Journalism and optimism usually don’t belong together in the same sentence. Historically, traditional media have always had to adapt or die, but the problems of the Internet age are multifaceted and constantly evolving.

It is a terrifying time to be a journalist on the cusp of graduating and entering the media landscape, but it’s also exciting.

Terrifying, because newsrooms are being trimmed down and spread thin while the ‘fake news’ epidemic makes quality journalism more important than ever.

Exciting, because even with all the problems facing journalism, there’s new opportunities to be seized in multiple areas.

Last month, I received a $1,000 grant to go to Toronto to attend an event called Digital News Innovation: Framing the Challenge, featuring a variety of industry leaders discussing the future and problems facing journalism.

Held on Jan. 25, the event marked the start of the Digital News Innovation Challenge, a program created by Ryerson and the Facebook Journalism Project that offers $100,000 and mentorship to Canadians with an innovative idea related to digital media.

“It’s open to everyone, so you can be a student, you can be an independent, you can be someone who’s moonlighting from their day job and has always had that idea, and maybe this is enough to help you build that idea into reality,” Richard Lachman, director of zone learning (dealing with 10 incubator projects) at Ryerson, said.

The future of journalism is always in the back of my mind like a black cloud of nagging insecurity, but flying out to Toronto and eating delicious Haitian food the night before the event was more than enough to weather the storm. Outside of layovers at the airport, the trip was my first exposure to the massive city and cultural hub.

Journalists may be underpaid and overworked, but being in the field or experiencing a new place reminds me of Mastercard commercials: it’s priceless. The drinks at the cocktail bar, however, are not. Thankfully, the event didn’t start until 1 p.m.

Located in Ryerson’s Student Learning Centre, the event utilized tech-incubator Sandbox by DMZ’s breathtaking room, complete with a cushioned mountain — a unified Google-esque structure that peaked close to the ceiling — for students and guests to sit on. In my opinion, sofa-mountains are far superior to chairs and MRU should consider adding some to the budget.

Nevertheless, I chose to sit on a conventional chair to be closer to the panel speakers, who tackled a range of issues facing journalism from business models to audiences to diversity in the newsroom. Each panel ran out of time quickly, indicative of the seemingly insurmountable, un-cushioned mountain modern news organizations face.

Each speaker brought the right tools to scale the mountain of problems right from the base and up to summit.

Featuring journalists from diverse media outlets, including the BBC, Indian and Cowboy Media, the National Observer and Discourse Media, it’s surprising how many common themes permeated the afternoon.

“In all markets we have a very similar issue, we have lost a lot of journalists, we have lost lots of papers,” Laura Ellis, head of online for BBC’s English regions, said. “That raw journalism isn’t out there in the way it used to be.”

The solutions boil down to the key ingredients of journalism, which are easy to lose sight of due to the noise of the digital landscape: audiences crave quality journalism, diversification within the newsroom is essential for reporting and understanding marginalized groups and finding a way to fill a gap will make a news outlet succeed.

“We need ideas that make it easy for local news organizations to engage with their audiences and therefore build them,” April Lindgren, associate professor at Ryerson, said. “Ideas that measure the impact of individual news stories … ideas that make it easier for citizens to contribute to local coverage. Anything that generates revenue — that’s kind of a given.”

Furthermore, collaboration between different media, such as local and national, can create amazing results that benefit each respective business along with the community.

“The relationship that we had, which was becoming increasingly fractured with local press, it wasn’t really helping anybody,” Ellis said regarding BBC’s Local News Partnership. “But what this does is it underpins our ability to run the very critical, very important stories … that allows us to shine a light into some of the corners that have gotten pretty dusty.”

Most importantly, there has been too much focus on what platform or medium the stories are delivered on instead of the stories themselves; print or digital, stories drive distribution, not the other way around.

“To me, it would be less about the format or distribution of what you’re doing and more about the content that you’re providing,” Ojibwe broadcaster Jesse Wente said. “People will find you if you provide content they are seeking and want to find.”

Instead of writing stories solely for clicks, news outlets need to serve the community. Quality drives the size of the community and the strength of a publication’s readership.

“It’s all bullshit if you don’t have a community behind your work,” former comedian turned Cowboy and Indian Media owner Ryan McMahon said. “However you find that community, nurture it, honour it, be good to it. That’s all you have — Twitter doesn’t give a shit about you … your community does.

Combined with fresh approaches to creating stories, all of these solutions paint an optimistic and realistic picture for the future of journalism.

“What’s really problematic is that people don’t know what trust is anymore,” said Catherine Cano, president of the Cable Public Affairs Channel. “Journalism has taken a beating for so many years now, that we’re seeing the pendulum come back.”

Before attending the event, I thought the mountain facing journalism was a close cousin of Everest or the fictional volcanoes and desolate landscape of Mordor, yet it seems climbable now. The path is still rocky, treacherous and undoubtedly daunting, but at least there is a path — multiple ones, even — to traverse.

pmcaleer@cjournal.ca

Editor: Sarah Allen | sallen@cjournal.ca