Where to next in the new age of journalism?
It’s finally happened. A Neiman’s study has revealed that the number of employees working online has officially exceeded the number working for print publications. We have been waiting for this swap since the internet began, but now it has happened we are left wondering, where do we go from here?
It was recently revealed that The Telegraph Media Group have had a newsroom cull to cut costs, waving goodbye to, amongst others, some of their most senior journalists. In a newly digitalised world, where we receive a deluge of information from numerous forms of media, is intelligent comment set to disappear alongside the physical page?
What spurs this decision to fire some of the industry’s most experienced thinkers? Particularly at a time when, as the Neiman’s study notes, print advertising and circulation are declining and online advertising is failing to make up the difference. Perhaps it is an experiment, but it’s more likely due to cost. In another approach, City A.M. has recently announced a dramatic change to their business model, where they will open up the hallowed world of journalism to the very corporates they write about. Now anyone can publish anything, anytime, anywhere – for a fee. By tearing down the editorial/commercial divide, City A.M. hopes to change the face of publishing and regain profitability in the process. City A.M.’s cofounder also argued that even specialist journalists cannot produce better informed copy than corporates who are experts in their field. Within this model, senior journalists appear to be losing a foothold.
There is the crucial matter, however, of independent reporting. If we go straight to the horse’s mouth we may end up with a biased version of events, missing the endeavour of journalism in the first place. We look to journalism to find independent viewpoints. A 2013 Nielsen survey noted that over 80% of respondents said they trusted endorsements from people they know. This would explain the dramatic rise of the blogger: a transparent consumer, a reporter of the people, the journalist who is also your mate. Perhaps publications need to become more like the blogger and style themselves as the editorial ‘friend’. Often the most credible, and followed, are those that don’t obviously endorse products or promote narrower views. Eric McPherson, former chief content officer of Maker Studios, the digital video network, notes that ‘This generation doesn’t dislike brands. What they don’t like is advertising’.
The Guardian, which ranked as the most trusted news source in a 2015 Ofcom report, appears to be considering this in their long-term approach. Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner commented in a press release that “Over the next three years, a growing and far deeper set of relationships with our audience will result in a reimagining of our journalism, a sustainable business model and a newly-focused digital organisation”. Despite this, the Company (which does not have a paywall) reported a loss of £17.6m for the financial year ending March 2015. Consumers may trust them, but they are not being asked to pay up for the privilege.
It is clear that most outlets are trying to find the right balance between instant gratification, trustworthiness and compelling argument. It seems unclear, however, which of these will crumble and which will thrive in the new world of online journalism. Naturally enough, each is likely to survive in some form given society’s need for speed and desire for opinion. Whilst commercial imperatives of publishers continue to be mangled by a confluence of digital convergence and cost pressures, there will likely be acute angst for some time to come. Hybrids such as BreakingViews, the FT’s Instant Insights, and others may be the answer. Indeed Twitter resonates with journalists of considerable experience, able to punctuate the breaking news (from any source) with comment in very few words.
Our conclusion is that business will be business and journalism will be journalism; if they don’t combine to make a profit that will ultimately hurt business rather than the latter. Journalism represents a fundamental social need: freedom of speech. The importance of this was brought to attention recently when a bookseller from Hong Kong spoke out about his arrest by secret police in mainland China for selling books critical of the Chinese Communist Party. The news was met with outrage, particularly within Hong Kong whose status as a semi-autonomous territory supposedly grants them freedom from the constraints of mainland Chinese regulations. “This is not just about me”, the bookseller said in a press conference, “it is about freedom of speech for everyone in Hong Kong”. The right to sound our opinions, and the outrage we feel when that right is taken away, has become synonymous with what written word represents. It will, therefore, always be demanded, whether in print, online or published in a book. Only its form will change.
Into what, as ever, we’ll have to wait and see.