of journalism has been the realm of print media. In fact, in the space of the last 20 years, the newspaper workforce has shrunk by 39%. Rather ironically, I uncovered this worrying statistic (and many more) last semester, while doing an assignment on the working conditions in my aspired industry.
It would be remiss of me to exclude Fairfax from any discussion of the upheaval of print journalism, specifically in Melbourne. Ultimately, the ongoing struggles of Fairfax have been attributed to multiple factors – most notably, mismanagement by its three chairmen. Perhaps it was the management that saw the company so unsuccessfully adapt to the constantly evolving requirements of digital media. In an effort to consolidate their disadvantage, the media outlet dramatically cut their print infrastructure and gradually culled their workforce, resulting in protests like the journalists’ strike we saw in May this year.
It is hard to watch what is happening to Fairfax, alongside the declining health of print media in general. As a child, I had dreamt of being a print journalist. But by the time I had become an adult, the internet had changed the game. I felt worried. Then, I stumbled across these compelling words from American media theorist Clay Shirky: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”
At university, we are taught to seek objectivity, accuracy and truth. If we hold steadfast to these principles, does it matter how they are expressed? The form may be different, and ever-changing, but the function remains the same.
I deeply admire newspapers, but I’ve come to realise that the zeitgeist has spoken. Crucially, the nascence of digital media has reminded me of something important: you must adapt to survive. Shirky nailed it again when he said “what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.” And not to worry, there are outlets that have embraced the conditions of the new world order. For example, The Atlantic consistently delivers insightful and rich feature pieces online. The Monthly also has some great longform offerings. Even the good old ABC, in my opinion, has mastered the formula for news reporting online. Journalism is a chameleon; it can adapt to exist in any format.
Technology has similarly opened up opportunities to journalists to interact with their audiences using previously unprecedented means, like “public-powered journalism”. Hearken is a consulting service specialising in public powered journalism. It works to engage audiences from pitch right up until publication. Adopting this operating system means departing from conventional notions of audience, and Hearken is aware of this. “We help newsroom staff transition from viewing the public as consumers to partners”, they explain on their site.
To keep tabs on audience engagement, Hearken created their cloud-based Engagement Management System (EMS), which is specially designed to collect data and shape stories as they develop. A decade ago, this process would have been unfeasible. The reality is that technology has outmoded some tenets of journalism. Meanwhile, the work of Hearken proves to me that the digital world is ripe with opportunities for collaboration and experimentation. While I acknowledge and respect the legacy of old-school journalism, I am thrilled by the creative potential presented by its modern incarnation.
Arsisto Ambyo is an Associate Lecturer of Journalism at RMIT. He’s also been my tutor in past semesters. Tito advised me that a career in journalism is as fulfilling as one chooses to make it. “The kinds of opportunities that are more interesting and important are those that require journalists to be actively involved in working with people, to shape the types of stories and storytelling we need to tell in our current world and the technologies we use to tell them,” he explains.
“There are examples of people doing new things like The Correspondent, Dysturb, Curious City, not to mention ABC with their Messenger Newsbot or NY Times with 360 Videos, that prove that the opportunities and tools and stories are out there.”
I will always have a great respect for the journalism of the past, but I choose not to mourn it. Instead, I look to a future that is daunting, but one that can be made into anything I want it to be using ever-developing digital resources. I spoke with fellow third year journalism student, Ainslee, who shared my optimism.
“Journalism today is undergoing a form of reformation or transition. Even in the three years of my degree, I have noticed these changes.” Ainslee believes that despite the drastic developments in the industry that have caused unease, the world still needs journalists. “In the face of populist extremism and growing political discontent, journalism is more important now than at any other stage of history,” she says.
In my final year, RMIT has started referring to me as an “emerging professional.” While the moniker initially made me shiver with discomfort, I’m learning to appreciate its propitiousness. Now that I’m in my final semester, I’ve been forced to face the burgeoning question that I’m sure plagues the minds of most graduates-to-be: what’s next?
I don’t have a clear-cut answer just yet. There was a time in my life when I feared the unknown and resisted change. Then, I realised that responding to the working conditions for journalists with hesitation didn’t, and wouldn’t, get me anywhere. Avoidance is most decidedly unproductive. I say to all journalists, and I say to all graduates: dive in.