Power and pin money: Time for a new deal between big tech and the media

There’s a clear irony in engaging in a lively debate about the impact of big tech companies on journalism as part of a festival largely financed by Google and Facebook. The recent International Journalism Festival in Perugia offered more than one example of this. Welcome to the new media universe, in which powerful platform companies call the shots and news organisations struggle to keep up.

Big tech and the mainstream media currently appear to be locked in a love-hate relationship – one in which hypocrisy plays a large part. The same people who often criticise the Silicon Valley giants in public are more than happy to take their money when it is offered. The time has come for a more pragmatic approach.

Tech companies influence the media in several ways. Most importantly, their algorithms dictate the kind of content that readers see. If Facebooks decides to go slower on news – as it did in 2018 – users see less of it in their feeds. The way in which Google ranks search results has a direct impact on the exposure that media brands get.

Secondly, platform companies influence the kind of innovation projects and storytelling formats that newsrooms feel able to take on board. New tech projects almost invariably receive the label “innovation”, whether or not they are genuinely innovative. “The expensive job of innovation in newsrooms increasingly means asking ‘What would Google want?’ – influencing what newsrooms choose to develop, from virtual reality, to voice skills, to photo libraries”, the Tow Center’s Emily Bell writes. The consequence is that other areas in which innovation is desperately needed – management styles, processes, talent acquisition and retention – tend to be neglected.

Thirdly, big tech companies engage in direct funding. They support projects, research, training and the like. The collaborative research project “The Publishers’ Patron”, carried out by NetzpolitikRepublik and Falter and led by Alexander Fanta, shows the contribution made by Google’s Digital News Initiative (DNI) to journalism innovation.

No more “church and state” separation

What should we make of all this? Of course, newsrooms have never been totally independent of the media ecosystem in which they operate. Media outlets have always had to contend with powerful owners, advertising clients and political interests lurking in the background. And let there be no mistake: even crowdfunding is not without its pitfalls if the funders feel let down, as the heated debate around The Correspondent’s unexpected withdrawal from the US has demonstrated.

The situation has evolved in recent years. There used to be a clear division between the editorial and the business sides – similar to the concept of the separation of church and state – which wasn’t perfect but was at least an attempt to shield newsrooms from external pressures. This has now gone for good, as it no longer makes sense in a digital environment in which product development, marketing and editorial have to work hand in hand. And on top of that, platforms have a much greater influence on the daily business of producing news than anything ever seen before.

It’s an inescapable fact that journalism needs all the help it can get, and most media outlets are in no position to reject (well-intended) support. The Washington Post under its owner, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, is a good example of how a news organisation can flourish given certain conditions – the main ones being stable, transparent investment and editorial independence.

Here are some thoughts on what the two sides of the equation need to bear in mind before deciding to accept or offer funding, whether this is for a newsroom, a research institution, training and knowledge exchange or for tools to facilitate editorial work:

Tips for recipients

  • Make sure your funding comes from a range of reliable sources. Diversity of income sources used to be the rule in the days of advertising, and it should still apply. Your business should not be entirely dependent on one source of income.
  • Consider what the money will be used for. Is it a small-scale experiment or a narrowly defined project, or does it have an impact on your core business? This makes a difference to the precautions you need to take. Don’t use the money for research that is directly related to the donor. For example, it’s not a good idea to use Google money to research the influence of Google. (It must be tricky for Washington Post reporters to carry out investigations into Amazon, even if they claim there is nothing to stop them doing this.)
  • Only take money for projects that make sense in the context of your strategy. Every news organisation is different: audiences, business environments, missions and needs vary. Instead of jumping onto a bandwagon and allowing yourself to be seduced by “bright shiny things”, think carefully about the funding offer. Does it fit your particular needs? Does it allow you to make further progress along your chosen path? Or is it just something fun to do? There’s nothing wrong with fun, but if the funding runs out you might find yourself saddled with a set of experts you no longer need, and that you neglected other more relevant areas in the meantime.
  • Make sure donors don’t interfere with your research and content. Think about the terms of engagement beforehand. Read the small print. Establish independent oversight bodies where necessary. This is particularly important for academic institutions.
  • Think about the impact on your reputation. It’s better to have a communication strategy already in place before making any grand announcements. TU Munich, one of Germany’s most prestigious universities, recently had a hard time fending off criticism after it accepted a sizeable Facebook grant for research into the ethics of Artificial Intelligence.
  • If you can, do without it. Independence is wonderful and essential to enable journalism to fulfil its role in a democratic society. Though there’s no such thing as complete independence, it’s best to avoid entering into a role that entails additional dependency.

