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