By CHERIAN GEORGE
6 February 2009 – These are anxious days for journalists, with the global recession tripping up a newspaper industry that was already reeling from declining readership. Like all generalisations, this one has its caveats and exceptions. In some markets, newspapers are still growing. And, even where they are not, there’s no evidence that they will disappear entirely: it’s more likely that they will find a new niche and a new equilibrium. Trouble is, this niche will be far narrower than newspapers have been used to for centuries, when they were practically synonymous with public opinion and the national agenda. Their new level will be much humbler than in the days when the business was equated with a licence to print money, and – this time without exaggeration – among the most profitable of all manufacturing industries.
This essay is an attempt to explore what may lie over the horizon for journalism. Some things may stay the same, some will get better, some worse, and some will just be different. Much of what has been written about the future of journalism has come from industry insiders, who tend to focus on the health of news organisations as businesses. This discussion leaves most citizens unmoved. After all, who cares about this quaint, centuries-old ink-on-newsprint product that is already becoming less and less important a part of people’s lives. But this reaction misses the point. While some, this writer included, consider good newspapers to be a key ingredient of a high quality of life, they are ultimately important not because of the reading experience they provide. They are important because they have always been the main institutional form supporting the work of large teams of professional journalists. You may not miss ink-on-newsprint much, but you may miss the service of professional journalists much more. The crisis is not that newspapers are sinking, but that we have not yet built a life raft for the journalism profession.
Unless we find an equally hospitable organisational framework for the employment of journalists, the decimation of newspapers would mean the decimation of a profession whose contribution to society is indispensable. If journalism dies, society may need to recreate it. Far more sensible, though, to ensure that it does not die, so that its positive traditions and norms continue uninterrupted.
This is not to say that everything that journalists do is either necessary or helpful. On the contrary, the shakeout that is ahead will probably devastate much of the terrain that newspaper journalists now consider part of their territory. Just as drama serials migrated from radio when television came along, so too newspapers will find whole genres of information, education and entertainment slipping out of its grasp as consumers find better ways to fulfill these needs. But, just as radio then found its niche in music and talk, so too newspapers and journalism will, in the course of the bloodletting, discover what they were really made for.
The current model has endured for more than a century. There are two key features of this model that we pretty much take for granted. First, it is a commercial “dual market” model that is really two businesses rolled into one: the selling of content to readers, and the selling of readers to advertisers. The great merit of this model is that readers are basically subsidised (massively, in mature markets) by advertisers. Second, the newspaper is a packaged product, bundling together various genres of content. The menu is surprisingly uniform across the globe: newspapers contain coverage of government, business, sports, lifestyle and so on. This bundling has meant that a newspaper does not need all its readers to be attracted by all its content. It just needs all its readers to like some of its content. Its breadth assures this: there is something for everyone, so everyone can buy a paper.
This model is under twin assault. First, advertisers are finding alternative – and usually more targeted – ways to reach customers. Professional journalism may be as necessary as it ever was, but it is finding it harder to get advertisers to subsidise readers. Readers, having never in history paid the full price of receiving the news, are not about to start now – especially not when the internet seems to provide a bottomless pit of free content. Second, the newspaper’s “department store” model is under threat from the boutiques of niche media. Why buy a newspaper for the world weather report, or for EPL news, or for movie reviews, when you get these from weather.com, goal.com or rottentomatoes.com. Niche media – together with mass media from previously distant markets that the internet has brought within reach – chip away at readers’ dependence on their local dailies.
There is no simple answer to how the decline of newspapers will affect society, because – to borrow the line from the Nokia N95 commercial – a newspaper is not one thing, it’s many. And each of these things will have a different future. For some of the roles that newspapers currently play, we will sorely miss their contribution. In other cases, we may get by just fine: either because we don’t really need professional journalists to do the job; or because the journalists can offer a viable service independently, without needing to be hired by newspapers.
THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM: CONTENT
Parliament sittings. Without newspapers, citizens will lose their main source of news about Parliament debates, the most important forum in the land. Parliament itself may try to fill the gap. After all, Parliament as an institution needs to be seen to be working. We can expect all debates to be televised, either on the Parliament website or on a local equivalent of C-SPAN, the American cable channel that provides live telecasts of public meetings. Live telecasts are of course not a substitute for the detailed but distilled reports provided by a newspaper of record such as the Straits Times. Without the ST, there Parliament would have little choice but to create its own news service – or, more likely, depend on a national state-funded news agency – to keep the public informed about its work. An example of a professionally-run in-house news agency is the United Nations News Service. Of course, no matter how professionally run, such an official agency will be less independent than the ST. Could citizen journalists compensate? They could certainly play an important role, but amateurs with day jobs will be unable to provide daily detailed news reports from Parliament.
