Saturday August 15, 2009
The future of newspapers . . . or will there even be one?
By LEONG SIOK HUI
Plagued by economic slum, drop in circulation and ad revenues shifting to the Internet, US newspapers scramble to reinvent themselves for the digital age.
BACK in 2005, media mogul Rupert Murdoch told the American Society of Newspaper Editors, “I believe too many of us editors and reporters are out of touch with our readers.”
Today’s Generation Y (those born in the 80s and early 90s) disdain news that is presented as gospel, he said, suggesting that news providers should get web-savvy and become “places for conversation” where journalists and editors can engage bloggers and podcasters in discussions.
Fast forward to this year, and major newspapers in the United States are struggling to stay afloat.
Some like the 150-year-old, Colorado-based daily paper, the Rocky Mountain News, met an early demise while others like The Seattle Post-Intelligencer became a Web-only publication. Prestigious papers like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, part of Tribune Company, are facing bankruptcy. Even The New York Times has not been spared. New York Times Company, which owns it, saw the paper’s stock sink by 60% and rated as junk investment towards the end of last year.
Why the gloomy outlook? It’s a mishmash of factors — not adapting fast enough to the digital age, the worst economic slump since the Depression, huge cutbacks in ad revenues, and drops in circulation.
In a recent one-week Multimedia Workshop for International Journalists hosted by the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, New York, we discussed how journalism can survive the digital age, especially with the huge presence of blogosphere and citizen journalism. Media practitioners from Ukraine, Georgia, South Africa, Kenya, Venezuela, Peru, India and Malaysia learned how to use different tools — video, podcasts, audio-slide shows and blogs — to engage readers.
In the United States, the mainstream media is suffering from financial and “spiritual crisis”, but independent media and new web-based media are flourishing, pointed out Jeff Cohen, the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.
“The old model of advertiser-driven daily newspapers, combined with big-profit margins for distant owners or corporate parents, no longer works,” said Cohen who founded media watch group FAIR (Fair & Accurate Independent Reporting) in 1986.
“I say ‘spiritual crisis’ because US mainstream media suffered a loss of confidence and credibility over its failed coverage of the Iraq invasion, largely accepting and parroting major distortions from the White House (during the Bush administration).”
In addition, the new web-driven media environment is forcing journalists to be more interactive with the public and to be more transparent, and to abandon the elitist notion of an all-knowing press feeding a largely passive public, Cohen added.
“Independent media, with more personal relations with their readers/viewers and a more adversarial attitude towards the powers that be in society, have been growing, winning journalism awards and getting noticed,” said Cohen, referring to sites like Huffington Post and bloggers like Talking Points Memo (TPM).
TPM (www.talkingpointsmemo.com) is the first Internet-only news operation to clinch a prestigious American journalism award, after their investigative reports led to the resignation of US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Founder Joshua Micah Marshall started TPM as a political blog in 2000. Although these independent media have no economic pressure (from corporations), there is the issue of their political bias.
“But at least they wear their biases on their sleeves, unlike the mainstream media that claims to be objective,” said Cohen.
So, will independent media eventually replace mainstream news? Dr Dianne Lynch, the president of Stephens College, a private women’s university in Columbia, Missouri, doesn’t think so.
“I think journalism produced on new platforms by individuals who are not associated with traditional news organisations will be part of the mix,” she opined. “But I also think we will need to have a significant mix of funding sources for journalism: the marketplace, in combination with public funding and private philanthropy.”
What Lynch talked about is already happening in the United States.
Using the “crowdfunding” concept (getting micro-donations through the Internet to help fund a venture), journalists now pitch story ideas and try to raise funds from the public to cover their costs. Sites like Spot.us and Representative Journalism (pjnet.org/representativejournalism/) or RepJ are leading the way.
San Francisco-based Spot.us has funded stories on the environment and the rise of the homeless population.
One California-based freelance journalist, who hopes to sell a multimedia slide show and an article to The New York Times about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a mass of plastic trash swirling in the Pacific Ocean), is raising funds to cover her travel expenses via Spot.us. RepJ, running a test in Northfield, Minnesota, plans to hire a full-time journalist to work for a local community through donations.
This alternative model works best in a local context — and only if readers are willing to pay for stories that affect their lives directly. Spot.us founder David Cohn hopes to prove that “journalism will survive the death of its institutions.”
Another player on the sidelines is The Real News Network (www.therealnews.com), a start-up that aims to be a daily mass video news service via online and TV networks. Funded by donations, it wants to produce “truly independent news” free from corporate influence and caveats. But the site needs thousands of new donors/members to make it sustainable.
Old media reinvent themselves
To their credit, The New York Times has beefed up its coverage with interactive tools in the last few years. Today, it has 50 active blogs, and readers can “connect” with their columnists through their individual Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“I think The New York Times is doing a good job embracing multimedia and trying out something new,” said Vadim Isakov, scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College, New York.
Recently, the paper launched its Times Reader 2.0 application that allows readers to replicate the feel of a newspaper on their computer or laptop.
Powered by Adobe Air, the Reader reads like a newspaper and updates like a website for Windows, Mac or Linux users.
Basically, if you subscribe to the Reader, you can take the day’s “paper” with you and read it later even without online connection. The seven-day archive allows you to catch up with news.
