Media Talk: Summing up The Economist's future of news

Media Talk: Summing up The Economist's future of news special report

After glancing at the front page headlines and picking up a copy of The Economist's news media edition from the newsagent, I headed to my local coffee house with it tucked under my arm. I grabbed a table and the bloke who sits at a small table each morning consuming his news with his breakfast handed me The Courier-Mail

Glen, who served me my coffee, asked me if I'd seen the new Network Ten show Can of Worms. No, I haven't. He gave me a rundown of the previous night's topics: do Australians swear too much; is the burqa out of place in Australia; is it offensive to call someone a bogan; and is it okay to spy on your kids online?

After perusing Facebook, Twitter and my emails, and mining some of the links on my own blog sidebar (many through to sites edited by non-journalists), I had a conversation about a DVD called "The Marketing of Madness" created by an offshoot of the Church of Scientology with a woman I know who then told me to watch a YouTube video called "Why I am no longer a Christian". Then a former Nine Network TV producer asked me if I'd be interesting in working with him on a new community project. 

This is how I'm consuming news and networking in my everyday life: in the coffee house. These everyday people are the new gatekeepers, albeit offering me a filtered view of news already filtered by the powers-that-be in media. And I imagine it's much the same for those who commute to workplaces or other community spaces each day.

The Economist is on the money: the news industry is returning to something closer to the coffee house. "The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics... Most strikingly, ordinary people are increasingly involved in compiling, filtering, discussing and distributing news."

With certain quarters of News Corporation reportedly asking, "Why do we own newspapers anyway?", below are highlights (or, rather, an extensive blow-by-blow) from The Economist's 16-page special report on the state of newsmaking and selling. Now, who's paying for the coffee?

Editorial: 'Back to the coffee house'
- It is not just readers who are challenging media elites but technology sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter who have become important conduits of news.
- Politicians and celebrities are bypassing media to provide their own updates and "now make raw data" available through 'open government' intitiatives.
- Mastheads gone global: The Guardian now has more online readers abroad than at home in Britain.
- The web has allowed new providers of news, from individual bloggers to sites such as The Huffington Post, to rise to prominence in a very short space of time.
- The news agenda is no longer controlled by a few press barons and state outlets, like the BBC.
- Less investigative journalism due to cost-crunching? Maybe, but "old-style journalism was never quite as morally upstanding as journalists like to think."
- Who's watching the fourth estate? "A growing band of non-profit outfits such as ProPublica, the Sunlight Foundation and WikiLeaks are helping to fill the gap left by the decline of watchdog media." (See: News of the World)
- Partisanship? "In a more competitive world the money seems to be in creating an echo chamber for people’s prejudices: thus Fox News...".
- BUT "as news is becoming more opinionated, both politics and the facts are suffering".
- The answer: accountable, transparent journalism; discerning, demanding consumers.
- Conclusion: the world is alive with the sound of a "noisy, diverse, vociferous, argumentative and stridently alive environment of the news business". Ergo: "The coffee house is back. Enjoy it."

By Tom Standage

"[Readers] don’t just consume news, they share it, develop it, add to it—it’s a very dynamic relationship with news,” says Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, a news website in the vanguard of integrating news with social media.

- Television newscasts now include amateur videos, taken from video-sharing websites such as YouTube. Greater immediacy, unguarded reactions, videoed in real time.
- "By undermining advertising revenue, making news reports a commodity and blurring the boundaries between previously distinct news organisations, the internet has upended newspapers’ traditional business model."
- "The internet may have hurt some newspapers financially, but it has stimulated innovation in journalism."
- "Referrals from social networks are now the fastest-growing source of traffic for many news websites. Readers are being woven into the increasingly complex news ecosystem as sources, participants and distributors."
- Newcomers to the news ecosystem: Twitter, Facebook, Google, specialist news organisations (eg WikiLeaks), not-for-profit news organisations specialising in particular journalism.
- "Many of these new outfits collaborate with traditional news organisations, taking advantage of their broad reach and trusted, established brands."
- When all the world's a source, what about objectivity?

