It’s small, light, has many tools and can be used in a variety of different situations. The Swiss Army Knife has been around for more than a century and has been used as an analogy to describe a product or tool that is handy, multi-purpose and gets the job done. In today’s brave new world of the internet and social media, it could perhaps also be used to describe a new brand of journalist.
Before the advent of the world wide web, reporters and photographers could not do their job without editors, publishers or broadcasters. They were one “business unit” that developed a product for readers and viewers. Today, journalists still require publishing platforms to create their work and share it with the public.
But as technology reduces the cost of many reporting and publishing tools, each journalist has become their own “business unit”. He or she can carry out one or more of these tasks: write copy, take photos, record audio, shoot video, moderate comments, collect statistics and build databases. And edit and publish.
Like a Swiss Army Knife, today’s journalist has all these skills handy.
Not all these journalists would have traditional social science and humanities degrees. Some may have come from the world of technology – Columbia University has a dual degree masters in journalism and computer science – and as database journalists, be equipped to tackle the technical side of new dynamic storytelling tools. Communications is now a natural alternative to traditional writing-based courses.
The Guardian newspaper has been a leader in this respect, tapping into the database-building skills of developers to, for example, map every single death reported in WikiLeaks’ Iraq War logs release, while making much of the data available online in spreadsheets, so that readers themselves can work on it.
The ultimate goal was, is and still should be about producing quality journalism. A story can be told through many different mediums, but it still has to be a compelling one. The tools used by the Swiss Army Knife journalist will only be as effective as the creativity and ability of the person harnessing them. As industry leaders search for and experiment with developing future profit models, being aware of and understanding the new tools can help us to be prepared for what comes.
Reactions from Established Journalists
The digital revolution remains both exciting and full of trepidation for people in the industry. All the available evidence suggests that journalists are embracing new ways of working with enthusiasm and skill. They have to – digital technologies are changing the ways things are done, as clear from significant job losses in what was formerly known as mainstream media.
Alliance Australia conducted a 2010 survey of its members in workplaces around the country about their jobs, their workplaces and their hopes for the future of the news industry. There were 1669 respondents – full-time, casual and freelance, ranging from editors and managers to reporters, production staff, digital and online staff, photographers and artists.
Journalists are becoming more comfortable with the new tools and technology being introduced in newsrooms and are quite excited at the prospects offered by the development of new platforms, including social media channels.
Journalists were asked how they felt about their career prospects and 47 per cent said they were either “positive” or “very positive” while only 32 per cent said they were negative.
When asked about the future of journalism this air of optimism was even more pronounced, with 53 per cent answering that they felt either “positive” or “very positive” and only 23 per cent saying they felt “negative” (including just 3 per cent who felt “very negative”).
The overwhelming message through the survey is that most journalists are increasingly aware of the possibilities presented by online and multimedia journalism. They are concerned at what they perceive as a lack of training which may not allow them to take full advantage of those possibilities.
Optimism and Pessimism in the Newsroom
Senior journalists and editors were asked “do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future of journalism?” Here is a selection of their answers.
I’m optimistic about the potential to sell and disseminate the written word, writing. But I’m not optimistic about it being sold on pulped-up trees and distributed on trucks. I think that’s going to change rapidly. (Deputy editor)
I’m a little bit pessimistic. I don’t see a lot of the creative thinking that [is needed] to drive that metamorphosis. I think people are looking at the business model. I think people are looking at how they restructure to keep the advertisers happy, but not the journalists happy. (Reporter)
The pessimism comes in because of the technology … no-one really knows how far it’s going to go. So, I think that makes a lot of people pessimistic. We wouldn’t have thought 10 years ago we would be where we are now. (Sub-editor)
I think that increasingly the internet appears to be an opportunity rather than a competition and while folding bits of paper … might disappear within the foreseeable future, we’ll still be doing journalism, and we may even be doing more and better journalism and finding new and different ways of doing it. (Senior reporter)
You’d be a Luddite to be against technological change, so I’m optimistic in that sense. But I’m concerned, of course, about the celebrification of news… (Reporter)
I’m optimistic about the future of journalism, and pessimistic about the future of newspapers. (Sports journalist)
In some ways, I’m optimistic and in some ways, I’m pessimistic. I think there will always be a place for good quality journalism. But it is difficult to envisage how the industry will have to change… (Sub-editor)
I feel optimistic generally … because there’s always a market for news and for telling people stuff that they don’t know or that they need to know and [which] wasn’t going to come out in any other fashion. (Investigative reporter)
Many argued that the development of cross-media skills deserved to be recognised and rewarded: “Photography/video should be separate skill sets attracting bonus pay,” wrote one reporter.
“Technology has moved on so far since we negotiated a technology increase years ago,” was another comment which reflected the sentiment of many respondents working for mainstream media organisations.