These are challenging times for journalism. Two things have disrupted the way in which people access information, and therefore the practice of journalism itself — social media and the mobile phone. These two in combination have disrupted the way in which legacy newsrooms operate, forcing them to adapt to fast-changing technology.
The Digital News Report 2016 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 51% of their sample use social media as a source of news. According to the Global Web Index’s first-quarter report for 2017, 94% of digital consumers aged 16-64 say they have an account on at least one social media platform and 98% have visited/used one within the last month; one in every three minutes spent online is devoted to social networking and messaging, with digital consumers engaging for a daily average of over two hours. At least 78% of the Internet population aged 16-64 is now networking via a mobile.
Publishers are relying less and less on their websites and instead going where the audiences are — the social media platforms, on the mobile.
Big Brother is watching you
For democracy to be practised at its best, there should be plurality of thought and a public sphere that is vibrant with a multitude of views.
Jürgen Habermas, the guru of mass communication theory, has written about how mass media changed the concept of the public sphere from the free-flowing discussions in the coffee houses of 18th century Europe to the mediated space of mass media. Mr. Habermas’s public sphere was occupied by journalists and opinion makers; the audience, in turn, was expected to sift through the news and views to make informed decisions about the world in which they lived. The presumption in this model was that media organisations were driven by responsibility to the public while the audience was politically engaged, rational and discerning.
Cut to the 1990s, when the media ecology changed drastically with the advent of the World Wide Web. The generation and distribution of news and opinion was no longer a linear process but networked. This was a medium that was democratic, accessible to all (at least in theory) and a place where multiple conversations could take place. It was felt that the rise of the Internet had given way to the decline of the newspaper but that theory was soon debunked, and between 2000 and 2009, newspapers began setting up the online versions of their printed publications; this became a time of consolidation for the news media online as people would visit the websites of trusted publications for news.
Twenty years on, the media landscape is very different. Large players like Google and Facebook have actually shrunk the space for public discourse and the very nature of news publishing has changed as a result. Big data, personalisation and distributed content are the watchwords today and news organisations are all jumping on the bandwagon.
Increasingly, search engines such as Google and social media platforms such as Facebook deliver personalised content to users. Algorithms are now replacing news editors and opinion makers and they are getting more and more refined in learning from user behaviour. And as content has multiplied, Facebook and Google are privileging content based on engagement rather than its quality.
The more people click, share, like, or comment on an article, the more likely it is to be served to someone else; and not because it is the best article on the subject. These filters limit people’s access to information, leading to the political polarisation and spread of fake news.
Returning to its roots
The mainstay of journalism, holding power to account, is increasingly giving way online to publishing trivial content in the hope of attracting more users. In a bid to increase revenue, publishers are aiming for the largest number of page views, and dumbing down content and engaging in clickbait to reach more eyeballs.
In such an environment, it is only a matter of time before readers will seek out trusted journalists and publishers who they can depend on to provide the news and information that is unbiased and accurate, and opinion that reflects multiple viewpoints and world views.
This is a unique moment for journalism to fulfil its watchdog and gatekeeping roles and be publicly accountable for its content. However, to do this, journalists and their publishers also need to adapt to the new reading habits of their audiences and adapt to storytelling in different formats — not just text, but more interactive, visual formats.
It is also an opportune moment for journalists to take full advantage of the social media tools that are available to them like Snapchat, Facebook Live and Twitter’s Periscope to connect with their readers without losing the core values of journalism so that they can continue to tell stories that resonate with the reader.