The BBC’s business editor is an unlikely model for the journalist of the 21st century. But Robert Peston has emerged as a prime example of how journalism is practiced in a digital age.
His Dunn Memorial Lecture, given at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, offers insights into how the role of the journalist is changing.
In the speech, he outlined how the work of the journalist had changed, arguing that “the traditional distinctions between television journalists, radio journalists and print journalists are quite close to being obsolete.”
This is particularly relevant at a time when “it is increasingly clear that much of the audience doesn’t care whether they receive their information via the blog, some other internet channel, the TV, newspapers or radio.” A BBC survey on where Brits were getting their news about the economy found that 84% turned to TV, but 53% went online. Newspapers were just behind at 52% and radio last at 37%.
Peston recalls how when he started in journalism, he would write one or two stories a week on a clunky mechanical typewriter. Now “hacks like me increasingly have to become total journalists”. On a typical day, he will write five or six blog posts, broadcast on the Today morning radio show and the 10 O’Clock evening news, and up to 20 or so other channels and programmes in between.
Certainly my strong advice to any young person thinking of becoming a journalist is to acquire all the skills, don’t think of themselves as wanting to be broadcast journalists, or radio journalists or print journalists: increasingly it’s all the same thing. What matters is what has always mattered – the facts, the story. The skill for a journalist is unearthing information that matters to people and then communicating it as clearly, accurately – and if possible as entertainingly – as possible.
The implications of “my own indifference to how I communicate a story, whether by video, audio or in writing” means that his competition is no longer just other broadcasters. It is newspapers such as the Telegraph or the FT in the UK, as well as non-UK news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
As well as working across platforms, Peston is also an example of how the practice of journalism is changing. He has a very popular blog called Peston’s Picks that has become central to his work:
For me, the blog is at the core of everything I do, it is the bedrock of my output. The discipline of doing it shapes my thoughts. It disseminates to a wider world the stories and themes that I think matter. But it also spreads the word within the BBC – which is no coincidence, because it started life as an internal email for editors and staff. It gives me unlimited space to publish the kind of detail on an important story that I can’t get into a three minute two-way on Today or a two-minutes-forty-seconds package on the Ten O’Clock News.
The participatory potential of the blog format is important to Peston, though my research has found that the BBC hasn’t quite tapped into this as much as it could:
It connects me to the audience in a very important way. The comments left by readers contain useful insights – and they help me understand what really matters to people. That is not to say that I give them only what they want. I retain an old-fashioned view that in the end the licence fee pays for my putative skills in making judgements about what matters. Most important of all, the blog allows me and the BBC to own a big story and create a community of interested people around it. Sharing information – some of it hugely important, some of it less so – with a big and interested audience delivers that ownership and creates that committed community.
The wide-ranging speech is well worth reading.