"Journalism's challenge is to cut through the noise in a world where there are so many voices"
Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, who took up his post as Director of the Reuters Institute, on the 1st October, 2018, reflects on the challenges faced by journalists in the 21st century and how he believes the Institute can work to support and strengthen journalism.
Five questions about the future of journalism and the role the Reuters Institute can play to help strengthen journalism at a time of "tumultuous change and huge challenges."
Q: What is your vision for the Reuters Institute?
A: The question as I see it is this. We all know that journalism today face a period of tumultuous change and huge challenges, but also great opportunities. I think the role for us at the Reuters Institute is to think about how we can ensure that journalists all over the world can face these challenges and opportunities from a position of strength.
How can they learn from each other? How can they learn from news organisations that sometimes they've never heard of, that are from far away places? How can they learn from things that happen outside the news industry, in other professions or in other fields of human practice that they can learn from and benefit from? How can they learn from research, the research that we do here at the Reuters Institute, but also the research done by other people studying journalism and news, or other people studying entirely different things.
How can we play this role, if you will, as both the facilitators of conversation, the profession about itself and the industry about itself, and all the different stakeholders that care about journalism and its role in society? How can we make sure that our voice rings clear in that, and contribute to the conversation about, not the journalism that we had, but the journalism that we want to have in the 21st century?
Q: What are the most pressing areas where research is needed about journalism and the news industries today?
A: Journalism has a lot to be proud of from the 20th century and before, but there's something very fundamental that has changed. We used to live in a world in which information was relatively scarce. Today, we live in a world in which information is incredibly abundant. I think the challenge for journalism as a profession, in terms of its social role, in terms of informing the public, in terms of holding power to account, in terms of empowering people to be who they want to be and live the life they want to be, and connect with other people in their community and beyond, in terms of the business that sustains journalism, constrains it too in some ways, but ultimately is the precondition for professional journalism and all the different institutions that enable journalism. The fundamental question there, I think, is if we move from a world in which the value of journalism was the provision of information, to a world in which the value of journalism is to ensure that people are informed, how to develop professional practices that ensure that?
How do we develop business models that ensure that [model of journalism] is sustainable, [and] that is something that people can do for a living - that companies would want to survive and to support? How do we ensure an enabling environment where all sorts of other actors, non-profits, governments, and other actors in society can empower journalists to do this incredibly important work that is, in some sense, the same as in the 20th century - to find truth and report it, but in other ways [is] completely different, because the challenge now is not to just report something and bear witness to it, but to cut through the noise of a world in which there is so many voices and so many different pieces of information out there that journalism [needs] to think in a completely different way about in the way in which it pursues its mission.
Q: What do we urgently need to know that we don't?
A: I think a central challenge today is the question of how journalism creates value for citizens, and how it can demonstrate a public value that citizens and the wider society recognise. Journalism is facing a lot of challenges right now. Some of these challenges will never go away, but there are many of these challenges that would be easier to face if it was clearer for individual citizens and for society as a whole that journalism is as valuable as I think it is, but I'm not the one we have to convince. I believe in journalism, with all its many imperfections, could be important and a powerful and benign force in society.
The question is, how do journalists demonstrate that they, in fact, make the world a better place for other people? How do citizens see the value of journalism demonstrated in societies? How do citizens see this as something that makes the world a better place, make their lives a better place? How, in turn, can we make sure that the organisations that fund journalism - often private enterprise - can capture some of that value and build sustainable business models that enable journalists to do their work, and also face all the many different actors that wishes journalism ill?
Journalism's under incredible pressure from some governments, from some politicians, from some groups in society that don't believe in the power of free media or the roles of free media in societies. If journalism is to confront those forces, it has to do it from a position of strength, where the public believes in the value of journalism.
Q: How effective has academic research been in speaking to the problems journalists and publishers face?
A: Academics and journalists are incredibly different in many important ways, but they also have something really important in common, which is that their first commitment is to the best obtainable version of the truth, and that they know that truth is a tricky challenge to take on, this question of how do you find out what is actually the case.
I think it's clear that, for all its many virtues, modern academia - and I'm a very proud member of that profession - has sometimes turned inwards in this conversation about what is going on in the world, what do we know about the world. Sometimes that inwards turn has been a barrier to making sure that all the really interesting and important things that academics have found out are made accessible and relevant and useful for people in the world, journalists, media executives, policy makers, and members of the public, who are thinking about the society in which they live, and are making decisions about what kind of society they want to live in in the future.
I think one thing we can do here at the Reuters Institute is to make sure that we draw on the best traditions of contemporary academic life, in terms of trying to produce reliable, robust, precise knowledge, but also that we are committed to connecting this knowledge, our knowledge, but also the knowledge produced by many other researchers around the world to the pressing and present problems and issues and opportunities faced by journalists and news media around the world.
I see us, if you will, as a thriving trading zone, a bazaar, where we do our own work here to make it useful and relevant for journalists around the world, but we also do a lot of work to try to bring in all the different contributions made by other academics, and many others, journalists, media executives, and many others around the world that can help journalists think about their profession and the future of news.
Q: Tell me how you think the Journalist Fellowship Programme here at the Reuters Institute fits into the Reuters Institute's overall mission for the future.
A. I think if we were to describe most journalists with just a single word, the one word that might spring to mind is busy. It's a real luxury to be able to reflect on what it is you do, what it means for the world, and how you might do it differently and perhaps in better ways in the future.
The Journalism Fellowship Programme is at the absolute heart of the Reuters Institute mission of connecting practice and research, and helping journalists from all over the world be the kinds of journalists they aspire to be, do the kind of journalism that they want to do, and help their societies be the best that they can be. It's a unique opportunity for them to come to Oxford for a prolonged period of time, to think about their work, to learn from other journalists, to connect with researchers here in Oxford, but also beyond, to connect with members of the industry in London and elsewhere and learn from that. That's absolutely at the heart of the Institute and what we do. I look froward to welcoming hundreds of journalists to the Institute in the future on this fellowship programme.