Jeff Jarvis on the Future of Journalism

15 years ago you’d need a paper to read this piece. But today, it’s a computer, tablet or smartphone. Who knows what’s next?

by Deniz Ergürel

In order to take a glimpse at the future of journalism, I talked to Jeff Jarvis. One of the 100 most influential media leaders by the World Economic Forum at Davos and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. With Jeff, we discussed about entrepreneurial journalism, wearable computers and the internet censorship while he was in Istanbul for the eighth Digital Age Summit.

Why do we need entrepreneurs in journalism?

For a few reasons. One is, by entrepreneurship journalists can feed themselves and earn a living. Two is, so that we can reinvent journalism. We have entrepreneurship in all kinds of other fields, there’s nothing that says journalism should stay the same as it’s been for hundreds of years.

Why should we reinvent journalism?

Because we can. Because there are new opportunities.

As a way to reach the public, all we had was the press for many years. We couldn’t be an entrepreneur journalist before, because we had to have a lot of money to buy the office, the truck and everything. Now, thanks to the platforms online we can start a journalistic business with almost nothing.

In the US, I care a lot about what we call hyper-local journalism. You can start covering a town of 50–60 thousand people and earn 250 thousands dollar per year with advertising and events revenue. They can support journalism in a way that big newspapers never could. Big newspapers don’t have a journalist in every town. These are new opportunities to create journalism in new ways. There are things like Vox Media, FiveThirtyEight in US that specialize in new forms of journalism.

What do these new comers do that the big newspapers don’t?

They don’t cover all the latest news. They try to be the places people come to when they want to understand a story better. Journalism can specialize now. “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” That’s what they do.

What does social journalism mean?

Social journalism is a new degree that starts with the community instead of the content. When we write a story, we hope that the public will read. But instead what we should be doing is to go the community and ask them “what do they really need to improve their lives and communities?”

How are we going to discover what readers want? By surveys?

We must start by having conversations. It could be people who live in New York, who have cancer or who like football. Just understand those people, talk to them and be part of their community.

I tell the students go find a community that already exists, have a conversation and add journalism to that. Maybe you’re going to correct an error or answer a question. The internet allows communities to share what they know, without us (journalists). We don’t have to add journalism to those conversations.

What does blog mean to you?

Blog is a conversation, link makes a conversation. But some people think that blog means to be mean and nasty. I don’t agree with that.

In an age where everyone becomes a potential producer is the journalism more difficult than before?

If you’re a big institution it’s harder. But if you’re an entrepreneur it’s a lot easier. You can be independent, create your own brand, your own value, support yourself. When I came through the school the only choice was to go and work for the publisher. Now students can start their own sites. In the long run it’s going to be much easier.

If you were a legacy media executive today, what would be your strategy to implement innovation in the newsroom?

I think the number one strategy would be to decide if the innovation will happen inside or outside the newsroom. You gotta give freedom to people to “destroy yourself”. Number two is to set a goal and make paper a by-product. You gotta set a timetable by which the company can become a sustainable, profitable, fully digital enterprise. You have to do that before print becomes unprofitable.

Print product has to become a by-product. It no longer is the center of the entire enterprise. Whereas right now, our entire operation, culture, job titles, resources are all about making the print product. Because we say that’s where all the money is. But we know that the money is going away. So we have to take some brave steps and force staff the readers and the advertisers into digital. Because that’s where it’s going to go.

And number three is to train the staff. Give them opportunities to learn new skills. If you take away the fear and show them the ways to do their journalism better, they do.

What do you think about the leaked New York Times Innovation report?

I think it’s important. Some people are criticizing but New York Times is a big, powerful, institution. It’s going to take time to come to some conclusions, but they’re trying and it’s important.

You can’t wait another 5 years to try changing these things. You have to get them right now. European media companies have an advantage because the disruption to American media companies came earlier. We haven’t solved anything. They can learn from our mistakes.

Is it possible for a digital company to be as profitable as a big legacy media company?

I think it’s possible but it’s going to be smaller. You can’t be a monopoly anymore. You are not going to be one of the few companies. You definitely have to be smaller. But the good news is you will be more efficient and find profitability quicker.

What do you mean by the term “journalism is a service”?

We think journalism is about making content, but it’s not! Journalism is a service.

Services accomplish things for people. You call a plumber to fix the leak and the leak gets fixed, that’s a service. Journalism is a service because it helps people accomplish what they want to accomplish. And that changes the definition of success. We have to judge our success whether we help people to improve their lives or not.

Could we say that the problem of the media today is not only to be digital but to lose the sense of being a service?

Well said… A newspaper is a daily miracle, it’s phenomenal. But we got so wired to the process that we started to define ourselves with the process itself. If we find our value for our users, our public (whatever you want to call) than the process will not matter. Content is a tool we have. But it’s not the only tool.

How can wearable computers affect journalism?

I have Google Glass, it feels awkward but it has a potential. It lets you record and share what you see, lets you get instructions and updates. And there are also sensors that tells you the altitude or the distance that you have walked. Those are the functions that will exist in some form, maybe not in the form of Glass. We’re starting to see the first examples. The idea that witnesses can share what they witness as it happens will have a huge impact on journalism.

What is your opinion on the NSA scandal and the rising privacy concerns of individuals?

As a American citizen, I am sorry for what NSA has done. Governments state themselves as guardians of privacy, in fact they are the real threat. Companies like Google or Facebook don’t own an army, police, tear gas, or prison but governments do. We must be concerned about the governments more, and we need to regulate them more.

What about the internet bans in Turkey?

Governments think the internet as a type of media, however it’s not! They think they can control the internet just as they can control the media, but it’s not possible. Internet is a public square where every kind of people talk to each other, internet is a living space. Bans against the internet not only destroy the freedom of expression but the economy and innovation too. For instance, there are American entrepreneurs that build a business on YouTube, they will not be able to do this in Turkey. If you don’t allow people to speak freely on the internet, they’ll find other places to talk, and this might not be a quite talk. Just like the Istanbul Taksim protests in 2013.


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