News, media & communications

The Future of Journalism

It is widely assumed, especially online, that physical newspapers are facing imminent extinction. In Britain approximately 70 local newspapers have closed since the start of 2008 and newspapers are facing a continued decline in advertising revenues (especially job, car and home classifieds). There are the issues of declining circulations and ageing demographics too. This is worrying because newspapers are not just another consumer product. Newspapers, at their best, are part of a system that seeks to make individuals, and especially institutions, responsible for their actions. Autocracies function perfectly well without quality newspapers. Democracies do not. The death of local newspapers is problematic on another level too. Despite what you read online, many people don’t own PCs or iPhones (especially the poor, the old and the immobile) so local papers are an essential part of local community life.

So is it all doom and gloom? I think not. First, on a local level, low-tech media will enjoy resurgence until online access becomes truly universal. Hence, physical leaflets and local newsletters will both thrive as will noticeboards in coffee shops and newsagents. Second, there will be a shift towards payment for high-end, original analysis online. Rupert Murdoch recently revealed that he intended to charge readers for access to premium content online within the next 12 months. If this works, others will follow. This is a brave move, especially as most people think that digital content should be free. But this could change. At the moment news aggregators essentially rip-off news creators but this could cease if publishers start to take legal action for copyright or ‘fair use’ infringement. In other words, newspaper publishers might start moving in a similar direction to music publishers, proving that aggregators (even individual bloggers) are systematically reproducing content without adding editorial value. The music analogy works on another level too. If the media is becoming fractured and fragmented, then trusted sources will become key. News brands could be extended into other areas with additional revenue streams.

What’s most likely, in my view, is that news and information will polarise, thereby satisfying both creators and the consumers. ‘News’ – that is the immediate reporting of events – will exist primarily online and access to this will be free. In contrast, serious analysis and commentary, for which I’d expect an increasing thirst, will hide behind micro-payments or, more likely, will continue to exist on paper as part of paid-for weekly, monthly or even quarterly digests and reviews. As for ageing demographics this could be a blessing in disguise. The blogosphere was buzzing recently when Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, issued a report by a 15-year-old web-savvy intern called ‘How Teens Consumer Media’ – shock horror, teens ‘can’t be bothered’ to read newspapers. Call that news? Teens have generally never read newspapers. But teens grow up and develop a desire to make sense of the world. Furthermore, when teens get much older (65+) they have a lot of time and money on their hands. This is a perfect demographic for newspapers. In short, the crisis facing journalism is largely spiritual rather than financial and it is the issue of content, not the Internet, which is key. At the moment a great deal of media content is PR driven. Moreover, there is widespread distrust of the mainstream media caused, in part, by recent events such as the distorted reporting surrounding the Iraqi invasion. Solve these problems and, hey presto, there will be a future for journalism.
Ref: Financial Times (UK) 8-9 August 2009, ‘Rivals sceptical of Murdoch’s charging plan’, Prospect (UK), May 2009, ‘Will the coming age of news be better than the old?’, S. Johsnon/P. Starr. The Star (US) 15 August 2009, ‘The future of newspapers … or will there even be one?’, L. Siok Hui, The Economist (UK) 25 July 2009, ‘The town without news’, The Economist (UK) 16 May 2009, The rebirth of news’, Sun Herald (Aus) 9 August 2009, ‘Riding out the storm’, T. Hyland, The Independent (UK) 9 May 2009, ‘Hold the front page: newspapers have a future’, N. Clark, The Australian (Aus) 2 July 2009, ‘Reports of newspapers’ deaths are exaggerated’, J. Hartigan. Reuters 3 April 2009, ‘Murdoch says papers should charge on the web’, Y. Adegoke,
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Journalism, newspapers, news, reporting
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Are we outsourcing the human mind?

A few months ago I was contacted by someone called Dan Bloom in South Korea. He was keen to promote a new word,’ screening’, which describes the way in which people, especially younger people, read information on screen. His point is a good one. Reading on paper and reading using a screen, especially on a mobile device, are two totally different things and people should think carefully about their intentions before committing information to either. His point also brings me neatly onto another discussion about e-reading. Specifically, why am I so troubled by the shift from paper to pixels? It could be because I’m getting old. I like what I like and all that. But I think there’s more to it than that.

