Why peo­ple still want good jour­nal­ism

As news­pa­pers strug­gle for sur­vival, the new busi­ness model might be to charge on­line read­ers – as well as to en­sure they get value for money by prop­erly in­vest­ing in dig­i­tal ver­sions Last Words? How Can Jour­nal­ism Sur­vive the De­cline of Print?

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS&BOOKS - Michael Fo­ley

Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Ray­mond Sn­oddy and Richard Tait Abramis, £19.95

The prob­lems are well aired: news­pa­pers are los­ing cir­cu­la­tion, ad­ver­tis­ing is down, on­line has ceased to hold the prom­ise it once did, Google and Face­book are suck­ing up the ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue, and the busi­ness model that has sus­tained the me­dia for the past few cen­turies is no more.

But as news­pa­pers get rid of jour­nal­ists, in their at­tempt to sur­vive, we still need ac­cu­rate re­port­ing and in­formed anal­y­sis: we are faced with fake news, Don­ald Trump’s United States, and the rise of racism and xeno­pho­bia.

Last Words? How Can Jour­nal­ism Sur­vive the De­cline of Print? is an am­bi­tious at­tempt to ex­plore the is­sues. Its five ed­i­tors, each tak­ing one of the book’s five sec­tions, have com­mis­sioned 50 con­trib­u­tors – a num­ber that means the stan­dard can be un­even. Some go off on tan­gents; some sim­ply write, nos­tal­gi­cally, of the de­cline of print rather than jour­nal­ism. (And some con­tri­bu­tions have been pub­lished else­where.)

But the con­trib­u­tors are an in­ter­est­ing and im­pres­sive lot, a mix of in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als, from ed­i­to­rial, ad­ver­tis­ing, man­age­ment, mar­ket­ing and academe, al­though even here the aca­demics are mainly for­mer jour­nal­ists. Many of the es­says are com­pelling, and it is ob­vi­ous the au­thors have thought deeply about the fu­ture of news­pa­pers and jour­nal­ism.

Dig­i­tal chal­lenges

What are prob­a­bly the most in­ter­est­ing chap­ters are the cases stud­ies: Peter Cole on the Guardian, which adopted an open-ac­cess model, on the ba­sis that news on­line should be f ree, but has now launched a paid-for mem­ber­ship scheme; Paul Lash­mar on the Lon­don In­de­pen­dent and the de­ci­sion to close its print edi­tion and go on­line only; Doug Willis on the de­ci­sion of the Lon­don Evening Stan­dard to be­come a free paper; and John Rid­ding, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Fi­nan­cial Times, on how his news­pa­per has suc­ceeded, so far.

Rid­ding of­fers a rea­son why at least some news­pa­pers have held up: “At a time of limited in­for­ma­tion and limited time, they pro­vide a valu­able ser­vice of se­lec­tion and judge­ment for read­ers and an in­formed hi­er­ar­chy of im­por­tance.” He sug­gests that is why they are such an at­trac­tive for­mat for ad­ver­tis­ers, “with tac­tile and vis­ual ap­peal, part of the rea­son why lux­ury ad­ver­tis­ing has held up so well”.

One might say it’s okay for the Fi­nan­cial Times, with its wealthy niche au­di­ence, but Rid­ding sug­gests it is a case of what ed­i­to­rial ma­te­rial suits what plat­form, ar­gu­ing that value- added re­port­ing and anal­y­sis, through ei­ther ex­clu­siv­ity or judg­ment, are the pre­serves of print, with break­ing news made for the web.

The pic­ture that emerges is one of news con­sumers us­ing a mix of plat­forms: a dig­i­tal sum­mary over break­fast, a news­pa­per over cof­fee or at the week­end, news on a desk­top in the of­fice, email alerts and video when on a mo­bile de­vice.

The other fac­tor is Face­book and Google, which are suck­ing up dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing. That should be forc­ing legacy me­dia to look at other in­come streams, es­pe­cially the cover prices and dis­play ad­ver­tis­ing that nei­ther Face­book nor Google can touch.

A num­ber of busi­ness mod­els are re­ferred to: fund­ing for jour­nal­ism from foun­da­tions or not- for- profit or­gan­isa- tions, such as the Bureau of In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism; trusts; or pub­li­ca­tions funded with com­mu­nity sup­port.

In an es­say on Ire­land in the in­ter­na­tional sec­tion, Kathryn Hayes of the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick, and Tom Felle of City Univer­sity of Lon­don, are cau­tiously up­beat. Ir­ish au­di­ences are not aban­don­ing jour­nal­ism but mi­grat­ing from print to dig­i­tal. That said, al­though dig­i­tal plat­forms are show­ing im­pres­sive growth, the rev­enue they gen­er­ate is still small com­pared with that from print. “It is not that news has sud­denly be­come un­fash­ion­able, it’s that mak­ing money out of news is prov­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult,” they say.

There are no con­clu­sions, and no es­say draw­ing the ar­gu­ments to­gether, but if one were to sug­gest a thread com­mon to all 50 es­says it might be that au­di­ences will re­spond to good jour­nal­ism and that where there are suc­cesses it is be­cause of in­vest­ment in jour­nal­ism – al­though one con­trib­u­tor does sug­gest that lo­cal news­pa­pers could rely on vol­un­teers, with a few paid jour­nal­ists com­mis­sion­ing and edit­ing.

Re­hashed press re­leases

In­creas­ingly, how­ever, what the pub­lic is get­ting, es­pe­cially in Bri­tain’s lo­cal news­pa­pers, are re­hashed press re­leases pro­duced by fewer low-paid jour­nal­ists, while im­por­tant sto­ries in the courts, lo­cal gov­ern­ment and other agen­cies are ig­nored, af­fect­ing civic en­gage­ment and demo­cratic con­trol.

De­spite all the graphs and statis­tics show­ing de­clin­ing sales and fall­ing rev­enue, there ap­pear to be some rea­sons for op­ti­mism. So­ci­ety needs good jour­nal­ism, and the pub­lic clearly wants it. In some cases news­pa­per com­pa­nies are do­ing well. Maybe a model is emerg­ing where peo­ple will pay for good, chal­leng­ing and even en­ter­tain­ing jour­nal­ism on a range of plat­forms.

That can­not be based on clear­ing news­rooms of jour­nal­ists. In­stead it must come from en­hanc­ing ed­i­to­rial by in­vest­ing in jour­nal­ism, so that the au­di­ence, if asked to pay, is get­ting value for its money.

We still need ac­cu­rate re­port­ing and in­formed anal­y­sis: we are faced with fake news, Don­ald Trump’s United States, and the rise of racism and xeno­pho­bia

Michael Fo­ley is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of jour­nal­ism at Dublin In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy

PHOTOGRAPH: ERIC LUKE

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