What does the future hold for journalists? While nobody can know the impact of a world of variables, Quill nonetheless asked Meera Selva director of the journalism fellowship programme at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute to speculate.
In the year 2029, as the last printed newspapers roll off the presses, journalists have redefined news and their relationship with their readers.
The idea that journalists were the gatekeepers disappeared at the turn of the century. People could receive, and transmit, information where and when they wanted. Blogs, tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram shots created a loud, cacophonous conversation. At first the people with the loudest voices made their presence felt, but then, in what seemed a miraculous movement, others joined in.
People who had not seen themselves written about in national newspapers found they could tell their own stories, to their own readers next door and on the other side of the world. Indigenous people, the LGBTQIA+ community in Sub-Saharan Africa and women in rural Bangladesh found that social media allowed them to speak out and to create their own narratives of who they were and what they wanted to say to each other and to others.
This led to a change in the nature of identities forged around news consumption. A household used to be defined socioeconomically by the newspaper in its mailbox. Later, people could, to some extent, define themselves by the first news website they opened each morning.
And then people showed off the image they wished to project of themselves by the stories they shared on Facebook with friends and colleagues.
At this point, the power of media branding began to wane. The social media platforms were slow to brand the content they received from news organizations. People were more likely to say they read a story “On Facebook” rather than “from The Guardian, via Facebook.”
And this only got worse, as people shared stories privately, via messaging groups like Whatsapp.
The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019 showed that in countries such as Brazil and India, people were sharing on private messaging groups not just with friends and family, but with strangers. These communities not only shared information, but also misinformation, away from the eyes of journalists, media regulators and mainstream politicians.
Journalism continued to try to keep up with these changes.
Newspapers continued to pivot to video, laying off writers and hiring people to make short film clips that they hoped would encourage Facebook to put their brands in front of its subscribers. They wrote frivolous articles with headlines designed to grab attention on search engines. Journalists argued with each other on Twitter, judging someone’s value by the number of followers they had.
Nothing worked. Facebook realized its users didn’t want video from media houses. Clickbait, a last desperate attempt to breathe life into the dying business model that relied on persuading advertisers to pay for the chance to get in front of as many readers as possible, ended up undermining the reputation of journalists as authority figures.
And once bad actors began deliberately attempting to mislead readers, spreading misinformation and doctored images, journalism itself began to lose credibility. And cynical politicians in all countries used this perfect storm to attack journalists themselves, undermining the very notion that the role of an independent media is to hold the powerful to account.
But in the middle of this, the digital platforms that were taking away journalists’ authority were also helping create some groundbreaking journalism, especially in places where traditional media struggled with government censorship and a newsroom culture discouraged open criticism of elites. The Sarawak blog allowed a freelance journalist to document deforestation in Borneo and pick up a story that led her to uncover corruption at the heart of the Malaysian government and its development fund, 1MDB: a story that mainstream media later picked up on.
Egypt’s newspapers and broadcasters struggled to find their voice in the years following the 2011 Tahrir Square protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. But then a group of young journalists who had lost their jobs at an English-language edition of a well-established Egyptian newspaper created the website Mada Masr. It took on its own governments, and that of others in the Middle East, with accurate, dogged and fearless journalism.
This continued as more digitally savvy, cost-conscious, mission-driven young journalists entered the fray, determined to find new ways of reporting on subjects they cared about, from climate change to migration.
Money was an ongoing problem. Some of the best journalism came from sites funded by foundations and not-for-profit entities. But investigative journalism was expensive, and people were reluctant to pay for news.
“Digital first” media brands such as BuzzFeed, VICE News and HuffPost, which had created the type of entertaining content that is easily shared on social media, appeared to have found the magic formula. Except they found themselves saddled with investors who wanted fast returns on their investment, even as they won more and more plaudits for their investigations and serious reporting.
The digital transformation unbundled news, with readers reading and sharing individual stories via social media. The idea of a news package, a mix of light entertainment, serious news, and lucrative supplements on fashion, travel and sport, changed forever.
This unbundling hit local newspapers, which relied heavily on display advertising from a small, highly targeted readership, particularly hard. And in cutting costs and laying off reporters, local newspapers struggled to report critically on local courts, town councils and local authorities, and on issues that directly affect ordinary people’s lives.
Policy makers everywhere began asking who, if anyone, should bear responsibility for making sure citizens have access to serious, good quality, accurate local, national and international news, amid a growing awareness that independent journalism may, indeed be a public good and something that could be of benefit to governments.
This concept already existed in the public sphere – it was what drove the creation and maintenance of public sector broadcasters like the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And countries like Qatar, China and Turkey realized the soft power potential of English-language broadcasting, and set up Al Jazeera English, CGTN and TRT World, often hiring British and American journalists to present a different worldview to viewers in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
But there was wider debate about who protects and funds journalism in the digital space. Overall, people are reluctant to pay for news and it is unlikely that subscriptions or membership models will ever fully replace lost advertising revenues. Many countries mooted the idea of government support for independent journalism, through subsidies, tax breaks or legislation that somehow forces or encourages platform companies to share more of their revenue with media-based content providers.
Some glimmers of hope appeared for the business of journalism. While many readers were reluctant to pay for one or several digital subscriptions, they were willing to pay for an internet subscription similar to Netflix or Spotify, with news rolled into that service. In South Korea and Japan, Line became a hugely popular messaging app with dedicated channels to news. It had found new audiences, mainly younger and female, that had been neglected by more traditional media.
But to make this model work, journalists and editors had to make radical changes to the way they present and produce news.
The Digital News Report 2019 pointed out that less than one-third of people worldwide said they accessed a website or app directly – 55 percent preferred to access news through search engines, social media or news aggregators – all areas where algorithms, rather than editors selected and ranked stories. This trend continued, with journalists having to pay more attention to technology and to data, to break down which graphics work best on Twitter, how long someone would watch a video before they tuned out, and how to persuade someone to read a political story.
In this unbundled world, media could no longer rely on their names or reputations – their reporters and editors had to constantly work to make sure their readers and viewers stayed engaged and continued to trust what they said.
There were ongoing threats by politicians determined to undermine the credibility of journalists, passing legislation that stopped them from doing their job, and, in the worst cases, allowed them to be killed or arrested on flimsy charges.
As content crossed national borders, so too did the broader debate about what journalism is. Journalism’s survival depends on the industry thinking globally – realizing that a call to ban Facebook in France would have a very different impact in Cambodia, where many rely on it to bypass government control. Laws to stop the spread of fake news could be seized on by authorities in, say, Singapore to pass even more draconian anti-free speech laws.
And journalists had to remember that their readers and viewers had more and more choices on what they read and watched, online and in print, television and radio.
But this generation of people who have never bought a newspaper or even held one in their hands, nonetheless, needs and deserves good journalism.
The challenge, ongoing, is to give them, and indeed everyone, the news they deserve.
Meera Selva is director of the journalism fellowship program at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, part of the University of Oxford. She is a former correspondent for The Associated Press, and has worked as a journalist in London, Berlin, Nairobi and Singapore.
Tagged under: Global Journalism