Tips for donors

  • Ideally, don’t tie your funding to content. Respect the need for independent journalism and research as a public good and don’t do anything that risks compromising this.
  • Don’t make funding contingent on political goals – and if you do, be transparent about it. People will always suspect a hidden political agenda and you will soon come unstuck if you pay lip-service to neutrality and non-interference but fail to respect these principles in practice.
  • Don’t ever threaten to withdraw funding. Be aware that you are engaging in a highly asymmetrical relationship, so treat your partners with respect. Take care not to increase their level of dependency.
  • Listen to recipients. Find out what they really need. Don’t tell them what they should need or talk them into projects they don’t have the capacity to run.
  • Subject potential recipients to proper scrutiny. It’s embarrassing if you have to withdraw funding because you haven’t done your homework, for example by failing to check out a recipient’s political allegiances – as happened when Google announced it had decided to award a grant to a Hungarian news website, then pulled the grant after critics pointed out that the outlet had been guilty of spreading right-wing propaganda.
  • Predictability and transparency are key. Organisations need long-term commitments to be able to plan ahead and help their employees feel secure. They need to know where they are at.
  • Don’t let your support look like pin money if you really want to make a difference. (Unless all you want is to offer a bit of pin money…)
  • Pay your taxes. The American approach to giving puts the emphasis on the discretion of the individual donor. They decide what their money is used for. The European approach works through the tax system and involves redistribution via democratic processes, with representatives of society deciding on priorities. If you try to circumvent the democratic process, you will be seen as considering yourself to be above the law.

The platform companies often try to depict their engagement in the media industry as a way of “giving back”. This is a very transactional way of framing it. Journalism has a critical role to play in democracies. Ideally it makes sure that all interests are heard, holds power to account and gives citizens all the information they need. This is vital for stability in free societies. A better way of viewing big tech’s engagement in the media is as a “shared responsibility”, in which those who have more are happy to do more of the sharing.

Disclosure: The author used to be the Managing Editor of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which doesn’t accept Google funding. She now runs the Leadership Programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. While the Institute benefits from sizeable grants made by platform companies (including Google), the Leadership Programmes are customer-funded and so compete with “free”, Google-funded educational programmes. She has also written a media column for NewsMavens, which is funded by the Google News Initiative.

This text was published by European Journalism Observatory on April 29, 2019


Journalism’s Risky Tech Attraction

There is nothing wrong with using technology to solve problems, including those created by technology, or to give a company a competitive edge. But not even the most advanced tech will save the media industry if there is no regard for the people – journalists and audiences – who are asked to use it.

OXFORD – Technology was supposed to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Connect everyone to the Internet, it was once assumed, and democracy would follow. Collect enough data, and all of our questions would be answered. Put everything online, and algorithms would do the rest. The world would practically run itself.

Instead, we now know that digital technology can be used to undermine democracy; that it raises more questions than it answers; and that a world that runs itself seems more like an Orwellian nightmare scenario than a noble goal. But while technology isn’t the solution, it isn’t really the problem either; our single-minded focus on it is.

Consider the experience of the media industry, where the digital revolution has wreaked havoc on prevailing business models over the last decade. Publishers and editors responded by putting all their faith in technology: tracking all manner of metrics, embracing data journalism, hiring video teams, and opening podcast studios.

More recently, media organizations have shifted their attention toward artificial-intelligence solutions that track audience preferences, automatically produce desired content and translations, alert journalists to breaking news, and much more. In the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s latest annual report on media trends, 78% of respondents in a non-representative survey of international media leaders said that they planned to invest more in AI this year.

But the final frontier in the quest to save journalism, many believe, is the blockchain – the distributed ledger technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. That remains to be seen: the first attempt to leverage the blockchain to free journalists from ad-driven business models, by Civil Media Company, had a bumpy start.

There is nothing wrong with using technology to solve problems, including those created by technology, or to give a company a competitive edge. That is what The Washington Post, for example, has been doing in the six years since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased it (at a time when it was hemorrhaging money and shedding jobs).

But not even the most advanced tech will save the media industry, or anybody else, if there is no regard for the people using it. And that does not mean just audiences. After years of chasing the latest tech trends, the media industry is increasingly confronting burnout among existing management and staff, and a shrinking pool of new talent.

According to the Reuters Institute report, some 60% of media leaders are concerned about burnout on their teams, and 75% now worry about retaining and attracting staff. Another report, Lucy Kueng’s Going Digital. A Roadmap for Organizational Transformation, shows that middle managers, in particular, have been exiting the industry.

This should not be surprising. Journalists have always faced pressure in managing the churn of time-sensitive, demanding, and constantly changing news situations. But, in the past, they could at least count on the news organizations that employed them to offer stability and consistency. Now, they must also navigate relentless, tech-driven organizational change – often poorly explained and hastily introduced. The level of uncertainty can drive away even the most loyal staff.

To be sure, change is unavoidable; the digital age demands constant adaptation. But making needed adjustments without destroying morale requires implementing a people-oriented approach. This is not a straightforward process. For tech solutions, managers can attend shiny digital conferences, take some sales team’s advice, sign a contract, and dump the new tools on their newsrooms. With people, they have to listen carefully, acquire an in-depth understanding of the problem, and then devise their own strategy.

A good place to start is leadership. In any industry, the key responsibilities of an organization’s leaders include making their employees feel secure and appreciated. That means paying attention to employees’ needs and fostering an organizational culture that provides them with a sense of belonging and purpose.

