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Inaugural lecture Prof. Jeroen Smit: ‘Democratic watchdog needs to wake up’

14 May 2013

Newspaper journalists are not sufficiently aware that the continued existence of actual papers is seriously under threat. This is what professor of journalism Jeroen Smit stated during his inaugural lecture at the University of Groningen on Tuesday 14 May. Smit’s research has revealed that over two thirds of Dutch newspaper journalists believe that their paper will continue to survive for at least ten years. In addition, journalists prefer to work for a printed newspaper than for the online version.

During his inaugural lecture, Smit presented the results of his research among six hundred Dutch newspaper journalists, conducted by Tamara Witschge and Eva Schram at the Research Centre for Journalism and Media Studies. Smit: ‘Newspaper journalists in particular should be taking good care of the future of their profession. They should consider how their important profession can be adapted and anchored in an online environment.’

Reflection is missing

That reflective process is missing – 93 percent of the newspaper journalists have no doubt at all that what they are doing is useful. However, nearly half of them worryabout their future as a journalist and two thirds expect that in five years time the size of the editorial staff will be significantly reduced. Smit: ‘When newspaper journalists are asked what the biggest problem is, they nearly all point to things like free online competition, an ageing population, the lack of a commercial purpose or greedy owners. Virtually no-one looks closer to home.’

Like a frog in a saucepan

According to Smit, many newspaper journalists are running the same risk as a frog sitting comfortably in a pan of water that is gradually warming up. Because it’s happening so slowly, the frog forgets to jump out. And by the time the water gets too hot, it is no longer able to jump. ‘I think it’s high time that journalists started thinking about how they can best do their work in the future. We’re being faced with what’s known as disruptive innovation – the kind of innovation that upsets the existing model. That primarily requires serious reflection on your own qualities.’

‘What do I actually do as a journalist, and for whom? And what should I be doing differently now to continue to perform that task? But when you ask journalists what will change once their newspaper is mainly being read on smartphones or tablets, most of the reactions are afraid that the news will have to be presented faster and more superficially. Very few of the interviewees saw chances to tell their stories in a better way.’

Commercial journalists needed

Smit: ‘Journalists will not be able to avoid becoming more commercial, to think about where and how they can provide added value, and how they can serve their readers.’ According to the professor, the resistance to a more commercial attitude is deep seated. That is primarily because the marriage with advertisers ensured a relatively healthy business-economics model for decades, until the arrival of the internet. In addition, the resistance is fed by the fear that ‘commercial thinking’ will threaten the extremely important independence of the ‘democratic watchdog’.

In Smit’s view this is completely unnecessary. ‘A good journalist considers his work a vocation. Combined with the knowledge that his independence is his most important asset, he does not need to be afraid of losing it. After all, it’s in his own hands. A strong content-related specialization and the inevitable relationship you have to build up with readers, sources and perhaps even with financiers will further support the need for a recognizable independence.’

New opportunities can be fun

‘There’s a lot that is still uncertain and unclear, but it’s important that journalists themselves start thinking about new ways of working, new ways to tell relevant journalistic stories. That’s going to be fun. Just think of integrating a moving image with text and sound, or the possibilities to interact with your readers or followers. One of the positive results of our research was that the majority of newspaper journalists think that more needs to be invested in online editions. Over three-quarters of them, for example, think that the newspaper should employ programmers to permanently support and innovate the telling of stories online.’

‘The numerous new opportunities to practise good journalism should excite journalists rather than intimidate them. And once these new ways of telling stories are here, the profit models that are worrying publishers in particular at the moment will automatically follow. What we need right now is reflection, creativity and initiative.’

New generation of journalists

Smit is making his appeal to Dutch newspaper journalism partly on the basis of his responsibility for the Master’s degree in journalism offered by the University of Groningen. ‘We’ve asked ourselves, what are we actually training our students for? We cannot avoid the fact that a new generation of journalists will be organizing its work in a completely different way and will have to start taking responsibility for this themselves.’

Curriculum Vitae

Jeroen Smit is professor of journalism at the University ofGroningen. In addition, Smit is the chair of the board of the Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten [Special Journalism Projects Foundation] and a member of the foundation board for De Volkskrant newspaper. Smit became nationally famous as an investigative journalist with his books De Prooi: blinde trots breekt ABN Amro [The Prey: blind pride breaks ABN Amro] and Het drama Ahold [The Ahold drama].

Read the full inaugural lecture (in Dutch): Op eigen benen: verdiepen + verbinden = verheffen + verdienen [On your own two feet: deepening + connecting = elevating + earning]

Last modified:09 May 2019 5.35 p.m.
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