Ivor Shapiro’s closing remarks at the Journalism Transformations colloquium at Ryerson University on April 28, 2016.

Ivor Shapiro is the Chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism. This is a lightly edited version of his remarks delivered at the end of the Journalism Transformations colloquium at Ryerson University on April 28, 2016.

By Ivor Shapiro

The Audience Revolution” was the title of the plenary that opened this day-long colloquium. Recast from a label to include a verb, that translates to: “The audience is revolting.”

Which reminds me of a story from my distant past.

I once worked at a mass-circulation magazine where it was common for some frustrated feature editors to disparage our readers with snide remarks about their shallowness in intellect and tastes. This changed when  an editor made the mistake of saying something snide about our readers in a public place, and was fired for it. For our editor-in-chief and our publisher, our readers were supposed to be worshipped, not disdained, and if we didn’t love them, live to serve their needs and wants, well, we should work somewhere else.

This may seem extreme but respect for customers, the principle of customer satisfaction, is not a weird idea regarding the employment conditions of people whose paycheques come from serving an audience.

For journalists, this principle of customer satisfaction and the ethic of customer service is nuanced by another, equally important, ethic – that of public service – but the problem of “a culture of disdain for our audiences,” as Jennifer Brandel wrote on Medium last week, is not uncommon in the news business. This tradition is challenged mightily by the current crisis of profitability, and the tools for measuring audience interests minute by minute. And that’s a good thing. The audience, revolting or not, has a choice as to its news diet, and it turns out that the audience is not so happy with the menu that has been offered up traditionally.

A time for knowing nothing

Some might think that the audience revolution is itself, well, revolting, and some think the opposite, but no one can seriously think the revolution reversible. This is the golden age of audience power, and, not coincidentally, it is a dark time for news organizations that seem still stuck in a time when journalists called the shots about audience interest, a dark time when journalists’ news sense amounted to, “X is not news; Y is news; this is what we’re going to play and how we’re going to play it because we know what audiences need and want and we know that we know it because, well, we just know it.”

This kind of knowledge-claim no longer rings true because data about audience preferences (not data about their aspirations or beliefs or assertions, like the data of yesterday, but about their active choices) is becoming available and to ignore has come to be seen as simply stupid. And here’s another type of knowledge-claim that has come to seem pretty stupid: the claim to know where audiences are headed in the near future. The truth, is we don’t know nuthin’ yet, and when publishers suggest they know what the future holds, we take it with a grain of salt because it’s pretty evident that they mostly only believe they know, and they believe much of it because, well, they believe they must believe it.

For the record, in case it’s not obvious, I don’t know nuthin’, either. For example, I happen to think that news organizations fall into two groups: those that are going to be utterly transformed in the next few years, and those that will die for lack of transformation. I also happen to think that news is going to be delivered (whether at community, regional, national or international level), under dramatically different business and organizational models than today’s. I think all this, but I don’t know it.

On the other hand, I do know that conventional wisdom about the future proves right no more than 50 percent of the time, give or take 50 percentage points.

It seems a fairly safe bet that people’s need for information they can trust about current events is going to continue be met, but it will be met differently than in the past. The degree of difference will surely continue to grow, but there is no clear consensus emerging yet of how differently it will all wind up, or how people are going to make money at it.

Societies are going to find new ways to value the news, and that may include societies engaging with the business of news from a public-policy position, rather than just a matter of individual choices and business choices and market choices.

Meanwhile, and for a little while yet, publishers will continue to engage in guessing about tomorrow’s news-consumption habits and news-dissemination solutions, unless they choose to do nothing, which, obviously, is not an option.

A time to understand audiences

This day at Ryerson, a day of unprecedented knowledge-sharing across the worlds of scholarship and practice in Canada and beyond, focused our attention on some of the reasons why audiences, revolting or not, are and must be at the centre of our understanding of journalism and the news business.

It started with our morning plenary on the “audience revolution.”

Philip Napoli reminded us of a long history of unease among news producers about the relationship with news audiences, going back decades, a history that finally has, perhaps belatedly, led to the currently ongoing “recalibration of journalistic authority and autonomy.” The next question, as he put it. Is how to “do it well… how to connect to audiences without losing sight of the core news values that contribute to the fundamental purposes of journalism.”  He helped us explore answers through sharing highlights from his research with local-news audiences including their ambivalent sense of self-reliance as consumers and participants in public information.

Then, Alex Watson showed us that the biggest single thing today’s news organization can do to increase audience is to improve delivery systems–not content! Content, once king, seems dethroned. Journalism has to be “fast, fluid, popular and adaptive,” Alex said, to maximize its various interfaces’  connections to networks. But, as he asked, how do we keep score in this game? Page views? Time spent? Return visits? But what has any of that got to do with  the impact on the quality of people’s lives and the welfare of our societies?

