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Technology Challenges Journalism

After basking in the magnificence of the Grand Canyon on Saturday, it was back to serious business for the Cronkite scholars today, as they dug deeper into the digital media tsunami battering journalism. No part of the world is immune, so it seems.   

Today’s presenter, Retha Hill, highlighted that 85 per cent of news consumers now get their information via the digital format. This trend will continue to grow and penetrate all age groups. Legacy media, which once ruled the market, grew fat on the profits and became complacent. They were sluggish in their response to the changing paradigm, even when the writing was on the wall with the merger of the Internet and the personal computer in 1995.

Panelists kick off Session 2
Retha Hill, Mi-Ai Parrish, and Greg Burton discuss technological challenges to journalism.

We were fortunate to hear from an experienced industry insider caught in the maelstrom, Mi-Ai Parrish. She was of the view that some of the industry’s problems were of its own making. The industry had been talking about these issues for 20 years without much concrete action, and two decades on, it is still struggling to move from an advertisers’ model to a subscribers’ model, although there are glimmers of hope. The New York Times has amassed more than 3 million digital subscribers, and growing, while Metro for the first time, has more digital subscribers than print, with the digital revenue stream becoming more profitable. 

The digital media tsunami has not spared the Pacific region, tiny and remote as it is. One of the oldest newspapers in the region, The Fiji Times (est. 1869), which was part of the Murdoch stable until 2010, has seen advertising revenues plummet, and is now experimenting with a paywall. Social media such as Facebook has put paid to its hefty profits. As one presenter said today, media such as Facebook are no friends of journalists or journalism, partly because they are tools for misinformation on an unprecedented scale.

In the Pacific region, the context is somewhat different, with social media seen as a necessary evil. Some Pacific governments are corrupt and autocratic by nature, and repress the media in one form of another. The Pacific also lacks professional journalist capacity, so social media and citizen journalism fill an important gap. This social media scrutiny of government is unprecedented, and governments are so unused to the level of intrusion that they are lashing out. In Fiji, there are concerns about the broad nature of the country’s Online Safety Act passed in January 2019. In Papua New Guinea, deemed one of the most corrupt countries in the world, there was talk of banning Facebook. Earlier on, our colleagues from Kazakhstan and Ukraine reported that there were time restrictions on Facebook in their countries.  

SUSI scholars discuss technology challenges in their own countries

Some of the laws used to control social media in the Pacific also impact the rights of mainstream media, even though mainstream media do not indulge in fake news or disinformation — at least not on the same grand scale as social media. This is another reason for the mainstream media disdain for citizen journalism.

As we heard, digital media brings unprecedented threats and unprecedented opportunities. The Phoenix Chronicle newsman Greg Burton summed up the dilemma as, a “scary time out there with opportunities to do good work.”  News media monopolies have been dismantled. Once, it was nearly impossible for new startups to succeed because it was so expensive. Now, almost anyone with a computer, an internet connection, and a good idea is able to initiate something.

As Burton said, “it has never been as challenging to be a journalist as it is today but there have never been as many opportunities to reach such large audiences.” While developed countries “have all the internet they want,” there are exciting opportunities in heavily-populated, developing countries with expanding economies primed for further growth.   

Not all is doom and gloom: there are opportunities for non-profit foundation funding and grant journalism, with editorial discretion, as well as developing audience loyalty around certain topics and certain types of journalism, as long as the trust issue, which has been a major part of our discussions to date, is resolved through greater transparency and accountability–and if that trust is not squandered yet again.

Indeed, one advantage of citizen journalism is that it keeps the mainstream news media–a power structure in its own right–in check. It has forced mainstream news media not just to re-examine its business model, but also its ethos, ethics, attitudes and priorities.

This dilemma explains our love-hate relationship with social media.