As far as predicting the future goes, rare is the individual who can do it with even an ounce of prescience. For the contemporary citizen, forecasting what lunch will be in an hour or two is often trying enough.
To map out the next decade for the field of journalism — as well as the role of a journalist — demands first an understanding of history and trajectory.
A firm grasp of where we have been can better arm us against the tides of an uncertain future — especially a future that promises change across multiple fronts.
When the press first began reporting in 17th-century America, papers circulated within each town. The range of news was limited; technology (or really, the lack thereof) was such that the news of the day was likely already outdated. Information moved slowly.
Journalists remained a far cry away from both the instantaneousness of Twitter and the reach of the internet. The telegraph was one of the first major technological dominos to fall.
National and international news became more accessible; newspapers turned into the business of newspapers; citizens learned to rely on information and opinion from the press.
All this proved to be merely the beginning of a tortuous evolution.
To paint broadly, four major leaps in journalism coincided with the developments of the telegraph, radio, television, and the internet. With each leap came a larger reach of the press, and in turn, a more tuned-in layman.
In the 20th century, news anchor Walter Cronkite earned the reputation as the most trusted voice in America in part because his evening broadcast planted him squarely at the family dinner table — something that just a blink of an eye before (when news traveled by word of mouth or via penny paper) seemed wholly impossible.
To move ahead to another leap, maybe the most radical of all: social media changed the landscape of journalism all over again in the 21st century.
Disparate platforms — Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook — that banked on spontaneity and astronomical reach were not only touching down in living rooms like good ol’ Cronkite, they were being planted in the palm of each and every hand in the modern world.
Social media rested in the pockets of adults and became glued to the hands of youths. Journalists today must learn to leverage these dynamic and personable mediums just to maintain relevance.
The familiarity and intimacy inherent to a Tweet or an Instagram story is unprecedented. The potential for an audience to become deeply invested in one specific journalist is high; it is not uncommon for an off-duty journalist to share snippets of personality and personal life.
Things such as puppies and children and an aesthetic sampling of food have become as expected as news segments. The modern era of influencers has gripped journalists in a manner that is both motivating and frightening, yet the rules of the game have remained steady: adapt, or else.
More journalists are becoming tech-savvy out of necessity to their audience. Without the ability to post social media stories, take a selfie, or integrate multimedia reporting, a journalist inches ever-closer to irrelevancy.
The changing technological landscape presents a unique interplay of ethical and legal issues for the modern journalist. Should a journalist be able to report on a protest, for example, and then, after their news shift, go and attend the very same protest as a social justice advocate or antagonist?
What are the implications on objectivity if a journalist were to do this, or if they were to even record themselves on a private social media account doing this?
Should a company employ a journalist knowing they regularly post online content for or against certain stories? Should there be a law regulating the type of stories that can be posted to certain platforms?
The answers to these musings remain elusive. Yet, as social media becomes the dominant medium, questions that string together ethics, technology, and law will remain in the foreground for the coming decade.
Ethical issues such as whether or not a journalist should or can also be an advocate will likely become more clear-cut (and simultaneously more controversial) in the coming years.
Many traditionalists believe that journalists should remain as staunch purveyors of objectivity. Maintaining a cool evenhandedness becomes far more difficult when one’s audience learns to expect personality, personal life, and wit interspersed into reporting (i.e. social media reporting).
As Mitchell Stephens explains in Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, journalists must take on more of the role of analyst and opinionist rather than impartial re-teller of events because citizens will be seeking exactly this.
The future belongs to journalists who can separate the wheat from the chaff, not the ones who simply report that a pile of stuff exists. Partisanship, as a result, will continue to rise.
The journalist of the coming generation must be technologically-equipped to shoulder the varying responsibilities of reporting across platforms, namely those within the social media realm.
Journalists who ignore social media run the risk of losing stories to citizen journalists who are willing and eager to pull out their smartphones and Tweet or record.
Journalists seeking to break into the field this decade must prove their competencies across a broader range than ever before. It is not any one skill in particular that will prove challenging; rather it is the sheer volume of skills that the field now demands — broadcast, text, field reporting, remote reporting, multimedia integration, social media, podcasts.
Possibly sooner than later, drones footage, drone reporting, and virtual reality will be added to the list of requirements.
The original Swiss Army Knife was produced in the late 19th century. It was marketed as something akin to the first and last tool one may ever need. The journalist of the future must adopt this same identity: an individual so multidimensional, so multifunctional, that they prove to be the first and last individual an employer needs to hire.
The versatility to do anything and the knowledge to do everything — this new breed will be the future of journalism.