"I THINK we are living in a moment where journalism at its best is better than it has ever been”, Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen tells me, in a melodic American-Danish accent.

I raise an eyebrow: praise for the media is hardly common in this day and age.

But the 38-year-old academic ploughs on unperturbed: “It’s a bit more modest than it was in the past, which I think is important.”

The director of Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism concedes that there are big challenges facing the industry, yet he is a self-described optimist, and ‘cannot think of a better time’ to be studying the profession.

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Immaculately dressed and serious-looking, he is more cheery about the future than you might expect of a journalism expert. And, having only been promoted in October, Dr Nielsen seems delighted in his new role.

“It’s been great”, he beams from his spacious, functional office, in a beautiful central Oxford building on Norham Gardens.

Oxford Mail:

“We are at a moment where there is such an interest in our media and our news, this is just terrific from my point of view.”

Journalists tend to enjoy navel-gazing when it comes to their own industry - and as such many would be delighted to do Dr Nielsen’s work. So it is interesting that he looks on as someone who has never been a journalist himself (though he has edited the International Journal of Press/Politics).

Yet there is more to the institute than merely observing the media in its current form. Dr Nielsen explains: “Our mission is to explore the future of journalism worldwide. We want to connect practice and research.

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“The shoemaker knows how to make a shoe but the person wearing a shoe knows where it hurts; so we want to make sure journalists and editors have a chance to benefit from research, but also that researchers have a chance to benefit.

“The majority of (our) research we make freely available on our website; everyone in the world can benefit from it.”

Indeed, his institute publish a plethora of reports on all things media for journalism geeks to peruse.

Having moved to Oxford from New York in 2010 to become a researcher, Dr Nielsen was previously director of research at the institute from 2014 to 2018. His interest in journalism, and particularly technology, was sparked by award-winning academic work on American political campaigns.

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Outside of his job, the political science graduate and author is also a ‘huge history buff’, Liverpool fan and volunteer for the OxGrow community.

Journalism, though, is very much his thing. As you might expect, his media diet is eclectic but high brow. Each day, he reads the New York Times and ‘takes a glance through a couple of the national papers in the UK’ (the Financial Times and the Guardian, and occasionally the Sun and the Mirror), before relying upon the BBC World Service, Facebook and Twitter for the rest of his news. And, of course, he reads the Oxford Times - which his wife buys every week.

The highly respected Marty Baron, of the Washington Post, though, is his favourite journalist.

As well as studying the present, a big portion of his job is looking forward - and not always with great success.

Peering through rounded glasses, he smiles: “I have learned how easy it is to get things wrong with digital media.

Oxford Mail:

“I am not a futurist and can’t tell with certainty what the future is going to be like. There are often said to be two rules when predicting the future: (one) the future will be weirder than you think and (two) the future will be weirder than you think even when you take into account rule number one.”

Seeming wise beyond his years, he goes on: “I initially thought social media wouldn’t be all that important for news because it was in the name - people had things that they frankly cared more about than news and they probably would be focussing on those things on social media.

“I was wrong about that and I try to keep that in mind when I think about the future.

“Now, perhaps we are seeing some change in that - that the social media companies may actually feel that perhaps news is too difficult and problematic for them to deal with so maybe in the future we will see social media primarily being friends and family and pictures of cats.”

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Endlessly insightful, I find myself nodding along as I look round the perfectly ordered study.

Flowers on the table; fruit bowl on his desk; a chunky academic paper sat by his computer: Nielsen has everything logically placed and thought through, mirroring his line of thinking on journalism.

“The (current) models are basically based on a previous generation’s media habits”, he explains, like a media buddha, turning to contemporary problems.

Urging media owners not to ‘confuse the challenges that the business of news’ faces with the challenges journalism faces, he continues: “Many people are sceptical of the media and don’t find it is addressing the things that they care about.

“There is also a problem of diversity, (media does not) reflect the society that it serves. This is particularly pronounced at a local level.”

Yet these challenges can be overcome, and are outweighed by possible positives, he believes, especially if journalists of today and the future stick to one particular mantra.

“The single most important thing to keep in mind is that journalism has to exist in the context of its audience.”

Few listening to the young Oxford doctor would disagree.