Who's afraid of the digital age?, published in the UK Press Gazette

Published in UK Press Gazette

With its stratospheric rise from zero to zillions, Google represents just the most obvious and pervasive threat to the livelihoods of journalists, divorcing information from content, putting advertisers into the vision of consumers without the diverting periphery of editorial.

Mobile digital content may appear to be a similar threat, along with blogging and declining circulation figures for print publications of all kinds.

But are there still reasons for journalists to be cheerful? Many at the top of the industry remain convinced that the bark of the digital age is worse than its bite.

For example, while digital technology has put all kinds of means of distribution into the hands of companies and individuals, from corporate websites to blogspots, this doesn't have to mean less work for journalists. It could well mean more. Companies increasingly want their websites to resemble the more credible and authoritative sources of information, aware that the public has become tired of empty marketing rhetoric.

There is a growing demand for content that is independent, objective and well-written on corporate websites, something that is best provided by journalists rather than in-house copywriters or marketing people. Purists may have to swallow their professional pride, anxious that they are taking the corporate shilling and diluting their standards, but they have to consider: is writing an article for a company that sells cornflakes materially different from writing for a company that sells advertising, i.e. traditional print media?

There is always an agenda - traditional print media companies want to attract readers who will be appeal to their advertisers, while corporations want to attract website visitors who will want to buy their products. It is a difference of degree - one step removed rather than two steps - but it doesn't have to blur into the dreaded world of PR. All journalists have to understand their employers' agendas and work within them.

At a conference earlier this year at the Judge Business School in Cambridge, a collection of big-hitting media execs chewed over the prospects for print media. "There will always be a need for journalists, but they will need new and different skills," said Carolyn McCall, chief executive of Guardian Newspapers. While the means of distribution are certainly going to change (notably from print to online), she reckoned that we live in exciting times, where trusted brands like the Guardian, with their pool of experienced, talented writers, will still be in high demand.

While blogging may seem to be a dire threat to journalism, it has begun to attract advertisers, who will pay to have their banners on popular blogs. This represents a massive new potential income stream for journalists. Although most bloggers are boring (hence the term 'kittyblogs' because of their tendency to waffle on about their pets) or highly specific, a well-researched, intelligently-written blog such as the Drudge Report can become a cottage industry in its own right. It takes balls, but in a fragmented labour market where permanent jobs are dying out, the future may lie in this cheap, easy and accessible digital entrepreneurialism. Blogging, as arch blogger Bill Thompson said at the Cambridge conference, is "the first tremor of a giant cultural change".

Only a small percentage of the world's population has the talent and aptitude for journalism, whereas a very large percentage has the appetite to consume it. The digital revolution should mean, in the end, that good journalists have access to a vast market of people hungry for their product, cutting out the exploitative layer of the traditional publishing industry.

As Ivan Fallon, chief executive of Independent News and Media pointed out at the Cambridge conference, print journalism has survived the advent of radio and television, just as cinemas have survived the advent of videos and DVDs. The global appetite for written news, information and entertainment is more likely to increase as the number of channels of distribution proliferate, just as more people, not less, go to football matches now that you can watch them on TV, online, on your phone...