Now is a good time to be both a pessimist and optimist about journalism. Old ways and institutions are struggling, while new platforms and business models offer hope for change. George Brock, a writer and editor at the Times of London for 20+ years who now leads the journalism program at City University of London, lays it all out in his book, “Out of Print.” He gives an informed history of print journalism going back centuries, digs into new online outlets and experiments, and ferrets out a possible future.

And despite all the grim talk about journalism dying in many corners, he remains an optimist on many fronts.

out-of-print cover

“While I am pessimistic about the survival chances of some threatened daily newspapers, I am an optimist about journalism,” Brock writes in the book. “There is a role for journalism even if some of its present institutions struggle to breathe … It is certain that there’s no way back to the news media of the 20th century. There is no choice but to find ways of supporting journalism in new conditions.”

I had a chance to talk to Brock about his book via Skype video. He expounded on why he believes print does have a (diminished) future, why metro dailies have struggled to connect with communities, and the primitive nature of what we think people will pay for. The following is an edited version of our discussion, with some video clips.

Q&A

In the book, you talk about previous ages of news production over many centuries. What lessons can we learn from the past?

George Brock: Well, I think it’s less a matter of specific operational lessons and more remembering that most of the history of journalism has been like this: volatile, improvisational, with a very high premium on experimenting lots and lots and lots in order to whittle out a few things that work.

I mean, I just can’t overstate the importance of people remembering that most journalism history has been like that. One of the reasons why people are so discombobulated by what’s going on now is that the late 20th century was historically extremely unusual. It was very stable … and people began to think that this was what journalism always had been like.

Completely and utterly wrong. It hadn’t always been like that, it was just in the late 20th century. A perfect storm of things occurred, providing a steady, able income both for print and for terrestrial broadcast and everything was lovely for a bit. But in journalism, nothing goes on being lovely for very long because journalism sits at this junction in between democratic or social purposes and the market, and therefore any change in economic conditions, social conditions, mood, law and above all, technology, throws the pieces up in the air all over again.

In the book, you mention how print institutions became very comfortable. They became used to doing things a certain way and their dominance just became an accepted way of life. Is there something they could’ve done differently at the dawn of the digital age to react and survive better?

Brock: Where do I start? I lived through this on a big newspaper. We didn’t do nearly enough experimenting. When I talk about ‘experiment,’ let me explain what I mean. Big media companies, they think that an ‘experiment’ is putting some people in a boiler room, you get a dummy together, you pick one, you put it into research, if everything is good, you run a big marketing campaign and you put it out there. True experimentation is: You take the same sum of money you would’ve spent on all those projects I’ve just listed, divide it into 10 and give each tenth to a person under the age of 30.

Let’s say that it’s £10,000 each, the original budget was £100,000, you know that £80,000 of that £100,000 will get wasted. If two of your projects, £20,000-worth work, you will be ahead of the game, and if one of them works, you’re in really good shape. Big media companies were incredibly slow to understand this. They were incredibly slow to understand, second, that they really needed in-depth understanding of where digital was going, what it could do — they were really slow to get in-depth skills imported in. They were very poor at integrating people with those skills with traditional journalism. They just didn’t do enough quickly enough in very short summary. If I had my time again, I would behave differently.

Brock explains why metro daily newspapers have struggled in meeting the needs of readers and reacting to the rise of radio and TV:

Tell me about the title of the book. It’s ‘Out of Print and it’s not ‘The Death of Print’ and I think maybe some people might think ‘Out of Print’ means that it’s kind of the end of newspapers, the end of print to some extent. But I guess you could look at it another way and think that maybe print isn’t the primary source, that it will survive but in a different way.

Brock: I emphatically do not think it is the end or the death of print. I am careful to say this in the book. What I’m trying to say is that the forces that are going to make print a much, much less important part of the news landscape are irrevocable and inexorable and they’ve mostly played through or they will go on playing through still. But, no, I don’t think it’s going to disappear.

I think magazines are under some pressure, but in some ways they’re better placed to survive. I think lots of newspapers will survive as newspapers even if they appear in printed form much less often while of course being on the web as well. And books are in trouble, but books are still being produced as well in quite considerable numbers. I certainly don’t think printed material is going to disappear, at least until somebody produces a screen which actually mimics the light-reflecting qualities of paper and, big as the advances in screens have been, we’re still quite a way from that.

Brock says there’s no one-size-fits-all answer with pay walls for news online:

People like to give this answer that pay walls are the answer, pay walls are dead, this is the answer. I think we go to extremes and we come to solutions rather than thinking of things that are on a continuum — that some things people might pay for, some things they won’t. It’s not going to work the same for every publication, every region, every country, every city.

Brock: It is generally speaking true to say that news has usually not managed to pay for itself. But nevertheless, some news, which people have prepared to value at a very high level, will be something that people may, in some circumstances, pay for. But it takes you a very long time to really discover how that’s going to play out. So we have very primitive ideas about what people value.

