New journalism: The odd or the offbeat is often where the important news is buried these days.

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As it happens, I’m on my way to the Reuters Institute at Oxford to join a small round table workshop on the Future of Journalistic Work, with the general idea of helping the Institute to “scope issues related to the shifts emerging in journalistic work and employment”.

And as it also happens, Lyra McKee has blogged this morning on her own crowdsourced attempt to do some depth journalism on the story of the Reverend Robert Bradford in the last few days of his life before he was killed back in 1981.

So far she’s had 68 of the 200 backers she needs to complete the project (there’s no trigger if she cannot reach that magic figure) which comes to a total of $2800.

More interestingly for me she describes why this and other similar projects are important in a journalistic world in which investigative arcs are now more often hours or days rather than weeks old, and where investment and risk have been almost completely ironed out of the system:

One established journalist was concerned that by launching the campaign and going direct to my readers, I was failing to “pay my dues”, skipping the induction process whereby young journalists learn the craft: starting on a weekly newspaper, covering the courts and working their way up the ladder.

It was an interesting point (though not quite accurate; I spent five years learning the trade through prolonged work experience placements and eventually freelance assignments). Still, it intrigued me because the ladder she speaks of is broken.

The belief that you’ll find a job by “paying your dues” is a myth which originated in a pre-Internet world – when it was true. It was a lie I and other young journalists were told as we trundled through months-long work placements without pay, racking up debts we couldn’t afford because we believed a job and stable pay awaited us at the end.

Journalism – or rather, the news organisations that produce it – is in turmoil. Reporters are being laid off every day, budgets are being cut and investigative journalism has all but been driven from the newsroom. The weekly newspapers today’s veteran journalists cut their teeth at are closing down and job opportunities have dried up.

A friend remarked recently how the local crop of adversarial, hungry young journalists are struggling to find work. Every time a job comes up, they’re competing with older, more experienced journalists who are also out of work, meaning they don’t stand a chance. And without budgets to fund investigations, newsrooms are loathe to hire them anyways. ‘Rocking the boat’ costs too much money.

“Rocking the boat”, I suspect, was never that big on the journalist’s agenda, particularly if not exactly to the proprietor’s taste. In any case, rocking it has more often been a case of cumulative work rather than going for it in one steady hit.

Too many journalists still hunt in packs and so end up producing what Hugo Dixon calls ‘Me Too’ journalism. In the close confines of Northern Ireland this can lead to political pressures to conform (by not asking stupid questions) for the sake of our increasingly geriatric Peace Process™.

But the not asking of stupid questions can lead to a collusive stupidity taking hold. We can see this in corporate governance failures the world over. Whistleblowers are hunted to within an inch of their lives (often consuming large amounts of legal resources) for disturbing the comfort of the way things are done.

In the Republic Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe has just had the first of several whistleblowing reports vindicated by a Garda Inspectorate’s report [kudos to Mick Clifford btw] which suggests there is virtually no policy framework regulating the award of penalty points to drivers. The odd or the offbeat is often where the important news is buried these days.

Scott Page argues that if you curate for differences in how people think within any given group you can consistently outperform homogeneous expertise (f/e see how our understanding of ‘impregnation’ has evolved once women biologists got involved with developing the science).

I don’t know what Lyra’s project will change. But in a world of official process, and bumptious complains about ‘jumping queues’, she’s ‘man’ enough to chart her own course and ask her own set of stupid (ie, unauthorised) questions. And we may be the beneficiaries.

You can pledge your support for Lyra’s project here (and spread the word)! Or if you want to meet for a few early St Paddy’s day pints in Oxford, you can join a few of us at the Eagle and Child this afternoon.

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  • David Crookes

    Yes. The journalistic railroad has arrived, and yet the old buffers still want young uns to serve their apprenticeship as ostlers, touching their forelocks to the quality as they change the horses on a coach.

    The same thing has happened in the academic world, and the old buffers can’t cope with it. Two years ago I was presenting at an academic conference in Amsterdam. At the same time, in a different room, another presenter was giving a lecture entitled “e-publish or die.”

    In the journalistic and academic worlds, the old buffers affect to despise sources of information which are available on the internet. They mutter about ‘dubious quality’. That is stupid. A real musician should be able to tell good music from bad music. A real scholar should be able to tell good scholarship from bad scholarship. And a good journalist should be able to tell good information from bad information.

    It was a truism of intelligence work in the pre-internet world that 80% of all information could be obtained from publicly available sources. What would the figure be today? Canutesque academics on the web try to hold back the tide by charging you £25 to read one four-page journal-article, but in twenty years’ time every book and periodical that has ever been published may be available for all to read without charge on the web. Of course we’ll have to do something about the quality of scanning, especially where very old books are concerned. But a glance back at the last two decades should make us all hopeful for the future.

    In journalistic terms 1984 was closer to 1884 than it is to the present. Here’s one example of what I mean. Nowadays it is possible to get right into an important person’s study, and to conduct an informative conversation with that person, if you know his or her email address.

