Canadians are talking online: Journalists need to join the conversation

By: Paul Benedetti

What’s the future of Canadian journalism? What will Canada’s media landscape look like 10 years from now? Beats me. Only a fool would try to guess. Frankly, it’s become difficult to predict what journalism will look like one year from now.

In fact, I would argue that most people working in the media are not even in the present, never mind the future. Marshall McLuhan, Canada’s media guru once said, “If you are really curious about the future, just study the present… What we ordinarily see in any present is what appears in the rearview mirror. What we ordinarily think of as the present is really the past.”

Although it’s always dangerous to decide exactly what McLuhan meant, I think he was suggesting that most of us are working behind the cutting edge, at the rear of societal, cultural and technical change.

Why? Well, for one, that’s where the vast majority of the population lives, and whether you are putting out a newspaper or producing radio or television news, you are serving the public. Two, it’s just safer there. It’s more comfortable. And, three, it’s usually more profitable.

In journalism, both in its practice and its teaching, this inclination to remain slightly, or wholly, back from the edge, is nowhere more apparent than in matters of technology. We have, as a profession and a business, really been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And, despite the fuss, we aren’t really there yet.

Most reporters and editors greeted technological change the way medieval peasants greeted the Black Death. We were scared, we hoped it would pass quickly, and we prayed that, when it was over, a third of our ranks wouldn’t be gone. Not all our prayers were answered.
When it became clear by the late 1990s that whatever journalists thought about it, the web was becoming a part of everyday life in North America, media organizations finally responded. Working journalists, quite naturally, have focused on the least important aspect of the digital revolution — the tools and the technology. But the real change, the change that presents the biggest challenge to the media and the greatest opportunity for democracy, has almost nothing to do with code and everything to do with community and communication.

During this sea change, some, like Ted Turner, predicted the death of print. He was wrong. And today, pundits who predict that newspapers will “die within the next 20 years” are probably wrong as well. But all the debate about what media will survive or not really misses the point. While we ponder whether young people are reading newspapers (they aren’t, or at least, fewer and fewer are), an enormous shift has taken place in society, a shift that will, I think, affect every aspect of what journalists do.

The real challenge is whether journalists can learn whole new ways of finding, researching, telling and sharing stories in an increasingly wired world. People are sharing their stories without us. The Internet has allowed conversations among human beings that were simply not possible 10 years ago.

People are e-mailing, instant messaging, blogging, podcasting and text-messaging each other all day. What was once a communication of one or few to many — the broadcast model — has become many to many. There are a lot of conversations going on and we have to be part of them.
Today, millions and millions of people have their own weblogs or blogs (usually simple, one-person online journal sites that update daily)., a site about blogging, tracks more than 32 million sites.

Throw in tens or even hundreds of thousands of small websites and message boards and you have a virtual revolution in communication on the planet that has, for the most part, bypassed the mainstream media.

This usurping of the traditional role of the journalist and the media outlet is challenging long-held beliefs and accepted norms. But, whether we like it or not, millions of people are posting our stories, linking from them, and providing commentary and criticism about them. And today, people can go directly to the sources of news. Newsrooms that are not transparent and that do not encourage interactivity run the risk of becoming irrelevant to many people.

I believe that these changes do not, as some would suggest, make professional journalism obsolete. Rather, I think the role of the trained journalist who can think, research and write well is more crucial than it has ever been. Journalists must think more deeply, research more widely, communicate more extensively, be more open and accessible, more creative, and perhaps, more humble.

Journalists and those who teach future journalists must immerse themselves today in what feels like tomorrow’s world, exploring new ways to listen to great stories and to tell great stories.

The challenge is clear: People across this country are engaging in a large and ever-growing conversation. We can use our traditional skills and develop some new ones to help us understand and join the conversation – or we can be left behind.