News, journalism and the digital abyss

November 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

The news industry is looking for a life jacket in a storm. No one yet has a complete answer to make journalism float in the digital wave that is wiping out the news media’s traditional business models.

One of the biggest fears for journalism is how to maintain the separation between an editorial process and the money making side of the business. As the old news media models begin to collapse in the digital era, the danger is that the news will become all about clicks on pages because that’s what is most attractive to the advertising side of the business.

If news is determined by what gets the most clicks, the many issues that are serious, complex and unsexy (think climate change, changes to the way schools are funded or new surveillance legislation) would not be able to compete with stories about international rugby players caught in a sleaze.

How then do we as a society mitigate against changing news priorities that are primarily driven by commercial imperatives, made even more acute by an increasing desperation in news media publishing? How can good journalism be profitable when classified advertising in newspapers is drying up and free to air television news faces falling audiences and increasing competition for advertising dollars due to online competition?

The fact is no one yet knows. As American internet commentator, Clay Shirky, puts it, we are in a period of creative destruction and it is still too early to predict the kind of emerging media architecture that we hope will spring Phoenix-like from the ashes of the old business models that have served journalism for so long.

Shirky’s referencing of creative destruction is actually the idea of an Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter who described it as an essential part of business cycles. As companies grow and become leaders, they eventually become overtaken by other companies which adapt to the changes in the business environment by being smarter and more innovative.

In the current media environment, the pervasive mood is fear. Many news organisations are more concerned with clinging to their declining audiences than building new ones. It’s a strategy borne out of pessimism. There is a lot of waiting to see what happens next.

That’s why the experiments implemented by Rupert Murdoch’s News International have attracted so much media attention and commentary. The pay wall that ring fences news content on The Times website and Murdoch’s digital subscription newspaper The Daily were designed to stem the free content digital tide but the prognosis is not a hopeful one.

On the other hand, the New York Times appears to be enjoying some success with its pay wall as it records a significant increase in subscribers.

Meanwhile, The Guardian is a newspaper with an entirely different strategy. Editor Alan Rusbridger told Al Jazeera that a decision had been made a few years ago to turn the Manchester newspaper into a digital first organization.

The Guardian is betting that it will become a commercially viable strategy even though the transition to digital is literally costing it millions. Last year, it lost over 40 million pounds and it is even reportedly weighing up opening a lifestyle shop in Covent Garden to create another revenue stream.

But in journalism terms, The Guardian has been buoyed by its part in breaking two remarkable news stories – the Wikileaks documents and the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Even so there must be misgivings among its shareholders over how long it can continue to run at a loss while hoping its bet on a digital future for news pays off.

Rusbridger told Al Jazeera that the media companies that will succeed will be open ones. “This is the biggest transformation in the last two to three hundred years and not many media organisations have twigged it yet.”

The key appears to be finding ways of doing things that the competition is not doing. While it may be an expensive strategy, The Guardian is trying to seize a first mover advantage. Recent innovations include opening up its news lists to readers to contribute story ideas and@GuardianTagBot, a “Twitter-based search assistant”. There’s also nOtice, an “open community news platform” which is heralded to be launched soon.

While these experiments may not yet add up to a clear picture of the future of news, they give us glimpses of new directions for journalism and offer further clues of how media organisations need to evolve to survive.

Some might say it is simply a matter of rearranging the deckchairs but The Guardian’s guiding vision is a courageous one. That’s because it is intrinsically optimistic about quality journalism and the internet, despite the prevailing fear and pessimism that now grips the news industry.

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