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.

Twitter Captures Japan Quake Horror

March 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Our household first received news of the Japanese earthquake on Twitter about 7pm. There were tweets from a number of Japan-based Twitter people that it was shaking in Tokyo and buildings were swaying around. At first it didn’t seem as if there was much horror and there appeared not to be many injuries, perhaps a testament to the strength of Tokyo buildings.

A number of tweets from Beijing said that there was an earthquake in the Chinese capital. Some concluded that it was the same quake and if they felt it in Beijing, it must have been big in Japan. It was the pregnant moment when there is a growing realisation that this is going to be huge.

Then people in Tokyo started tweeting that they could see buildings on fire and some posted photos of plumes of smoke in the distance. Suddenly tweets about a tsunami warning began to multiply into a swarm and this phase morphed into real time news of a tsunami smashing into the Japan’s eastern coast near the port city of Sendai.

Soon there were tweets of links that were broadcasting a live stream on the internet. The first media outlet that caught the eye on Twitter was Al Jazeera which is having a stellar year as a news organisation with its coverage of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Al Jazeera was tweeting that it was screening live pictures on television and the internet of the wave of destruction. I checked Sky News and CNN and both were also screening the story live.

I then responded to a direct tweet from a newspaper reporter seeking New Zealanders living in Japan. I was able to help her find a friend in Abiko, near Tokyo, who had been tweeting the seriousness of the situation, but who had also included this gem: “Must be serious. Mother-in-law is wearing outside shoes IN THE HOUSE.”

But at this stage, both TV3 and TVOne had not broken from their regular Friday night scheduling. TV3 were screening Glee and TVOne had Masterchef. By flicking between them and Sky News, I just about got the moment TV3 gave up on Glee and caught up with the next big wave lined up to hit the coast.  TVOne may have been conflicted because of its sponsorship tie-ins with Masterchef. So while some of us were seeing the disaster unfold in real time moving pictures, some of us were watching a cooking show.

The tsunami images were horrific and breath-taking. The sting was not the 8.8 earthquake which certainly caused initial damage and injury but it was the destructive wall of water that followed, and which in all likelihood be found to be the main cause of the fatalities and injuries.

The story then quickly evolved into a trans-national one as people picked up on tweets that the US Geological Survey had issue a regional tsunami warning that the quake would also possibly affect countries around the western rim of the Pacific, including as west as Hawaii, and even as far south as New Zealand.

Around this time, Civil Defence in New Zealand revealed on Twitter it was having web update problems but were working on it. Later the organisation took to publishing its web updates on Google Docs. But in the meantime, its Twitter feed had proved timely and informative.

By mid-evening, TVOne got an interview with a spokesman for Civil Defence. He was asked by a reporter that some people had been asking if the Japanese urban search and rescue team that had been working in Christchurch was still in New Zealand.

I can only assume she had seen that question on Twitter because New Zealand tweeters had been asking that very question. I like to think that there is a collective feeling, in the wake of Christchurch, that we want to tell the Japanese people to take our Twitter love and sympathy. Because we know how it feels.

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