People talk about engagement, for example. Well, if I engage with a list on BuzzFeed, strictly speaking, it’s an engagement. But if I read about what is going on in Egypt or in Syria, I’m engaging in a different way. We have very few tools to measure, in a socially networked world, how that difference in engagement works. People at Google are trying to do it, but even Google hasn’t gone very far doing that. Until we start trying to measure how that engagement works on serious subjects, you don’t really know very much. One of the things that people writing about journalism have got to do is [make sure they] say interesting things. But when they don’t know, or clearly the situation is evolving very fast, they should be prepared to say that the evidence isn’t all in.

Speaking of credibility, you talk a little bit about WikiLeaks, and there’s a rise of all these almost extra-journalism sources. I mean, Edward Snowden and what happened with Glenn Greenwald. Information is coming from a lot of different places and making us rethink how we define who is a journalist or who deserves protection as a journalist. I’m curious about what you think about these new forms of information coming from digital places.

Brock: Firstly, I don’t really believe in the Shield Law principle. Partly because, as you say, technology is changing both how information circulates and, to some extent, how it can be leaked, disclosed and obtained, and the scale on which those things can happen. I therefore think that laws that deal with journalism should deal with outcome and not with individuals. That seems to me to be a more effective principle.

There’s a story on MediaShift by Josh Stearns about protecting acts of journalism rather than the journalists themselves.

Brock: If you like: acts of journalism. Because if a law protects an act of journalism, then of course a law has to ask itself the question, ‘what defines an act of journalism, what qualifies it as an act of journalism?’ Well, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the public interest test. Some people tend to call that a public value test. Lawyers, if they heard me saying that, would groan and say, ‘How can you ever tell that, it’s so elusive, it’s endlessly contested, it will change with fashion. It’s hopeless as a filter or test in a case.’ We lack proper public interest tests in quite a lot of legislation that affects journalists here in this country. You may have noticed that we’ve been having a bit of a fuss over phone-hacking here in the last few years. One of the things that ought to have emerged from this — alas, it hasn’t — is a better set of public interest tests and the laws that can affect journalists. That would’ve been a good outcome — so far we haven’t had many good outcomes.

Secondly, in the book quite later on, I do try to say, in the modern era, this is what journalists actually do that you can distinctively call journalism. I actually list four things. I say verification, sense-making (under which comes everything under analysis, comment, opinion, context), eyewitness (still important in certain places, and even better-trained eyewitnesses tend to be more trusted and are more reliable) and lastly, the special skills in investigative journalism. There’s no need for anyone to regard my list as complete; my purpose of doing it in the book is to say to people, ‘Unless journalists focus on how they add value, they’re always going to be a bit vague and fuzzy and liable to be confused with other things.’.. What journalism actually tries to do is discover what is going on of importance to people in real time, roughly speaking. Those four core tasks, I think, matter. When I can see people doing one of those tasks, I tend to think, ‘Yeah, that looks like that’s going to produce journalistic value, and that’s something of public interest and public value.’

Brock talks about the U.K. investigation into the vast phone-hacking scandal — and how regulators have overreacted:

You’re at City University of London, leading an interesting program there. I’m curious, how do you train new journalists today? It seems like it’d be complicated because whatever you train them for today, might not even really be applicable when they graduate?

Brock: We try to obviously make them multi-platform journalists. But more than that, we tend to tell them that what we’re doing is trying to equip you to navigate change. We cannot account for all the change that you’re going to discover. But we warn them that one of the upsides of that, if you’re ready for it, is that when you are very young, you are likely to be exploring innovation very quickly in your own organization.

The older teachers on the faculty here, mostly went into TV or radio or print, and in the early years of their career, they were doing things which the people in charge of them had done before them and fully understood and had mastered. Now, the people in charge in news organizations have by no means always mastered everything that is being done particularly on the digital front. So digital natives who come in can be asked to do very important big things very quickly.

So we have our module and our courses virtually all our post-graduates do, and our undergraduates do a version of it which we call entrepreneurial journalism, which could say ‘Equipping You for Uncertainty.’ It tells people what they’re going to find if they work in a very small organization, tells them a little bit about business organization. It just says the old frontier is turned upside down. The pieces of the jigsaw are being thrown up and down. This is how you deal with an entrepreneurial life or simply being asked to innovate in a larger organization; this is what it’s going to feel like. The other thing we do is we just change constantly. Every time we revise something, we have to say, ‘OK, that was that set of changes; it took place six weeks ago — now we got to think again.’

So it’s really kind of being flexible and dealing with change is what they have to get used to.

Brock: It never stops. The one thing that I would say is that students are sophisticated enough to know, however, that what they do not want is a course of the latest gizmos. They are very clear in their own minds that what they are looking for is a mixture of being equipped for change, difficulty, innovation, uncertainty, etc. But they are also looking for grounding in timeless skills. We still run a master’s course here called ‘Newspaper Journalism.’ It runs right next to one called ‘Interactive Journalism’ and they exchange a great deal of stuff on those two courses. But I teach the newspaper course, I say to them, ‘Why do you choose a course called newspapers’ and they’re much more sophisticated than their elders. They say, ‘Sorry, platform is not the important thing here. Whatever we work in, we’re going to need to write.’ In some ways, often they’re one step ahead of us.

*****

Additional video and editing work on the Q&A by MediaShift editorial intern Denise Lu.

Mark Glaser is executive editor and publisher of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Renee and sons Julian and Everett. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+