Kim Schrøder brought his own world-leading research to bear on the question on how people are actually using the news media as a daily resource. Their options are so broad, including, but not limited to, smartphone news, Facebook, Twitter, websites, TextTV, and, of course, the continuing role of print, still thriving in some countries. Kim described people’s long history with cross-media news experience, and how young people continue to get, at least, “inadvertent” exposure to news. Different countries’ trends in user choices vary widely; and news users fall to a large extent into distinct groups: the “online quality omnivore”, the hybrid public-broadcasting lover, the news “snacker”, the “mainstream networker”, the “intellectual/professional networker”, and, yes, the “print addict.”

Our brilliant discussant, Retha Hill, provided one of the day’s mantras. If the question is, where do and where will millennials get their news– newspapers, TV, text, augmented reality, Facebook, podcasts, community blogs—the answer is that millennials have made their choice and it is “all of the above.”  How do or should journalism schools respond? It’s complicated! Are journalism schools, on the whole, showing a readiness to provide leading-edge direction in understanding and responding to the news climate? Not so much! True, we mostly don’t have the researchers to sufficiently understand audience behaviour – but the solution to that problem, at least, is obvious: reach out; make partnerships, collaborate with industry, strike interdisciplinary relationships across and among the universities. Of course! “All of the above.”

A time to experiment and collaborate

At our working-lunch tables and in the afternoon break-out sessions on shifting audiences, on currents in technology, and on journalism education, we wrestled with the implications of a culture of experimentation in news, with the unprecedented era of, and unrealized opportunities for, collaborations. We wrestled with the range of skills that are now required or desired: wide-ranging multimedia skills, of course; analytics and other types of data analysis, of course, design thinking, of course. And we wrestled with the extraordinary range of careers and sub-types of careers available to our students, and with the speed of innovation that journalism schools and their host universities need somehow to get their teeth into. And with how to accelerate faculty renewal and faculty competencies to match what students need to learn today. And with the extent to which journalism students’ career expectations and aspirations match either our hard-thought curricular emphases, and the range of available jobs.

Which brings us to the discussion we had in the day’s final session.

Medill’s Rich Gordon began by asking a familiar and deceptively simple-ish question: “what is journalism?” He reminded us that journalism is not just reporting, and news, and story-telling; it is, and for a century or more has been, something bigger and broader, including opinion, editing, production, publishing and business decision-making, and user-generated content! (For my own definition of journalism, see here.)  Against this broad and ever-broadening context, Rich said, the most uncomfortable issue of the value proposition of journalism education amounts to this: students choose our programs based on some vision of what journalism is, a vision that might or might not match what we think it is or what the world is offering in the way of careers both inside and outside of what has historically been associated with “journalism”. He challenged us to think harder about the mismatch between the reasons why many students choose journalism study and what the business of doing journalism needs from our graduates. That “mismatch” slide haunted several people in this room, and they demanded to see it again.
There could not have been a more fitting way than Rich’s questions  to open the closing plenary. After all, the whole day’s work resulted from a conversation that faculty members at the Ryerson School of Journalism began in the same room last summer, about the “value proposition of a journalism education” at a time when the very meaning of journalism is more of a question than an answer.

So, how much further along to answering this value-proposition question were we as the day drew to an end?

Rich drew our attention to Jan Schafer’s proposition of a journalism education as “the ultimate gateway degree” – a preparation for anything. I think this is a truth, but one in which journalism educators have have taken a bit too much comfort in recent years. There are, after all,  other gateways to anything: a history major, even an English major, could make the same claim. We have to be clearer than we are now about what exactly the “mindset” is (to use Schafer’s phrase) that we are fostering in our students. Plus, in my view, it is a distraction to confuse (as Schafer does) the world of advertising and marketing with that of journalism. It’s true that the promotional career category is a traditional spin-off of a journalism degree, but promotion is not journalism: it is a spin-OFF, not a nuance of a journalistic mindset—even if those careers indeed do employ many of the same skills and knowledge that journalists boast and that are well taught in traditional journalism programs.

I have previously suggested that a sound journalism education offers, or should offer, something a little more specific  than the catch-all “gateway to anything.” Beyond essential and highly transferable skills, a good journalism education teaches a way of thinking about information on current events: “A journalist’s job may be seen asknowledge transportation: she moves pieces of information, one by one, from private places, where they are ‘known’ to a few, to public places, where they will become ‘known’ to many.” This particular kind of knowledge mobilization is “event-driven and time-sensitive, motivated by an impulse to engage broad audiences with information that is useful insofar as it is reliable.”

To transport knowledge in this particular way that we (in our and many other parts of the world, though not all) call journalism, requires an independent skepticalapproach to seeking and finding, interpreting, curating and narrating facts, driven by a sense of what people want and deserve to know, plus, yes, certain key skillsincluding asking questions, listening, constructing narratives, and efficient dissemination using clear and engaging styles and formats.

But, as CUNY’s Carrie Brown, our last speaker, reminded us, a great journalism education shouldn’t just teach a set of skills, but how to learn independently, how to embrace change and risk, how to think critically and transparently about their work. Marissa Nelson, a headliner graduate of this program who has since played a leading role in transforming journalism in this country, tweeted three thumbs up on that one, to which, please add my two. To listen to Carrie speak about her vision of a journalism education’s value today was nothing short of inspirational, and her community-engagement course syllabus simply cries out for some creative plagiarism worldwide.