A similar approach must be applied to audiences. Not even the most accurate metrics can provide the needed guidance, if nobody understands what they actually mean, why they were chosen, or what their psychological impact would be (on audiences or staff). While data can deliver useful insights about audience preferences, listening to people can lead to very different impressions and conclusions.

For example, the data might show that more content means more page views; but if audiences long for fewer distractions and higher-quality reporting, flooding the market with robot-produced content will not satisfy them. Likewise, users might click on a larger share of articles if algorithms are used to personalize their experience; but if users become bored by the same topics and perspectives, personalization will not help.

Tech-based solutions are a means, not an end. That is why The New York Times, for example, is leveraging its digital success to invest more in journalism. Last year, the company added 120 newsroom employees, bringing the total number of journalists there to an historic high of 1,600.

For organizations without the clout – and digital revenue – of the Times, a people-oriented approach may also be needed to secure investment. With the limits of the ad-driven business model becoming increasingly apparent, many media leaders – close to one-third, according to the Reuters Institute survey – believe that in the future foundations and non-profits will play a central role in supporting the media.

But persuading foundations and philanthropists to open their hearts and wallets will require human connection and engagement, not algorithms or AI-enabled software. Potential funders need to be convinced that journalism is as noble a cause as, say, cancer research.

Technology alone cannot encourage democracy, help answer important questions, and facilitate effective leadership by boosting accountability. But, to some extent, high-quality, responsible journalism can. If it is to fulfill that purpose, however, news organizations must not allow themselves to be swept up by every new tech trend. If they treat technology as more than a tool for implementing people-centered strategies, the people they need – both staff and audiences – will continue to vote with their feet.

This column was published by Project Syndicate on March 14, 2019

Don’t stop gender diversity in the news media before it has even started

A new report by the Women’s Media Center on gender diversity tells a discouraging story — across all media types — online, print and broadcast — men get roughly 60 percent of the bylines and women only 40 percent

With some news, one would prefer it was misinformation. But the new Status of Women in the US Media 2019 report by the Women’s Media Center is based on real numbers, and it tells a discouraging story. Even though women outnumber men in journalism schools and colleges, the traditional gender pattern in American media prevails.

Across all media types — online, print and broadcast — men get roughly 60 percent of the bylines and women only 40 percent. Apart from some laudable exceptions, a generational shift is nowhere in sight. Men dominate almost all subject areas, and the situation at the news agencies AP and Reuters is particularly bad. But even more alarming could be the fact that when the American Society of News Editors sent out its annual diversity survey last year, only 17 percent of 1,700 media organizations responded — an historic low. Apparently the bulk of newsrooms couldn’t care less.

This is disturbing news. It indicates that the media has become tired of the gender debate already. In an industry where attention spans are short and the quest for breaking news is relentless, gender equality has lost its way even before the policies that were developed to battle it have been implemented and shown results. 

Diversity is a huge issue in newsrooms, especially from a European perspective. Having conducted many interviews with newsroom leaders and heads of journalism schools for an ongoing research project on talent and diversity in three countries — Germany, the United Kingdom and Sweden — there is every reason to believe that diversity is fairly high up on their agendas. It also scored prominently in the Reuters Institute’s annual “Trends and Predictions” survey, emphasised by 56 percent of the international media leaders in the sample, up ten percentage points from last year.

But it is not gender diversity that editors-in-chief are worrying about. These days they are much more concerned about the diversity of political viewpoints and social backgrounds of their staff. There is nothing wrong with that.

To the contrary, in increasingly polarized societies it is vitally important that journalists reflect the whole picture, not just a particular segment of it. Except this quest for inclusive newsrooms might come at the expense of the 50 percent of society that haven’t been equally represented in news coverage for decades — women.

Strangely many newsroom leaders also describe that the profession that has become increasingly feminized. Journalism schools churn out female job applicants in abundance, and they are often better qualified than their male counterparts. There is a significant pipeline of female talent particularly in the digital sphere, and ever-increasing numbers of women are populating newsrooms. But that doesn’t mean they are getting the bylines or the bucks. As the American data shows, women are still much less likely to hold prestigious, high-visibility  jobs in this field and the gender wage gap is prevalent almost everywhere.

Media leaders need to know that before abandoning all efforts to support women, it is vital to get the statistics right. This is why counting bylines, measuring on-air time or comparing salaries are much more telling indicators of gender equity than plain numbers. It makes a huge difference in journalism when more voices are heard. And it makes a huge difference in society, too.

This text was published by NewsMavens on 1st March 2019

The rise of the urban class – What the death of local journalism means for society

The rift between big metropolitan areas and the countryside has grown. Now the urban class is pitted against everything from deep suburbia to the last provincial backwater — and journalism has something to do with it.

The political divide used to be between the haves and the have-barely-enoughs. For more than a century, social class was the best predictor of voting behaviour. Of course, there have been other indicators which social scientists have successfully used to determine political alignments: religion, gender and age, ethnic origin or level of formal education. However, the phenomenon of right-wing populism isn’t easily explained along these lines.

