Visiting Professor Hanna Nikkanen predicts that there will soon be no room for traditional news in the job description of journalists. Instead of having a good nose for news, future journalists will be expected to possess expertise and the ability to cope with large amounts of interrelated of information.
The journalism of the future will emphasise dealing with very complex information. Traditional news production will no longer be profitable and will not necessarily require highly educated people.
“Robots will replace journalists in basic news work. They are perfectly capable of reporting NHL scores or stock market news. The job of the journalism students of today and future journalists is to produce difficult and interesting journalism, which requires profound expertise and specialisation,” says Visiting Professor of Journalism Hanna Nikkanen from the University of Tampere in Finland.
The change will not be painless and nor it should.
“I am not too happy about these developments, either. High quality news reporting is important for society and if it deteriorates, democracy will be in trouble,” Nikkanen continues.
However, the fact remains that it is already hard to fund news dissemination, and therefore the focus will gradually shift to such communications that the public and the other funders are willing to pay for.
This means that the audiences will differentiate. The affluent audiences will get in-depth information on the world and the various phenomena in it. At the same time, there is the danger that the population groups which are unable to afford the better news will have fewer opportunities for educating themselves.
“Journalism will become elitist and we will need a good public service to counterbalance this effect. I hope Yle will be able to maintain its high quality,” Nikkanen points out.
Because the journalists of the future must be able to handle wide-ranging subjects and possess solid expertise, Nikkanen says that it is important that journalists continue to be trained at universities: “University studies provide a solid ethical and scientific basis. It is absolutely essential that journalists have scientific thinking skills.”
Another important aspect is studies in a minor subject.
“That is why limiting the free choice of minor subjects would be a hard blow to journalism students. They need their minor subject studies in order to specialise,” Nikkanen says.
The field of communications requires research. Nikkanen praises COMET, Tampere Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Communication, for its up-to-date research approach which does not take anything for granted.
“Researchers at COMET take up new research topics quickly and critically. Its research has managed to be sufficiently reactive and walked the line between practice and theory in a way that benefits the whole field. One example is the debate around the relationship between ethics and the new digital media.”
According to Nikkanen, ethics is exactly what we should be talking about. For example, the search engine giant Google has assumed the guise of a funder and entered the Finnish journalism markets. In Finland, such developments and the effect of the global giants on education have been fought off by the strong original journalistic culture.
“Such research centres as COMET, which are experts on technology, are our night watch in this respect.”
At present, Nikkanen would like to see research concentrate on the transformation of the ways of doing journalism. What will happen when journalists become increasingly aware of which topics have earning potential and which do not?
“In the field of journalism, there is a lot of talk about fragmentation, the crisis of the large media publishers and the new type of actors entering the field. The reactions to this situation vary from overly positive to really negative; you are either a conservative old fart or a start-up fanboy. I think it is high time to leave this kind of polarisation behind and really map out the earnings logic of small operators and discover what works and what does not. What does all of this really mean for the contents of journalism? What kind of topics will the journalists choose when they must all of a sudden think which stories will bring in money and which ones will not?”
According to Nikkanen, the current turning point will provide fruitful material for research also in the future.
“All sorts of turmoil are going on, and it has led to a lot of experimentation. In the future, people will look back at this age with nostalgia and say: ‘Ah, we had those years, too, when the headlines were like that and this and that was tried out.’”
Nikkanen predicts that with hindsight, counting the clicks and the current logic of advertising will be seen as silly and old-fashioned. Some of the developments will also probably be regarded as sinister, not silly.
“For example, what have populism and reacting to clicks done to credibility? Or the fact that racist movements, which look larger online than their actual size warrants, have given cause to panic and started to have an impact on the contents of journalism. At some point, we must analyse all of this. We need to investigate what happened and how we can build credibility in the longer term.”
¬Nikkanen finds it interesting that many of the traditional large media houses have had the worst panic reactions. These are the companies that have so much buffer in their own capital that they should not have the need to concern themselves with every passing fad.
“They are the ones to have startled first and started to follow up on the clicks, whereas smaller operators have been able to keep their cool and compete with quality. The latter have not lost their credibility.”
To future journalists, Nikkanen wants to say that even though it might sound the opposite, the future of journalism is not all gloomy.
“The quality of journalism has kept improving and the positive developments will continue. Journalism is increasingly multi-voiced and sophisticated. But these developments do not just happen, they must be made and talked about. Luckily, the audience is clever enough to demand such reflection.”
Decentralised reporting offers new hope. New companies keep cropping up which try and test new ways of telling and publishing stories. Nikkanen has spent time with her students in pubs talking about their business ideas and she plans to keep doing it. New things are created in the process and that is great.
“Ninety per cent of the developments are magnificent. The audience has not lost their mind and the same is true for some of the editorial offices.”
A mission to educate climate experts
After her one-year stint as a visiting professor, Hanna Nikkanen wants to leave behind a group of young specialists.
“In the workshop in the spring term, my plan is to educate journalists who are familiar with climate issues and who understand the challenges of a topic that does not fit the traditional news logic. The questions need to be tackled through stories that are both scientifically sound and accessible to the audience. We need an army of journalists capable of doing this because we do not have them as yet. My mission is to gather a group of people who have the capacity of doing these stories and who are able to find new ways of reporting climate issues.”
At the same time, Nikkanen wants to talk about entrepreneurship smartly and concretely and air the presumptions the journalists’ education has about the available tools and formats. She says that surprisingly the instruction on journalism is concentrating on the print media.
“Perhaps that is something people are not conscious about, but the hidden curriculum always seems to be the print media. For myself, I try to take care not to talk about “readers”, for example. In my reportage course, we do not pay that much attention to layout; we pay attention to visualisation and pictures but not to actual layouts.”
On the other hand, Nikkanen also considers it a strength that the education of journalists does not run after every new gadget and trend.
“However, doing things for the digital environment should still be one of the basic premises.”
Journalist and author of non-fiction books
Visiting professor of journalism at the University of Tampere in the academic year of 2016-2017
Studied communications at the University of Helsinki
One of the founding members of Long Play, an online in-depth publication of investigative journalism
Recipient of the European Commission Journalist Award (2010), the Annual Prize of the Committee for Public Information in Finland (2011) and Bonnier’s Finnish Grand Prize for Journalism (2012). She has also received the The Helsingin Sanomat Foundation Innovation Contest prize for being a member of the Long Play collective (2013)
Text: Hanna Hyvärinen