Emily Bell upbeat on the many futures of journalism

Emily Bell, professor of Professional Practice and Director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, kicked off the Future of Journalism conference discussing the many futures of journalism.

Talking about how we have viewed the profession, Bell argued that journalism is becoming less defined by the businesses that support it than by the activities it involves.

She made the good point that arguing who is a journalist these days is futile. Instead she paraphrased Warhol saying in the future everyone will be a journalist for 15 minutes.

Looking ahead, she said journalism has many futures – as a business, as a profession, as a process – and we are only at the start.

She recapped how some of the previous arguments about journalism tended to frame the future negatively, such as a future dominated by the “hamster wheel” of live coverage and technologists.

Bell argued we tended to see disruption and technology as a bad thing. But in her view, these factors favour good journalism.

“It feels like journalism has been in defence mode for a long time and is now breaking out of its boundaries,” she said, suggesting journalism can learn from other disciplines.

For her, the future of journalism is about understanding technologies and the platforms that support it.

Talking about her journalism students who use technology in their reporting, Bell argued that how to tell stories best is no longer in the hands of technologists, but in the hands of journalists.

She suggested that one emerging core skill is how to make the best of collaboration between journalists, technologists and beyond.

Another idea she contested is that instant journalism is bad journalism. Instead she said the social, real-time web and proliferation of mobile devices had been one of the galvanising elements in journalism.

“Live journalism isn’t hamster journalism,” she insisted.

The live stream of journalism, the use of free tools and the involvement of people who are not journalists per se, is making journalism better, she argued.

Her most controversial point was about the funding of journalism. In her view, revenues and profits did not equate with good journalism.

Now, she said, the primary focus of those involved in journalism is sustainability.

She quoted the example of the Journal Register company with its focus on experimenting with digital, open approaches to journalism. But, she continued, there is uncertainty about whether the experimentation will work.

She also cited ProPublica as an example of what can be done when we go beyond the way we have traditionally thought of journalism.

“There is no clear answer to what a news organisation will look like in five year’s time,” said Bell. “The future of journalism is there to be defined, we have all the right conditions.”

She concluded by insisting that we have a collective capacity to make this all work, but this can only be done by looking outwards and looking at other disciplines.