Today’s populists come from the poor and rich in equal measure. Which is why parties like the German AFD attract disgruntled university professors and social security recipients alike. And even though the narrative of the alienated white working-class male was stretched to exhaustion when explaining Donald Trump or Brexit, the numbers revealed a different picture. Trump was supported by workers and millionaires just as much as Brexit was.

The big divide these days is of another nature, and it has only a little to do with pocket books. Heat maps about political preferences reveal a rift between the big metropolitan areas and the countryside. The urban class is pitted against everything from deep suburbia to the last provincial backwater, and journalism has something to do with it.

Of course, this city-country dichotomy is no new development. Big urban areas have always attracted those who were willing to put up with diversity and risk for educational or economic gain. They tended to be more tolerant of those who were different and voted more often for parties with progressive agendas. But developments in the media have amplified the divide.

When newsrooms were doing some soul searching in the aftermath of the Trump election, the Brexit vote and other populist-flavored surprise outcomes, they often realized that they had missed out on important developments in their own countries: a growing dissatisfaction among populations they hadn’t made an effort to understand.

Yes, reporters were sent to small towns and provinces to depict “the typical Trump voter”, for example. But the research trips were very often conducted like visits to the zoo. And the stories that came out of them catered to the expectations of the educated, urban readership because the journalists who wrote them were typically of the urban class. They were either raised and educated in the metropolitan areas to begin with, or had fled rural environments in disgust.

“Our journalists don’t understand the countryside” — said more than one editor when discussing the talent pipeline in the profession. The lack of journalists with rural backgrounds is more of a concern to many of them than the lack of gender or ethnic diversity among their staff. And these editors know the major reason for this: the decline of local and regional newspapers.

“These papers used to be training grounds for young journalists”, said one editor of a Swedish news organization. Talent from the rural areas would eventually seep into the national news outlets, and help set agendas. With many of the small newspapers closing down, this stream has dried out.

These days young people from urban middle class households are the most likely ones to make it into the newsrooms of first rate publications. Consequently, they shape the media’s view of the world. And this view informs political debates.

The diminishing trust in media now reveals that the picture they are presenting is incomplete, and some newsrooms have drawn conclusions from this. For example, the Swedish public broadcaster SVT – after less than satisfactory election coverage – made a point of sending plenty of reporters to the countryside during the next campaign and found it did a much better job capturing the public sentiment.

To be sure, better journalism doesn’t necessarily prevent populism and the rise of autocratic leaders. But quality journalism is an essential ingredient of democracy. Its mission is to inform public debates and portray the world – all of the world, not just parts of it. Diversity in newsrooms is a pre-condition for it.

This commentary was published in News Mavens on 1st February 2019

London Calling Brexit: A view from the outside in

Looking at the Brexit mess from outside of the UK, it doesn’t take much for observers to conclude at least one thing: the British don’t understand the EU. Leavers display a downright hostility through their portrayal of the EU as some bureaucratic, money gobbling behemoth, determined to cripple Britain’s autonomy, but this completely misses the point. It should be common knowledge, at least in elite circles, that the bloc was conceived after two atrocious wars primarily to prevent people from shooting at each other again. Then again, it is safe to say that the lack of insights is mutual: most European citizens have been baffled by the UK and Brexit. But what is even worse is that many inhabitants of the ‘London bubble’ around Westminster and Whitehall don’t seem to understand the rest of the UK either.

Having moved to the Southeast of England from Germany a little more than a year ago, following the Brexit debates has been fascinating. They reveal a country, and especially an elite, that on the one hand is proud of its heritage as a former world superpower, but on the other is often ignorant of so much that happens outside central London, and even less on the other side of the English Channel. In a media environment firmly rooted in the UK’s capital, it is as easy, if not sometimes easier, to stay informed about what happens in India, China or Australia, than about what the challenges are in Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow, or Cardiff.

By contrast, Germany benefits from a very different system with its federalism and strong regions, many of them with a strong industrial core and sizeable media organisations. The German capital, Berlin, does not dominate German politics like London does. But Germany is also different because it was forced to confront its devastating past. For West Germany to survive morally and economically, it was essential to forge alliances with former enemies to move towards a peaceful European future; a future our children will hopefully enjoy for decades to come.

Yes, the EU was created on shared economic interest, but its vision has always been political. The founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 promoted the idea that economic cooperation would foster political comprehension, six years later the Treaty of Rome affirmed that belief. Trade and economic relations have always been underpinned by strong images of political cooperation. The iconic photo of then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand holding hands at a war cemetery in Verdun in 1984 comes to mind. It was just recently mirrored by the embrace of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at a ceremony marking the centenary of the end of the First World War. In the 1990s, the Eurozone was not primarily invented to spur growth but to take one more step towards political unity after the fall of the iron curtain.

Sadly, too many in the UK’s elite in London don’t look at the EU that way. At least that is what it feels like. Some of London’s elites until recently cultivated the image of a predatory Nazi-Germany. It’s clearer than ever that Britain engaged in European integration mostly to reap some economic benefits, not for political reasons. This means that the narrative of peace and cooperation was completely lost on many in the UK. And when the economic benefits fell through, for them there was not even a shadow left of the real story of the European Union.

