News industry staring at existential questions

Let’s talk about the future of journalism.

Six years ago, Spiegel Online put those very words to Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, who replied, “This is going to be a very annoying interview. I don’t use the word journalism.” Also not in his lexicon, he told his interviewer, were ‘media’ and ‘news’ — words that “defined publishing in the 20th century.” He said he was still reading a lot of articles from mainstream media but those came to him, through, say Twitter.

Six years on, it is much easier to appreciate Mr. Anderson’s views, even though words such as journalism, media and news haven’t disappeared from our daily lives, and they won’t in the near future.

But then, the point was never about semantics. It was, and continues to be, about relevance.

How can the participants in the journalism eco-system continue to be relevant when technology is continuously working to render them inconsequential? That’s an extremely hard question to answer, particularly when the nature of disruptive technology is to remove the intermediary.

But that’s also the most important question to be asked inside news organisations today, and not just by the editorial and business leaders. Even rank and file journalists have to ask themselves that question.

Tossed up by technology

Tech has played havoc with the traditional journalism eco-system. Today, any individual on the Internet has the potential to play the journalist quite adequately — in breaking news, in giving perspective, in voicing views. Non-journalists do it frequently, and without even expecting any money for it. And, you know what, bots write results copies for Associated Press. (For the uninitiated, a bot is a software application that can run an automated task over the Internet.)

On the business side, it is a no-brainer that the traditional advertising-supported revenue model isn’t going to work online. In the U.S., paywalls have worked partially, providing some relief for the publishers. But that is only partial relief. Now, traditional news organisations are willingly giving away the role of news distribution to networks such as Facebook (Instant Articles) and Apple (News), which seem to know how to monetise content far better. (Oh, by the way, if it’s of any consolation to the traditional news industry, Twitter has been searching for relevance too of late! ).

So, what is it that news organisations and professional journalists exist for? And who pays them, and for what?

Such existential business questions are staring at the news industry. A lot of newspapers, especially in the U.S., couldn’t find an answer and have shut shop. Some of them have managed to live through the disruption for more than a decade now, helped by their willingness to adapt to the new world. The danger hasn’t passed, though. In markets such as India, the industry is living with the constant nagging thought that disruption could be just around the corner.

But it isn’t merely about fear and destruction. The world over, news start-ups are giving shape to new ideas, traditional newsrooms are being reorganised to suit a digital world, journalists are learning to code, audiences are co-creating the news experience, and new-age media moguls such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are coming into the picture. After building up Amazon into the largest online retailer, in 2013, Mr. Bezos bought The Washington Post  newspaper, calling it “uncharted terrain” that will require “experimentation”.

The news media’s fight for relevance in an era of unprecedented technological changes is not something to be missed. The very idea of this column is to make sense of all these changes that are taking place in the world of journalism today. For, deciphering the present is as exciting as speculating about the future.


The news media’s fight for relevance in an era of technological changes is not something to be missed

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