If all information drifts towards the digital I think that something will be lost. Books are part of a system of understanding and the idea of ubiquitous instant access will change this. Physical libraries and bookshops are important because both contain people. They also contain adjacencies. You go in for one thing and leave with another because something, or someone, catches your eye. e-books and digital learning are different. They both short-circuit this process. That’s not all either. I went to a toyshop a few weeks ago and got speaking to someone in their twenties who told me that he likes to “own things”. He was talking about buying physical copies of computer games (as opposed to downloading digital copies) but I think that he hit a nail on the head. A physical book represents a journey. You can see progression as you slowly move through the physical pages. Books have weight, both literally and metaphorically. So a personal bookshelf is, in a sense, a physical record of where your mind has been throughout your life. Thus, keeping the words whilst throwing away the physical containers (books) would seem like a very bad idea. Digitalised information is extremely useful but taken to the extreme it fails to properly balance human needs. Human beings are social creatures. We crave physical interaction. This applies to people but it also applies to things. Yes, of course Google could scan every book ever written and make these texts instantly available. But somehow such a world would be strangely claustrophobic.
Ref: Various including: The Times (UK) 7 May 2009, ‘Pulp friction: the crisis facing the book’, N. Clee. The Atlantic (US), March 2009, ‘Resisting the Kindle’, S. Birkets, Chronicle of Higher Education (US) 19 September 2008, ‘Online literacy is a lesser kind’, M. Bauerlein,
Australian Literary Review (Aus), 1 July 2009, ‘Is that a canon in your pocket?’, G. Williamson, The Atlantic (US), 5 March 2009, ‘In Defence of the Kindle’, M. Battles.
Source integrity: Various (*****)
Search words: Books, reading, thinking
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The Future of Reading

The question that everyone wants asks about the future of reading is: will e-books will take off? To some extent predictions about the death of the book are similar to prophesies about the death of cinema and analogue watches back in the 1970s and early 1980s. The reality is that both book formats will survive but it is impossible at this stage to say which form will be dominant. There is certainly change in the air although suggesting that the e-book represents the biggest shift since Gutenberg seems a little supercilious. Physical bookshops are certainly in trouble, especially large chains that serve neither a local nor a niche audience. Then there’s the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) – sitting in Blackwell’s bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London. The EBM is a giant book vending machine crossed with a photocopier. Books can be ordered and printed on demand. The EBM holds 400,000 titles, which can be spewed out in 20-minutes at a cost of about 9 GBP per copy.

So is the book industry about to go the same way as the music industry? We’ll see. What does seem certain is that reading itself is changing. For example, a study by the Nielsen Norman Group in the US concluded that when it comes to reading online people don’t. The online mindset is very much ‘search and find’ as opposed to relax and reflect. Implications? e-Books and online reading are ideal for the fast acquisition of facts. Hence, textbooks will slowly migrate online (possibly becoming open-source) and so too will the bulk of what you might call business reading. Leisure reading, in contrast, will not. Fiction will largely stay on paper. However, there is a problem here. If younger generations continue to migrate to the web in large numbers we may find that we are creating a society that is fact-rich but question-poor. People will be able to find quick answers to almost anything but will be unable to place any of this ‘knowledge’ in any kind of conceptual framework.
Ref: Various including: The Times (UK), 7 May 2009, ‘Pulp friction: the crisis facing the book’, N. Clee. The Atlantic (US), March 2009, ‘Resisting the Kindle’, S. Birkets, Chronicle of Higher Education (US), 19 September 2008, ‘Online literacy is a lesser kind’, M. Bauerlein, Australian Literary Review (Aus), 1 July 2009, ‘ Is that a canon in your pocket?’, G. Williamson, The Atlantic (US), 5 March 2009, ‘In Defence of the Kindle’, M. Battles.
Source integrity: Various (*****)
Search words: Books, reading, literacy
Trend tags: Digitalisation

PR influence in media

Jim Macnamara, a director of the Australian Centre for Public Communications at the University of Technology in Sydney, has claimed that between 30-80% of all media content is driven by public relations (PR). His meta-study of 70 local and international studies published over the past 80 years has found that a very substantial percentage of stories and articles appearing in the media is PR industry driven. Macnamara’s definition of PR includes any material supplied by, or influenced by, PR agencies, governments, corporations and other institutions. According to the study, quality newspapers and broadcasters were the least likely to be influenced by such material while local newspapers, trade media and specialist press titles were the most influenced. Top of the pile in terms of PR influence was travel media.

Clearly this is a very grey area and one needs to avoid simplistic conclusions. “PR-driven” can mean publishing a press release word for word or reproducing blatant lies, or it can inform insightful reporting. The best journalists use PR stories as just another source that needs to be checked. Interestingly, one finding from the study was that when journalists build up a strong relationship with PR sources they mentally remove the source from the PR category.
Ref: The Australian (Aus) 4 May 2009, ‘PR is driving up to 80pc of content’, S. Jackson.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: PR, spin, media content
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