Maybe it would have been easier if the story of the UK itself was one of a proud union. But the Brexit debate has revealed that the UK’s own differences were given insufficient thought. The absence of reflection about the Irish question is a sad testimony of this. Had anybody responsible thought about the fragile situation at the Northern Ireland border, the Brexit referendum might not have been conceived so easily. And obviously, there was not much reflection about economic consequences either such as inflation, or of transport connections, fishing rights and many more. The “us British” versus “them Europeans” narrative of British autonomy was sold to economically challenged citizens across the UK without alerting them to the fact that the EU has worked to their advantage. Citizens outside London, desperate for the attention of their policymakers, fell victim to a power play by some privileged Londoners.

Image (cropped) by katy-at-katyblackwood.co.uk, (CC BY-SA 4.0).

So what’s the view from outside the UK’s – and London – bubble? Frankly, many Europeans couldn’t care less about Brexit. That’s what the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the media research specialist Prime Research concluded in their study “Interested but not engaged: How Europe’s Media Cover Brexit”. They found that major European media outlets in eight countries dutifully covered the Brexit process, but regarded it as Britain’s own problem rather than a European challenge. French media were the most outspoken on this, confidently suggesting that the EU might be better off without a nagging neighbour constantly putting its foot on the brake. The Europeans concerned the most have been the Irish, who know that the mess will be theirs to shoulder, once London’s Brexiteers have retreated into their bubble.

Of course, international Brexit reporting has been shaped by the London perspective on things as well. All foreign media have their correspondents stationed in London, with only the more privileged of them entitled to the luxury of extensive travel through other parts of the UK. Consequently, the foreign press spends most of their time with the “he said, she said” type of reporting centring around the negotiations in Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels, as the Reuters Institute study revealed. Very little reporting has revolved around issues like citizen’s rights, around the consequences Brexit might have for ordinary people, with some concern shown only about trade and business relations. European media portray Brexit mostly as a battle between Westminster and Brussels, rather than as a grave policy step affecting real people outside central London and across the UK.

Of course, correspondents usually mirror the local press, and if that press is based in London, then the London view will be what is transported beyond the border. The decline of regional news organisations hasn’t helped. The BBC World Service broadcasts in more than 40 languages, yet between London and the rest of the UK, much seems to be lost in translation.

This text was published by the London School of Economics and Political Sciences Brexit Blog on 7th January 2019

Why the news media isn’t dead yet – seven reasons for hope

There are plenty of reasons to talk about the media as an industry in crisis. Business models are eroding, political pressures on journalists are increasing, and the need for cultural transformation puts newsrooms under severe strain. However, giving up is no option. So as we approach 2019, let’s focus on the strengths of the industry and hopeful signs on the horizon: 

First, the People. Journalism wouldn’t be anything without its journalists. And the profession is full of amazing human beings, who are ready to innovate, adjust, work hard – even die for doing their jobs. If there was just one to single out, it could be brave Maria Ressa, veteran journalist and founder of the news site Rappler in the Philippines, who has been fighting relentlessly to keep up the mission while adjusting to digital change. A role model to all.

Second, Collaborations. It is not those who go alone that prevail. This is the lesson from some fantastic journalism that has been done in the past couple of years. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that published the Pulitzer Prize winning Panama Papers and most recently the Implant Files is an organization of 220 investigative journalists from 83 countries. A cross-border venture like this would have been unthinkable a few years ago in an industry where egos are rampant and competition used to be fierce. The future is in cooperation.

Third, Willingness to Pay. With most consumer products, customers’ willingness to pay is 100 percent, because they have to. Not in the news industry. According to the Digital News Report, the world’s biggest ongoing survey on digital news consumption, in 2018 on average only 14 percent of customers paid for online news. But the good news for publishers is: the situation is improving. Particularly younger audiences are willing to invest in good journalism, the “Spotify and Netflix generation” as the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism puts it. And people are not only paying when they are forced to by a paywall. The Guardian presents an impressive success story, managing its financial turnaround on voluntary contributions as a “third way to pay for quality journalism”.

Fourth, Institutional Support. Democracy cannot exist without independent journalism. The insight, that something needs to be done to strengthen the industry, is spreading among governments and other political institutions. One example is Canada’s recent 595 million Canadian dollar package to support journalism with an array of measures including tax breaks. Among others, the Council of Europe is working on a set of measures to promote a favourable environment for quality journalism in the digital age (disclosure: the author is a member of the respective expert committee).

Fifth, Private Sector Support. When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, many were wondering if this was the end of its independence. Today the Post flourishes as one of the most innovative news organizations in the world. Last words have not been spoken on the engagement of platform companies for journalism, but as news organizations feel (and dread) their dependence on Facebook and Google, the social and search giants have tried to frame it as a two-way-relationship, and backed it up with some money. Both companies have supported journalism innovation (disclosure: the Reuters Institute the author works for and NewsMavens where this text is published have both been beneficiaries). There is plenty of self-interest in this support for sure. It has still enabled innovation. There is also plenty of support coming from foundations and wealthy individuals all over the world. The latest impressive example: Australian Philanthropist Judith Neilson funded a 100 million dollar journalism institute in Sidney.