How newspapers are faring: A little local difficulty
- Did Craigslist, which has siphoned off classified advertising revenue, kill the American newspaper? "That would be a considerable exaggeration," says founder Craig Newmark.
- TV, cable TV and the internet are leading sources of news now, especially amongst under-30s.
- Advertising revenue changes: "in 2008 America’s newspapers collectively relied on advertising for 87% of their total revenue... Between 2007 and 2009 newspaper revenues in France fell by 4%, in Germany by 10% and in Britain by 21%. In America they plummeted by 30%." [Eek].
- Bad business deals further compacts the issue pushing several newspaper businesses into bankruptcy.
- More job cuts, closures and consolidation to come.
- Industry was too dependent on local advertising monopolies.
- BUT newspapers still setting the agenda for other news media and employ the most journalists.
- AND some countries – China, India, Asia, Africa, South America – are experiencing SIGNIFICANT INCREASES.
- Mircoblogging is popular in China, subverting the party line.

Reinventing the newspaper
- Advertisers have followed readers to the internet, diversifying formerly concentrated audiences across platforms. Hence, newspapers have a revenue problem.
- Now news organisations are chasing non-traditional sources of revenue (eg. wine clubs, online bookstores, reader events) as it is "clear that revenue from online advertising alone will not be enough to cover the costs of running a traditional news organisation".
- What about news' role in upholding democracy?
- Paywalls to save the day?
- "The trouble is that online advertising typically brings in less than 20% of a newspaper’s advertising revenue, and rates on all but the most prominent pages are falling... Revenue from online advertising is growing, but not fast enough to fill the gap opened up by the decline in revenue from print advertising and circulation."
- "Most news sites have a small core audience of frequent visitors and a much larger group of readers who visit only occasionally", hence the viability of metred paywalls, such as The Economist's.
- Others are charging for smartphone and tablet content. Sales of apps suggest readers are prepared to pay, and have been conditioned to pay, in this context.
- BUT newspaper and magazine readers don't want to pay extra for online/mobile content: publishers are therefore giving subscribers free access to digital editions as part of the deal.
- Newspapers might, in time, move to Sunday-only printing and publish digital only during the week. [Hence, closing News of the World makes sense].
- "By contrast, two British newspapers, the Guardian and the Daily Mail [the world's second most popular newspaper site], have made all their content available free online in an effort to transform themselves into global news brands."
- All-access metered paywall model might not work in the UK, as sales more dependent on retail sales rather than subscriptions (as with Australia).
- Are major newspaper redesigns in the pipeline? One media consultant is in favour of "magazine-like emphasis on analysis and storytelling".
- Philanthropic news organisations the answer for quality journalism? "I think we need to get into the habit of endowing not-for-profit journalistic enterprises, both at the national level and at the local level, the way people endow chairs at universities,” says Arianna Huffington.

The people formerly known as the audience
- More people use Facebook but Twitter is the medium of "influencers".
- In new news ecosystem journalists, sources, readers and viewers exchanging information.
- The change began around 1999, when blogging tools first became widely available, says Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University.
- At first many news organisations were openly hostile towards these new tools.
- Now, not so much. "Newspapers and news channels have since launched blogs of their own, hired many bloggers and allowed readers to leave comments, as on blogs. They also invite pictures, video and other contributions from readers and seek out material published on the internet, thus incorporating non-journalists into the news system." See: CNN's iReport.
- "Curation" now is key. See: Storify, Keepstream, Storyful, Flipboard app,, Zite and Trove.
- Readers and viewers part of the news distribution system via Facebook and Twitter referrals as well as forwarding functions. A Pew study found "Facebook is beginning to join Google as one of the most influential players in driving news audiences."
- In a fragmented media environment, chances of friends and family viewing same items is high.
- More time filtering, less time reading?
- "Mutualisation of news" = readers and viewers involved in gathering, filtering, distributing.
- "The role of journalists in this new world is to add value to the conversation by providing reporting, context, analysis, verification and debunking, and by making available tools and platforms that allow people to participate. All this requires journalists to admit that they do not have a monopoly on wisdom."
- But a "like" does not a journalist make.

