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Oct. 1, 2019, 11:10 a.m.
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When it comes to the fight for the future of journalism, are you the vanguard or the rearguard?

Here’s how Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, defines them, in a blog post about his first year at his job:

In my first year as Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, I have been truly and thoroughly inspired by the ambition, desire, and fight for change in journalism among many journalists, editors, and media leaders.

Let’s call them the vanguard.

While the vanguard is often young, it is not only young — Maria Ressa at Rappler and Marty Baron of the Washington Post are not spring chickens, and they are forging towards the future of journalism, as are Kath Viner at the Guardian, Siddharth Varadarajan from The Wire, and many others who have been through a thing or two. But perhaps it is also about age — the absolutely certainty among many that journalism as we knew it will not thrive in the 21st century, combined with suspicion among some older journalists that it may yet last their time out.

That latter part is a harder truth to face, the persistence of a mindset that risks doing lasting damage to the profession of journalism and the news media organizations that enable it, and make a number of already tough challenges even tougher. It is the mindset of those who say they believe that people will cool on their smartphones and pick up print, that people will ditch video-on-demand and return to linear scheduled broadcasting, that journalists can safely condescend upon and harmlessly ridicule as conspicuously woke or ridiculously politically correct the values and priorities of new generations.

This is the rearguard.

This mindset is invisible at most “future of journalism” gatherings, but I meet at least some of them at every industry event I attend, many in most media organization I visit, and they have plenty of kindred spirits among (older) policymakers.

The rearguard thinks the problem is that the world has changed too much. The vanguard thinks the problem is that journalism hasn’t changed enough.

What he calls the rearguard is disproportionately made up of old white men, Nielsen writes, “defending a defunct past that — while it had much to offer — will in many ways no longer serve.”

The attitude seems to be that we should romanticize the journalism that, for all its values, also arguably failed us on climate change, in the run-up to the financial crisis, and in uncritical coverage of digital media throughout the 2000s, a journalism that has often seemed as out of touch with the energies behind #BlackLivesMatters, #Fightfor15, #MeToo as with the groundswells of support for Brexit, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump, a journalism that is still all too often based on a mass media business model that won’t make sense much longer.

As Vasily Gatov, Russian media researcher and USC Annenberg visiting fellow, hits at on Twitter, however, there’s another group to contend with as well: The bad actors who might technically be members of the vanguard in that they’re forging toward a new future for journalism, but who seek to corrupt it or use it for their own gain or that of their countries and governments. They, too, “[risk] doing lasting damage to the profession of journalism and the news media organizations that enable it, and make a number of already tough challenges even tougher.”

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