It is a great privilege to be asked to be a visiting professor to University College Falmouth, and I would like to thank Geoffrey Smith, Paul Inman and the faculty for bestowing this honour on me, and I really look forward to being involved in the life of the college and helping in whatever ways I can. I look forward to visiting a beautiful place I’ve been visiting since I was 3 more often – and most of all I look forward to pontificating in front of a captive audience.
For my first talk, I thought I would address the subject of the future of journalism, not because I can tell you what it is but because, a bit like the feature in the front of Heat magazine, it is the thing which ‘everybody is talking about’.
First though I wanted to give you a bit of background about me. I have been working for either the Observer or the Guardian for the past 20 years, mostly covering media from a business angle, and for the last decade I’ve been involved in running the Guardian’s websites, I do some media commentary stuff, which is easy as my day job does involve examining the entrails of the industry and trying to guess what might happen next, the scary bit though is then persuading the company to spend money on it.
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Ian Jack wrote a piece for the Guardian at the weekend, which is a little bit like Clay Shirky’s “everything is broken” piece though less well projected. I think this piece on the rise of the gifted amateur (again, echoing Clay’s by now fairly ancient essay on the fame vs fortune model) is a significant piece, in particular this conclusion about educating creative writers and journalists in a “dying craft”:
‘A great paradox of the age is that while newspapers continue their inexorable decline and publishing cuts its costs, journalism and creative writing degrees have never been more popular…
…Why do young people apply? Because they think they can be the next Zadie Smith. Why do universities encourage them? Because money can be made from fees. Is this responsible behaviour? We need to weigh the smashed hopes of creative writers against the financial needs of their tutors, who are themselves writers, and earning the kind of money that writing would never supply. A closed little dance: tutors teach students who in turn teach other students, like silversmiths in a medieval guild where a bangle is rarely bought though many are crafted, and everyone lives in a previous world.’
This is a very good and thought provoking piece and I know nothing about the employability or commercial viability of writers, which Jack talks eloquently about. He could be right, but I feel it bears a weight of discouraging pessimism which could be overdone. He is right if for instance journalism courses do not adapt to the future rather than reflect the past, their courses will not be worth taking. But as a counterpoint I was struck by the students in Falmouth, where I gave a talk this week, who were engaged in highly entrepreneurial activities, some setting up their own sites and businesses, one impressively training journalists at ground level in Iraq in basic multimedia skills. I’m sure there are dozens of examples of similar thinking among the trained ‘digital natives’, they won’t save the old business model but they can create their own.