    Of course a journalist still needs to have the intellectual tools of the trade: the pertinent forms of literacy, a dispassionate critical faculty, plus a thorough-going experience of the blood and guts of real life. ( “Out and about” will always be a major part of the job.) But the old world is gone.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I had a quick look at Lyra’s crowd-sourcing request. Articulate and well filmed but she needs to give me a bit more before I’ll part with cash. So you’re investigating rumours – what were they, or even what rough topic are we talking about here. So I wound have no idea whether I’m funding something on the crackpot conspiracy theorist side, or something of genuine historic or political value. Sorry, I sound like that hard-bitten editor in the first series of House of Cards now …

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    ” Reporters are being laid off every day, budgets are being cut and investigative journalism has all but been driven from the newsroom. The weekly newspapers today’s veteran journalists cut their teeth at are closing down and job opportunities have dried up.”

    @Mick,

    I recently did a journalism degree because I had free tuition and regretted not having done one in the early 1990s instead of business school. I knew that the industry was in trouble, but I was hoping that it would improve by the time I graduated or slightly afterwards. If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t, although I still regret not having done it over twenty years ago when the end of the Cold War ruined my job prospects.

  • belfast reporter 92

    This is very much just one person’s experience.

    The sentiment that old-style journalists will become a thing of the past is just wrong and this smacks of just total bitterness.

    I have worked in weeklies, the dailies, radio and TV – some would say I “have paid my dues” – I would say I have still a long way to go.

    But my point is that “paying your dues” is not about going through the motions until you hit the big time, it is about learning how to report.

    I toiled for years, forever thinking that I would be forever a weekly newspaper journalist and then I got a call asking me to come try out for a daily and from there it went on.

    Anyone that thinks they have to go through the weeklies to get to the top will fail. You go through the weeklies to cut your teeth and become the best.

    From how to write to building contacts to understanding how courts and council work.

    But more importantly – to what constitutes actual news and asking the right questions and learning from experience and the multiple mistakes you will make.

    You know what, there is so much to learn and it is a job you keep on learning on.

    I understand it is hard to get a job it is hard to get a job today in any industry and there are people laid off trying to get in at any level.

    And if you want a job that a lot of other people want to do, then a bit of luck comes into it, but hard work will prevail.

    I know I am lucky to work in a job I wanted to do as a kid and that I am recognised for the work I do.

    And I know there are senior journalists out there working for free in certain positions in some news organisations – but they are not going for entry level positions.

    But believe me, everyone I have come across in the past 10 years that is determined to learn and work hard to get to where they want to be – is there now or on their way.

    It’s not a perfect industry and there are those that are there bluffing it, but the cream rises to the top – always.

    And in 10 years time those journalists that people will be talking about are those that have “paid their dues”.

    So very good Lyra, you are pursuing what you want to do.

    I honestly do wish you well in project. I would have contributed if there was more detail about what you were actually doing.

    But Mick and Lyra, if you think old-style reporters are a thing of the past, think again.

    Tell me that the Bel Tel and the Irish News do NOT frame the day’s news agenda because – in the main – they do.

    In 20 years time, if the bloggers win out and take over – as this piece clearly hints that they will – then all we will have in terms of news coverage, is people commenting on things that everyone already knows about and adding nothing NEW.

    Those journalists that have “paid their dues” will be the ones providing the news.

    So do me a favour – please – go and do your thing and break news – but have a bit of respect for those who do it for a proper news organisation!

    It’s great that you have Twitter and Slugger to sell your wares, but just please lose the bitterness about how proper journalists get paid (a pittance) to do what you obviously think you could do better.

  • Mick Fealty

    BR92,

    I don’t disagree with much of that. Although I don’t like having attitudes ascribed to me that are misleading or inaccurate. I’ve written a lot about the changes in journalism over the years, and in none that I recall have I predicted the end of professional journalism.

    Rather I have presumed all along that we are in the midst of the kind of paradigm shift outlined by Thomas Kuhn in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ in which the lifting of old restrictions unleash the number and range of admissible solutions to the delivery of ‘journalism’.

    There were lots of good ideas bandied about on Friday, not least from Aidan White (a native of Derry and former Secretary General of the International Federation of Journalists), who suggested that we need clarity on what constitutes an ‘act of journalism’ and what doesn’t.

    Generally I think you are right in the sense that a lot of new entrants are dealing with the trade as they find it, not harping back to what may or may not have been lost, and getting on with new ways of delivering news. Perhaps (because so many influential old timers are plunging out of the trade) too much attention is paid to the deficit rather than the opportunities.

    There was a very useful discussion opened by John Oliver of Bournemouth University over defining the differences between ‘work’ the stuff you do to make journalism happen, and ‘labour’ that which is of economic value and which you sell to your employer. I think this is worth pursuing somehow.

    Certainly in my own consultancy work, I think the opportunity has to be found somewhere in moving towards increasing the skillsets and the quality of outputs, not just increasing non chargeable work rates for the sake being seen to be ‘active’ or ‘engaged’.

  • sean treacy

    A sympathetic story on Rev Robert Bradford could hardly be described as “rocking the boat “.