Sixth, Technology.  Technology helps to make journalism better — if it is not used to replace journalists for good. One of the big opportunities for news organizations in the world of data and artificial intelligence is to get to know the needs of their audiences better and build up stronger relationships with them. There will also be more interesting storytelling through data journalism. And robot journalism can do a lot to free up precious time in newsrooms and add value to the news portfolio, as long as it doesn’t add to the distracting blur of information overabundance. As always with technology: It matters how it is used — and humans have to make the decisions about it.

Seventh, Willingness to learn. The most encouraging development for the future of the industry might be this: Never before has the debate about it been as lively and constructive (This is safe to say at least for the past 25 years the author has been engaged in the industry.) Are we serving our audiences as good as we can? How can we improve our products, the composition of our newsrooms, our management skills? Are we doing the right thing in terms of innovation and values? How can we protect reporters from political and physical threats and from psychological harm? Is there anything politics can do? What is quality journalism anyway? In a profession that is adept at asking questions, many of these questions have been discussed in earnest and with passion only lately. Maybe it always takes a crisis to produce hope.

This commentary was published by NewsMavens on 21st December 2018

It’s not social media, it’s us!

It’s not technology that is bringing about populism and political outcomes many of us don’t agree with. It’s people.

Unsuprisingly, establishing a causal relationship between the means of communication and today’s political landscape is quite common these days. Thanks to intense news media coverage, the general public is getting more media-savvy. People are discussing algorithms, the power of Facebook, the impact of Twitter, and they draw their conclusions. It’s all the Russians’ fault, they say, or: it’s all because of the filter bubbles.

But sorry, this is wrong. While social media and its ad-driven business model does plenty to amplify radical voices, and while Russia’s role in all this deserves investigation, let’s clarify. It’s not technology that is bringing about populism and political outcomes many of us don’t agree with. It’s people.

It was members of a British political elite deluded by dreams of self-importance and a long-gone empire, hunting for a quick win among disappointed voters, who pushed for Brexit. They were noisily supported by traditional British media, who had much more impact than Twitter could dream of. It was the already polarized American society with its undercurrents of racism and sexism that led to the election of Donald Trump. And it has been the fear of losing out in a fast-changing world that led people to hope for quick fixes and easy solutions, proposed by politicians who capitalize on these fears — yes, people again.

This is not to downplay the effects of social media. The powerful platform companies better hurry in understanding the mechanisms that amplify hate speech, bullying, extremism and the like and get a grip on them — fortunately bad publicity and looming regulations got them started. But one of the biggest dangers of the digital age is the temptation to shed human responsibility. By transferring more and more processes to algorithmic decision-making, it will get easier for decision-makers to retreat from the line of fire. A qualified candidate doesn’t get invited to a job interview, a mortgage is denied? Must have been the algorithm. A blatant lie gets shared all over the place? Well, it just showed up on the timeline. A military drone targets civilians? Ouch, the programming must have gone awry. 

But let’s remember, it is humans who code software in the first place. It’s humans who neglect to pay attention to the rules it follows. It is humans who decide to share or ignore lies. It is humans who come up with lies in the first place. And it is humans who decide to go to war.

In the age of artificial intelligence, it is vitally important that human intelligence lend AI the values we would like to see in our societies. And to review these values in the light of the public debate. Additionally, there needs to be strong mechanisms for appeals, when someone feels mistreated by software. All this is even more important when algorithms write algorithms. Here exit mechanisms need to be put in place.

No one is infallible. Judges, leaders, doctors, editors, none of us are always right. But as long as we feel responsible, there is much we can do to base our knowledge on the best and latest information, and on our shared social values. And we should definitely use software to help us make these decisions, rather than let the software do the decisions making for us.

This column was published by NewsMavens on 23rd November 2018

The mundane assault on news media

The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was a gruesome reminder that the media is under attack. And yet the greatest risk to the profession is not contract killers carrying bone saws; rather, it is mundane concerns like budget cuts and intensifying demands on reporters.

OXFORD – The brutal torture and murder of the US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has focused attention on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have ordered the killing. It also highlights the hazards of the news business. When the final numbers are tallied, 2018 could be the most dangerous year on record for journalists worldwide.

But while physical attacks on journalists have become – and Khashoggi’s killing may be the most audacious yet – most dangers confronting the profession are much more mundane. Five stand out.

First, the number of job opportunities is dwindling, and positions are characterized by low pay, perpetual job insecurity, and limited opportunities for advancement. In the United States, for example, newsroom employment has dropped nearly one-quarter in less than ten years, while enrollment in top journalism schools has tapered off more recently.

Second, “Big Tech” is outcompeting news organizations in the race to attract limited talent. Journalism needs people skilled in technology to lead investigative reporting projects and to manage the industry’s digital transition. But at the moment, most computer engineers see a brighter future with platform companies like Facebook and Google, which can offer higher pay, more job security, and better work-life balance than even the biggest media outlets.