“But despite its average 20 million unique visitors a month, (The New York Times website) Nytimes.com still doesn’t make enough money to make up for losses from its print circulation,” added Isakov, who conducted the multimedia workshop at Ithaca College.
Today’s news content is no longer static. In an interview with The New York Times, award-winning, political blogger Joshua Marshall of TPM said, “I think of us as journalists; the medium we work in is blogging.”
He pointed out that TPM does away with the old model of discrete articles that have a beginning and an end. “Instead, there is an ongoing series of dispatches.”
“More and more people can consume news while in the train, at school or grocery shopping,” said Isakov, “so they want professional content delivered fast and in different forms. Also, there will be four billion mobile subscribers in the future! Devices like mobile phones and smart phones are increasingly more sophisticated and affordable. So, we’re talking about producing, publishing and consuming multimedia content via these devices.”
Changing face of media ownership
Most experts agree that the future of media belongs to the people, not to the big media conglomerates.
“Journalism is alive and well, and, in fact, there has been a resurgence in public interest in the news and information necessary for communities to function in a democracy,” said Dr Lynch.
“The issue isn’t the decline of journalism: the issue is a failed business model, and a network of news organisations owned by conglomerates with extraordinary debt loads and unrealistic profit expectations.”
“Today, it doesn’t take a lot of money to record a podcast or shoot and upload a video on YouTube,” added Isakov. “Hence we see examples of individuals or a group of people challenging big media channels and organisations.”
With the onslaught of blog experts and citizen journalism today, are journalists turning into dinosaurs and heading for extinction? Certainly not, most scholars agree.
“I think the profession of journalism is being reinvented and revitalised to become more attuned to the faster, interactive rhythm of the Internet era,” Cohen reassured.
But in the next five to 10 years, a journalist who cannot use and operate across all multimedia platforms may no longer have a meaningful place in the field, cautioned Dr Matt Mogekwu, chair of the journalism department in the Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.
“Journalists must also develop an analytical mind because events are becoming multi-dimensional and complex,” said Mogekwu, who has taught in South Africa, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Swaziland. In the United States, journalists are no longer the news breaker (you have Twitter and citizen journalists to do the job) but they are ‘analysts’.
“Journalism programmes in the United States are beginning to adjust their curriculum accordingly. Hopefully, programmes elsewhere will follow suit.”
Specific job titles like “news reporters”, “magazines writers” and “TV journalists” will make way for the “modern journalist” — one who knows how to record quality audio, produce captivating video stories and write professional stories for the Web, Isakov said.
“Quality journalism will never go out of style. Fact-checking, balanced reporting, objective storytelling are here to stay,” Isakov summed up. “The modern journalists need to stick to what they do the best and embrace the new technologies.”
Closer to home
Unlike in the United States, the Internet explosion hasn’t scorched the Malaysian media companies badly yet. But the recent economic downturn and drop in ad revenues are causing stodgy companies to stir from their slumber.
In the first quarter of this year, with the exception of Star Publications, five public-listed news organisations — Media Prima Bhd, The New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd, Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd, Media Chinese International Ltd and Berjaya Media Bhd — were in the red. None of these companies, including Star Publications, were spared from the RM2mil drop in advertising expenditure (The Edge Financial Daily, June 1).
In the first six months of this year, Star’s net profit was down by 40.8%. In July, the company announced that “multimedia is the way to go for The Star to further strengthen its strong online presence . . . it will allow us to meet the many demands of our consumers today and the future.” (The Star, July 14)
Saw it coming
From 2004 to 2005, Fulbright scholar Mindy McAdams spent a year in Malaysia researching the future of online journalism as seen by Malaysian broadcast and print journalists.
“I spoke to many journalists at the English, Chinese and Malay papers, and also at RTM and TV3. Every editor and reporter said Malaysia is a developing country, the Internet speed is slow, people cannot afford to have broadband in the home, etc,” says McAdams, now a journalism professor at University of Florida’s Faculty of Journalism and Communications. “Thus, they were not concerned about multimedia.”
However, when she rode the LRT, McAdams often saw young Malaysians sitting close together and watching a music video on somebody’s mobile phone. All her students at UiTM Shah Alam, where she taught two master’s classes, had Internet at home and some regularly went to the cyber cafés to use high-speed Internet.
“When I chatted with my colleagues’ teenage children, they all used the Internet to watch videos and chat, and download music, just like American teenagers,” says McAdams who also travelled to Kuala Terengganu, Kuching, Sandakan and Miri and saw Malaysian youths of all races chatting and watching videos online.
“Kids love technology. So, why does a newspaper editor imagine that these kids will grow up to be newspaper readers?” says McAdams.
“All Malaysian university students know that the Government controls the press and TV. They go to the Internet to get the truth, to learn about the world.”
The future of journalism is online, McAdams surmised. “The next step is broadband and 3G on the mobile. Mobile phones like iPhones are taking over the US market (they are becoming cheaper too), and we are surfing real Internet and watching movies on our phones!
“In fact, I often download HD (High Definition) video documentaries from Al Jazeera English and watch them on my iPhone while I’m waiting at the airport.”
Currently broadband penetration in Malaysia is about 26% but the Government hopes to increase it to 50% by the end of next year, so it looks like traditional mainstream media needs to buck up and embrace digital technology before it gets left behind.