Julian Assange and the new wave
- Launched in late 2006 as "an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis" with the aim of "exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet block, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East". Funded by donations and staffed by volunteers.
- Unmasked corruption in Kenya, the Church of Scientology, the Peruvian Oil Scandal; leaked Sarah Palin's emails, membership of a British nationalist party.
- In 2010, adopted a new, editorialising tone. Worked with the New York Times, Der Spiegel and the Guardian to publish a cache of 75,000 documents relating to the war in Afghanistan.
- In October 2010, documents relating to the Iraq war released; in November, highlights from diplomatic cables.
- WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assagne in turmoil, but other news organisations setting up "drop boxes" such as the Wall Street Journal. Will WikiLeaks, with Assange as "editor in chief", be covered by the First Amendment if it calls itself a news organisation?
- Arguments about the boundaries of journalism collapsing and line between journalism v activism blurring with transparency-based sites springing up (eg. the Sunlight Foundation).
- Amnesty International is creating a "news unit" staffed by journalists.
- Focus on thorough, accurate, fair and transparent reporting.
- Non-profit investigative news organisations also in the mix: Pulitzer-prize winning ProPublica, launched in 2008 by former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Paul Steiger is an example.

The Foxification of News
- Does transparency count for more than objectivity?
- Fox is one of the world's most profitable news organisations set up in 1996 by Roger Ailes, a former media adviser to three Republican presidents, to appeal to conservative viewers. Now owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, it is "famous for being opinionated rather than for being profitable".
- Fox isn't alone in its bias.
- CNN has failed to catch on with its "disinterested, at-arm's-length anchor" model, though CNN managing director Mark Whitaker says his channel is known for "integrity and avoiding cheap opinion" and for providing more global coverage than its more parochial competitors. "In this day and age you should have a point of view, but not necessarily one that's rooted in knee-jerk ideology," he says.
- Journalism impartiality a myth? "A lot of newspaper people treat it as one true religion, when it's an artefact of a certain set of economic and historical circumstances," says Nieman Journalism Lab;s Joshua Benton. Hence: objectivity = greater scope for wide readership.
- Advertiser alienation gives further credit to the impartiality sentiment and rise to detached journalism. Objectivity as a commercial product; a means to satisfy everyone?
- In the "grand bargaining" of news making, the internet has given rise to opinion, validating the case for "polemical, opinionated news channels", according to Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, though the station maintains its impartial stance.
- "By undermining many of the traditional arguments for objectivity, the internet may this cause a wider 'Foxification' of news and a return to the more opinionated, partisan media landscape of the 18th and early 19th centuries"... thereby releasing journalists from "the straitjacket of pretending they do not have opinions".
- So, is transparency the way forward in addition to basic standards of accuracy, fairness and intellectual honesty and the new-media practise of linking to sources and data? And perhaps even publishing full transcripts of interviews?

Coming Full Circle
- Technology is driving news to "the more vibrant, freewheeling and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era".
- The idea of news being produced by a specilist elite and disseminated to the masses along with advertising, which helps to pay for the whole operation, has been disrupted by the internet over the past decade.
- At the same time, news is becoming "more opinionates, polarised and partisan, as it used to be in the knockabout days of pamphleteering."
- Conventional news organisations, not suprisingly, having difficulty adjusting.
- Is the mass-media era coming to an end?
- "A new generation that has grown up with digital tools is already devising extraordinary new things to do with them, rather than simply using them to preserve old models. Some existing media organisations will survive the transition; many will not."
- Journalism is no longer the exclusive preserve of journalists.
- Successful media orgs will need to accept the new reality, "serve readers rather than advertisers, embrace social features and collaboration, get off political and moral high horses and stop trying to erect barriers around journalism to protect their position".

Girl With a Satchel