A time to embrace uncertainty

But throughout the day, we were reminded again and again that beyond the mindset about current events and discovery and communication, and well beyond the skill sets that can be learned, underneath it all, is a new mindset about audiences.

There are many possible ways to feel about this pivot to audiences, but to sleep, Gulliver-like,  through the audience revolution is not an option.  Very little is the same as it was in the news transaction of 20 years ago. Audiences and the means of communication are transforming profoundly and rapidly and journalism education must do likewise, or make peace with itself as a dying discipline.  As all our speakers reminded us, new audience-focused values—translated as human-centred design, entrepreneurship, and community engagement, for example—will allow our students to recognize and meet audience needs, wherever those needs can be discovered in the coming years. To embrace audiences is to get down and dirty not only with audience data but with publishing, distribution, revenue, impact analysis—with solving the problems that audiences actually have and want help with.

Do I know precisely what this will mean in practice? Oh, no. I am—we are—uncertain about all of it. We have ideas, and we make progress, and we have moved a ways in recent years. Moved bravely, I hope, but also uncertainly. This is an uncertain era, where the media landscape and the realities of business and practice of news are changing too rapidly and profoundly to be sure of understanding anything much.

This uncertainty, for all of us, stems in part from the uncomfortable reality that, as we have discovered at various moments in the day, we are still figuring out what to measure (page views? time spent? election results? advertising revenue? subscriptions? social change? “all of the above?”). If you don’t know for sure where to look, it’s hard to understand what you’re seeing.

And for me, anyway, the uncertainty is aggravated by the fact that I have wasted some time in recent years wondering where “the” answer might lie. “The” killer news-dissemination model of the future, leading to “the” killer business model to save journalism and “the” killer journalism-school curriculum.

Well, by day’s end we had learned that no single universal theory of news audiences is out there to explain news consumption now or in the future. The answer for one community will not be that for another, and the same goes for newsrooms and news businesses. Mobile, websites, tablets, blogs, virtual, podcasts, print, yet-to-be-found interfaces, hyperlocal, specialist, national, international: we live in the age of “all of the above.” There isn’t one kind of news user, or one kind of news, or one value proposition for journalism education. It is “all of the above,” or it is strategic selection.

What will journalism schools contribute to embracing and slowly demystifying this level of uncertainty? An important part of the answer will be in our research, as we explored at various times in the day. It’s is clear that journalism schools—along with communication schools, business schools, IT schools—can do more on this front, and can do more in an interdisciplinary fashion, and in collaboration with businesses, than we can do alone.

But teaching is more complicated. Uncertainty is not a planet that teachers love to live on, and nor, really, do students (or their bill-paying parents). The temptation, faced by uncertainty on this massive scale, is to retreat to the ground we know. From terra incognita to terra cognita.

But if we truly care about journalism and about our students, then we must—MUST!—resist this temptation.

Somehow, as Asmaa Malik said to me a few hours before the colloquium started, we have to turn some of the uncomfortable uncertainty into energy—the kind of energy that allows our students to create, to experiment, and to pay attention to their audiences. And, allows them, as Gavin Adamson put it, to understand that the audience’s attention and trust must be earned, and yes, to some significant extent, followed, if journalists are to continue to have a relationship with the world that is worth speaking of.

A time to be grateful

So on that note, with quotes from the two people who have done more than anyone else to make this day possible, I want, on behalf of everyone who was present for this too-short long day, to thank Asmaa and Gavin for their magnificent leadership through the weeks and months that preceded it. To me, they and other young faculty colleagues encapsulate the best source of hope in the continuing value of journalism education; they will lead the rest of us—lead us, not drag us, because we are ready for the journey—toward the new energy and renewed focus that we will and must find.

There are others to thank. April Lindgren, academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, and Ann Rauhala, the associate director of the Centre, which is making an increasingly important mark on understanding the cultural sector of news. And Charles Davis, associate dean for research of Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design, without whose support this event could not have happened. The many whose donations to the Centre helped or will help defray the substantial costs of this event. And Gene Allen, who played an important part in the early thinking that led to this event before he headed off to his sabbatical.   And Jaclyn Mika and Shannon Clarke who quite literally as well as figuratively did all the heavy lifting (they know what I mean) with help from other Ryerson Scool of Journalism staff, especially Lindsay Smith, Sally Goldberg-Powell, Kathleen McGouran, Aseel Kafil, and Angela Glover. And our live bloggers and impressive MJ candidates, StephWeschler, Olivia Chandler, Justin Dallaire and Mike Ott, who helped to carry this day’s insights and questions to the world.

Special thanks, of course, go to our amazing expert visitors, Alex Watson, Retha Hill, Kim Schrøder, Philip Napoli, Carrie Brown and Rich Gordon. We could not have had a more knowledgeable, insightful and complementary group to carry us through the reflections of the day. And finally, thanks to all who were present, in person and virtually, the “revolting audience” that made our day at Ryerson so rich in knowledge, insights and, perhaps above all, questions.

See you on the Internet.

This story was originally published on the Journalism Transformations website.