Are you building the future or trying to recreate the past?

Picture 5I started my session at the SPJ conference in Las Vegas with a simple question: Are you optimistic about the future for journalism? Some two-thirds of the 120 or so people in attendance raised their hands. Pretty good, I thought.

The question was appropriate since my session’s title was based on the “bright future for journalism.” I did an updated version of the talk I gave at SXSWi in Austin the spring and, thankfully, several people who didn’t raise their hands in the beginning confessed to me later that I had changed their mind. Nice.

Journalists, for better or worse, or so good at romanticizing the past that many of them have spent years now trying recreate it. That energy would have been so much better spent building the future for journalism – business models or not – and thankfully it seems the tide is turning. Though this was my first SPJ national conference, I got the sense from talking to several people that the mood was much more upbeat than it had been in previous years.

Perfect. The first step toward innovation is optimism.

I met college students determined to launch their own startup journalism venture instead of looking for a job. I met some great people from CNN who are killing it with innovative journalism on a global scale. I heard from a professional storm chaser who sells his coverage, a farmer’s wife who launched a newspaper years ago that’s never been published online but is successful and a woman who works at a community news operation that is growing fast in Texas.

I also met a woman who recently resigned her stable newspaper job to pursue … something. She doesn’t know what it is yet, but she knew where she was working … wasn’t working. That’s optimism. That’s how the future gets built.

I also heard from students who thanked me for providing a positive outlook for journalism. Their professors apparently spend class time bemoaning the downfall of “the way it was.” What the hell are professors teaching? Oddly, a John Mellancamp song was playing while I walked past the fountains at Bellagio and one of the lyrics should be posted in the teachers’ lounge at every J-school:

If you’re not part of the future then get out of the way.

In all, a good conference that will help spur the innovation needed to push evolution in journalism. I’d encourage anyone interested in playing a part to join a local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists or the Online News Association. Roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. The future of journalism will be what you create.

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