Contemplating the business of journalism

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Above: John L. Allen Jr at CAMSEL’s symposium on Fake News. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1121 for November 28

On November 17 and 18, two distinct and very different groups met to listen to learned thinking on the subject of fake news specifically and the parlous state of the news business generally. 

Vivian Schiller was on her second visit to T&T, again a guest of the Unit Trust Corporation, but the room seemed colder this time around. 

A year ago, a large group of journalists and media managers turned up to listen to Schiller at UTC’s Port of Spain Head Office. This time around the turnout was smaller, with significantly diminished numbers of both practitioners and their leadership despite the lure of Jaffa’s cuisine. 

The audience this time around favoured digital natives and for them, this was a sermon that demanded more depth. 

Schiller prefaced her talk by mentioning that she had no numbers for the Caribbean, which was unfortunate, because her presentation would have been infinitely stronger and more relevant had her conclusions been drawn from more than readily available first world statistics. 

Headline topics for Schiller included the current amplification of fretting about the psychological impact of social media, the concerns about how conversations and perceptions have been manipulated by programmed posts driven by data insights and robot likes. 

Of global concern is the dominance of just three digital businesses, Facebook, Google and Badu and the oversized influence they have on what Internet users read, view and hear. 

The numbers presented by Schiller are deeply troubling for those invested in traditional news production, with 51 per cent overall across all demographics reporting a preference for these information aggregators as news sources.

That number rises sharply to 64 per cent for the 18-24 age group.

News organisations are present on all digital platforms, according to a chart she offered in her slide deck and have a pervasive presence, but Schiller noted, “all the stories look alike and they are flattened as brands.”

“Half of all readers could not remember the name of the news brand they read on a digital platform,” she said, “but two-thirds can remember the platform as the source.”

Regarding the phenomenon of fake news, Schiller lamented “the deligitimization of facts.”

“We are losing agreement on basic facts.”

It would be a discussion taken up the next day at CAMSEL’s Catholic News Symposium, “The Pursuit of Truth in the Age of Fake News” led by John L Allen Jr, editor of the Catholic news website, Crux, a long haul reporter on Vatican matters who spoke largely to a cross-section of the local laity.

“Most fake news begins with a perfectly plausible story that tracks with public perception,” Allen said.

“The relentless market pressure of the 21st century news cycle pushes journalists to go with a story first and to fact check its accuracy later.”

It boils down, in Allen’s explanation, to a very biblical temptation to run with a story compared to the rather less appealing challenge of verifying facts which may not be easy to source.

How does a news organisation step back and resist the temptation to publish?

Allen is an admirer of Pope John Paul II’s epigrammatic line, “Be not afraid.”

He urged journalists to find the courage to defy the trend to pursue viewer/reader numbers over the journalist’s need to confirm and verify. 

“Being first across the finish line [with a story] can mean a difference of half a million dollars in revenue compared with coming in third,” Allen acknowledged.

“If we consider that there are people behind the story we are thinking about running, and to put ourselves in that position, we might want to think about how we would want the news media to approach the story.”

Vivian Schiller at the UTC’s Rethinking Media Business Models discussion. Photo by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

Schiller’s List, 2017

Branded content is enjoying a resurgence even as digital ad channels stagnate and shrink. News organisations are creating separate production divisions to create content for advertisers. There has been a halo effect with the establishment of these units which can channel some of the mood of the independent newsroom, even when they are physically separate.

Reader revenue, once guaranteed by subscription, is now evolving to unpaid memberships (you pay with data attributes), crowd funding and premium membership which delivers expanded and exclusive content. 

There’s growing need for an audience engagement leader, a sort of reader ombudsman, to bridge the reader/viewer experience with the newsroom and leadership’s planning by bringing the impact of the reporting on the customer back into the newsroom.

Some media outlets have experimented with events that offer a showcase for the journalism. Alignments have been successfully sought with other products favoured by the target audience of the newsroom.

Affiliate linkages are being explored, and media houses collaborating on reporting and combining common resources to produce deeper reporting is becoming more common.

The revolution is not yet over. Messaging apps have overtaken social platforms as news delivery sources and introduce a new era of personalised media. Next up are voice based platforms and these always listening devices that will be baked into every major consumer electronics product. Augmented reality enabled cameras are less than two years away, projected to be a 70 billion business by 2021

Diversify your revenue, find new ways to tell stories, engage with your community. Podcasting and email newsletters are enjoying an upsurge in attention as a way to engage with the audience.