Third, journalism is a lot less glamorous than it once was. Years ago, weather-beaten foreign correspondents on television or the front pages of major newspapers lured young reporters to the craft. And, although most of us who took the bait never ventured farther than city hall, we were nonetheless driven by the noble mission of holding the powerful to account. But in today’s distributed social-media environment, foreign correspondents are rare, and media “influencers” are more likely to be pop stars than policy wonks.

Fourth, even as pay and prestige diminish, newsroom pressures are intensifying. When a “cub” reporter joins a media organization today, the ability to write great copy is no longer sufficient; young journalists must also possess audio and video skills, data journalism capabilities, and social-media savvy. These skills might lead to better news products, but nobody is good at everything. To demand that they are and place endless demands on them might encourage reporters to leave the profession.

Finally, the relentless rhetorical attacks on members of the mainstream media by leaders like US President Donald Trump – whose “fake news” narrative targets the credibility of the profession itself – is having an effect. Although confidence in the news media has , the constant vilification of journalists’ integrity and intelligence threatens to erode the profession.

Together, these five challenges are taking a heavy toll on the news business, and this poses a risk to democracy itself. Without free and independent media, citizens cannot make informed decisions. In fact, when professional journalism is absent, people can easily become lost in a maze of often-unreliable information, or even fall prey to self-proclaimed, interest-driven experts and propaganda. Journalism is democracy’s compass; we must find a way to recalibrate it.

First and foremost, journalists need protection. That means ensuring not only their safety, but also their ability to access information and report their findings without fear of reprisal. At a minimum, attacks on journalists like Khashoggi must be fully investigated, and their perpetrators must be held to account and condemned by the international community.

And yet, support for the media must go beyond punishing those with the audacity to kill a reporter. For example, more programs are needed to help nurture young talent. Governments could offer subsidies, give tax breaks, and sponsor initiatives that offer training in journalism and new media. Future journalists need role models, but they also need the technical skills to become role models themselves.

Perhaps most important, media advocates everywhere must work to increase the public’s media literacy. News consumers must understand how journalism works, how journalists do their jobs, and why professional media outlets are essential components of a well-functioning democracy. Until the public values the output that professional journalists produce, a shortage of talent will be the next big challenge for journalism. It could turn out to be its biggest yet.

This column was published by Project Syndicate on November 27, 2018

In Institutions We Trust: What Is Quality Journalism?

Back in the day, it was all about pornography. “I know it when I see it”, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward argued in the ground-breaking verdict Jacobellis vs. Ohio in 1964, a ruling that settled much about what was legal and what was not in matters of show and tell.

“I know it when I see it” also seems to be a common response when it comes to quality journalism. Many of the debates we are having about the media these days often zero in on the question of what quality journalism actually is. And at first glance, the answer seems to be an easy one. But the deeper one digs, the fuzzier the concept becomes. And why does it even matter?

What Do We Mean By Quality?

It does because journalism is in trouble. Traditional business models are being rocked and so is trust, while the risks for journalists are rising even in Europe. Increasingly, new talent seems to be opting out for these reasons. If the trend continues, the survival of the profession will be at stake.

This is why initiatives to support quality journalism are mushrooming. The Council of Europe is running an expert committee working on guidelines for member states (the author of this text is a member). Journalism trust initiatives and projects are trying to help, too. This is where the quality debate kicks in: If we want to save journalism, shouldn’t we focus our energy and resources on the high-end, high-quality part? Maybe – but where does the high-end begin?

If we want to save journalism, shouldn’t we focus our energy and resources on the high-end, high-quality part?

There are quite a few members of the wider journalism community who would, for example, like to deny tabloid journalism any support. “Where is the quality?”, they ask. Where is the value added when reporting about Meghan Markel’s possible pregnancy outfits, or in articles about the likelihood of an alien visit from outer space? Where, they ask, is the quality in a gruesome and overly detailed report of some fatal accident where even the bereaved haven’t had a chance to hear all the details in advance? Others opine that fashion reporting can impossibly be called quality journalism. At best, some say, this kind of content is justified if it pays for “the real stuff”.

What Is “The Real Stuff”?

But what is the real stuff then? Is it only political or business reporting, or investigations of any kind? What about sports reporting, food journalism, or the more entertaining parts of the culture section – and where, by the way, does “quality” culture begin?

It is here, where it becomes obvious that defining what is and is not “quality journalism” is not only an incredibly challenging task. It is also a slippery slope that can lead to all kinds of abuse. Authoritarian regimes, for instance, won’t find it hard to tell you what quality is from their point of view: certainly nothing that involves challenging those in power. And you don’t even have to go back as far as to Hitler-Germany’s book burnings. Viktor Orbán’s decision to ban gender studies in the name of quality is a more recent example. You can bet that we won’t see much balanced reporting on gender issues from Orbán-controlled media in the future. The lesson in this is: defining quality along the lines of content opens the door for censorship. So how can quality be defined without tapping into this trap?

Quality Is About The Process, Not Only The End Result

There is only one solution: The term quality journalism needs to be separated from single pieces of content. Everyone with newsroom experience in high-quality news organisations would agree that even here, low-quality content occasionally slips through. I’m not even talking about misinformation, but rather about the kind of copy-and-paste stuff put together hastily to meet a deadline or to make a boss happy. To be honest, there is plenty of bad journalism in high-quality publications.

“The censored press remains bad, even if it brings forth good products … The free press remains good, even if it brings forth bad products.” – Karl Marx

Instead of being associated with an award-winning story, the term quality should be tied to the processes that can lead to the same: reporting on the ground, consulting a second or third source, having a second or third pair of eyes editing a story, using relevant data, being independent of business interests, sporting a pressure-proof fact-checking process, providing transparency in dealing with factual mistakes and bad journalistic judgement, holding up the bar in talent recruitment and training – and nourishing a culture that is ready to scrutinise these processes. Making sure that a diversity of social backgrounds and viewpoints are represented in the newsroom would take the quality to an even higher level. Looking at it this way, fashion reporting can indeed be quality journalism, if it follows these procedures, rather than writing puff pieces.

Ultimately, journalism is about helping citizens to make their decisions and form their opinions in all matters of life, not just in politics or economics. It is about holding power to account, about lifting the curtain, about explaining and portraying the world. And it is about the ambition–and obligation–to make these things interesting. Without an audience, journalism won’t achieve any of these goals.

We Need A Powerful Corrective

It goes without saying that size matters in all this. The bigger the organisation, the more of these standards can be implemented. A three-person newsroom cannot, for example, afford a fact-checking department. And yet, the proper collection and verification of facts will still be at the core of what they are doing.

The powerful need to be held accountable by a powerful corrective. This corrective can only be a collective, operating under procedures that stand the test of credibility.

What about the lone blogger then, trying to raise her or his voice above the noise? Do they deserve the same protections and support quality journalism is asking for? Not quite. A blogger is protected by freedom of speech rights just as any other individual. But just writing, recording or filming something and publishing it on the web cannot qualify as the kind of institutionalised journalism any democracy should cherish and uphold.

The powerful need to be held accountable by a powerful corrective. This corrective can only be a collective, operating under procedures that stand the test of credibility. In the digital world there is much talk about the wisdom of the crowd, but in the end, the mechanisms of this world are about separating the crowd into individuals. Journalism stands as a force to counter that separation. It needs to remain and be supported as an institution.

This text was published by European Journalism Observatory on 5th November 2018

Connected but not equal

One common assumption about the internet goes like this: because everybody can access information, news, and knowledge freely, the web is making society more democratic. So much for the fiction; the fact is that the opposite might be true. At least this is what a recently published study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggests. The authors examined online and offline news consumption in the UK — and we better worry about the findings — not only did they conclude that news consumption in the UK was more unequally distributed than income. But more importantly, online news consumption was more unequally distributed than offline news consumption. “One in four individuals (25%) do not consume any news online, while only 13 % of respondents do not consume any news offline”, the authors found.

This effect could even be worse for other countries because in the UK there is plenty of free access to quality news. The BBC is overwhelmingly dominant, The Guardian relies on voluntary contributions rather than on paywalls, and tabloids offer a wide range of free news to choose from. People just don’t read them as much online. With media consumption –- like it or not -– increasingly moving from offline and broadcast to online and distributed, this is an alarming trend.

This has several implications. First of all, it shines a new light on the paywall debate. It has been widely discussed in journalism circles that paywalls are detrimental to democracy.

However, apparently people from lower social grades don’t avoid news primarily because of cost, but rather because they are not that interested.

With all the other distractions and entertainment that social media provides, news stories just do not capture people’s attention. So abolishing paywalls would just result in having even less people paying for news who are entirely capable of doing so. This would further erode resources for newsrooms and consequently the quality of reporting.

Second, the power of platforms to shape worldviews is even more pronounced in users from lower social grades. While better educated, internet-savvy users make the most of their online experience and access significantly more news sources these days than in the offline-only world, the less educated don’t seem to dive into news unless it is paraded in front of their eyes — like tabloid headlines on the metro.

If a powerful platform like Facebook decides that their algorithms favour “meaningful connections with friends” over hard-core news, many people will turn to chatting with their friends rather than devouring information that might be vital for them as citizens.

Third, it is more important than ever to make journalism interesting, simply so that it stands out from the overabundance of information that we are already surrounded by. Then again this is just another invitation to produce clickbait, which in turn leads to diminishing trust.The reliability, relevance and entertainment quality of journalism will be decisive for winning this battle.

The conclusion is, when access to news becomes more of a conscious choice, there is no way around the necessity of growing that conscious decision making process. Platforms need to understand their responsibility and act on it. And people of all social grades need to be educated in the fact that by knowing what is going on in the world they can make a difference in society. If they learn to appreciate news, they are more likely to use the benefits that knowledge will give them. They might even happily pay for it.

This text was published by NewsMavens on 27th October 2018