Crime stories. Many crime stories have “human interest” value and enjoy wide readership. It’s doubtful, though, whether consumers really want or need this on a daily basis. They seem to be happy enough getting such stories as part of a wider buffet, but in the disaggregated news world that we are entering, it’s hard to imagine a market for a specialised “Crime News Daily”. Instead, the most compelling of these stories would probably be circulated on a less regular basis by non-journalist story-tellers, such as book writers and docudrama scriptwriters – which, of course, already happens. Another player is the Police, which could decide to expand its public communication to produce crime stories on a regular basis, as part of its crime awareness mission. After all, it already does this in a limited way with its Crimewatch TV series. If newspaper crime reporters disappeared, the Police public communications branch could try to fill the gap, using the internet and radio. Check out the surprisingly readable work of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority’s press office: for example, “New Year Foam Party Goes Up In Smoke”.
Announcements. We depend on newspapers for a whole range of announcements that help us plan our lives: new regulations, road closures, festival openings and so on. If newspapers disappear, the newsmakers will still need to reach out to us; they just need to work harder – and spend more – to do so without the middleman. Newsmakers will miss professional reporters, who act as proxies for the public and ask questions that help newsmakers refine and clarify their announcements. Without this service, members of the public will be forced to go directly to the newsmakers to clarify what their frequently incomprehensible releases actually mean. On the other hand, it should be noted that life is already so full of announcements that only a small proportion of them are actually covered even in a thick newspaper like the ST. People have grown quite used to referring directly to the horse’s mouth when we need to know something: for example, visiting Sistic website for event listings or the Education Ministry site for school holiday dates.
Foreign news. This is the category that people are most sanguine about: the internet, together with international cable news channels, has reduced our dependence on local dailies for foreign news. Of course, if there’s a global decline in journalistic capacity, we could see our free internet sources dry up. This is unlikely, though. Even if several major global brands shrivel up, there will still be some left standing after the shake-up. The BBC is relatively immune to the current downturn. National Public Radio of the US is still growing its network of foreign correspondents – along with China’s state-owned media. Complemented by citizen journalism and various news aggregation services, our diet of foreign news may actually get richer and more diverse. The catch, though, is that these sources may not give you foreign news from a perspective that matters to you. That’s what a local paper does, and that’s what may be missed. Since states have an interest in promoting a national perspective on foreign news, we may once again see the government invest directly in such capacity. Think Channel News Asia, but better.
Sports, food, movies, music, fashion, consumer tech. There is a whole range of coverage for which newspaper journalism will not be missed, because equally good alternatives can fill the gap. The thing about areas such as sports and movies is that they have large constituencies of passionate fans – including talented amateur writers who would quite happily write reviews for free on their own dedicated blogs. Indeed, those of us who follow these areas closely would already know of specialised blogs and forums whose writers are even more knowledgable, and sometimes even write better, than the professional correspondents of the daily papers. Another thing about these consumer/lifestyle topics is that fans and/or advertisers are willing to pay for niche weekly/monthly magazines. Already, for example, IS Magazine provides a better guide to leisure and entertainment than ST or Today. As newspapers decline, more specialised websites in these lifestyle categories should be able to go commercial, perhaps employing the best columnists/correspondents who once worked for newspapers.
Investigative journalism. The decline of news organisations would pose a serious threat to journalism that requires dogged persistence in uncovering secrets, the access that comes with years of contact-building, uncompromising discipline in fact-checking, and the deep pockets to defend potential defamation suits. Citizen journalists do very little original reporting. However, it’s not inconceivable that even investigative journalism could sprout outside of news organisations, and even outside of professional journalism. Various civil society watchdogs could play a role similar to that of investigative journalists. CASE could expose consumer-related scandals. The Law Society could investigate and publicise lapses in the administration of justice. Green groups could do the same in the area of environmental protection. To do so effectively, civil society groups would need to boost their research and publicity arms significantly. As for lone-ranger citizen journalists, their role in Singapore is severely constrained by the lack of freedom of information laws that provide access to official information.
Commentary and analysis. Scan any serious newspaper and you will find that a high proportion of op-ed articles are not written by staffers or even by professional journalists, but by think-tankers, academics, public intellectuals, consultants, politicians and the like. These writers don’t generally do it for the money. They seek other forms of reward, such as influence and ego gratification. Or, they may be in the ideas business: writing may be part of their job description at the institutions where they work. If newspapers die, they would lose a key platform – but they won’t lose the incentive to keep writing. The same applies to the commentators who currently blog.
THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM: EDITING AND PACKAGING
A newspaper is more than the sum of its individual stories. There is also value in the way editors select and place those stories. The most obvious value is sheer convenience. In an age of information overload, news organisations do an indispensable service by filtering and selecting news for the reader. Indeed, readers’ desire to search and select their own news is probably exaggerated. Based on anecdotal evidence, it appears that few internet users bother to customise their chosen news portals even when such an option is offered. They are quite happy to let their online news provider tell them what it thinks is interesting or important. Beyond convenience, there may be another reason why news organisations’ selection and packaging of the news is in fact a valuable service. Newspaper readers don’t just learn what’s happening. They also learn what the newspaper thinks they and other readers care about or should care about.
To claim that such editorial judgment is valuable may sound awfully elitist. The point here, though, is that people are social beings. If for no other reason than to arm themselves with ammunition for anticipated conversations with friends and colleagues, most people do want to know what others know; and ideally that little bit extra as well. A well-edited mass circulation newspaper provides the common ground for a million conversations. Popular, tabloid newspapers do this mainly by predicting what readers will find interesting, even if not particularly important. More serious, high-quality papers highlight the issues that they judge to be important, and use their creativity to make the important, interesting.
The vitally significant social value of editorial judgment is under-appreciated by most readers. It’s not their fault. Through a mixture of arrogance, lack of accountability and carelessness about ethics, media professionals around the world have alienated too many readers for too long. I have no doubt, though, that if professionally-edited news media disappeared, they would desperately missed.
Most likely, things would not come to that. The shake-out would leave some peaks of excellence standing. These will be the news organisations with clear-headed leadership and strong professional traditions; companies that have been uncompromising in associating their brands with reliability and integrity, resisting the temptation to ape entertainment media or pander to advertisers. They may shrink in size, but their brand names may be as strong as ever.
Brands will still matter. In fact, they will probably matter more. When confronted with too much information – the irreversible condition of the digital age – people will be in even greater need of short-hand methods to assess reliability. Even if they have the means, readers will have neither the time nor the motivation to cross-check every story they read against alternative sources, or to verify that every image is the real thing and not a photoshopped fiction. They will rely on brand-name intermediaries with a track record of taking extreme care in their choice of words or images. While it’s not possible to achieve 100% accuracy – even the Brahmins of the news business have had their share of plagiarism and fabrication scandals – news organisations will distinguish themselves by how seriously they deal with lapses. It’s like the food business. Food consumers have started using the country of origin as a short-hand indicator of food safety and quality. Similarly, some news brands will be trusted more than others – and the importance of that trust (and with it the value of the brand) will increase as sources of information proliferate.
It’s doubtful that this packaged, branded service will be needed daily in print form – and certainly not in such large numbers. Television, radio and the internet (including mobile devices) may be more than adequate for daily news. These would be supplemented by blogs and online social networks. The printed newspaper that most people want may be a weekly: a tightly and judiciously edited product, operating on the credo that – in a time-starved information-gorged life – less is more.
THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM: THE STATE
Brand-name news providers applying traditional standards of journalism will survive, because the demand for their judgment won’t disappear. But, their scope will probably shrink, either because others can do certain job better or – more worryingly – because people won’t pay the required rate for their service. Quality journalism has the attributes of what economists call a “public good”: like schools and libraries, everyone agrees that it’s essential for society but few are willing to pay directly for it.
We haven’t needed to confront this problem until now, because journalism has always been massively subsidised by advertising, concealing from the public the true cost of doing journalism. This cost has also been concealed by the bundling of the most socially important journalism with more trivial forms. As advertising dries up, and as the bundle of content traditionally provided by newspapers gets disaggregated by niche media, newspapers’ most important function – journalism – is suddenly left out in the cold.
Newspapers rose with nations and the very idea of the public. They formed the common spaces where people could get to know the strangers that they would never otherwise meet in their cities. It’s therefore been said that newspapers made nations possible, as imagined communities.
None of this is likely to persuade people to dig deeper into their pockets to keep troubled news organisations going. (Especially not when people have been conditioned to think that being entertained is more important than being informed – a process aided and abetted by newspapers themselves.) There is, however, at least one institution that will quickly realise that it cannot let the press die: the state. The modern state cannot function without the daily circulation of news and information that news organisations facilitate.
It’s inevitable that the government will build up its own capacity to do something akin to journalism. This will probably start with individual agencies boosting their publicity arms in response to the decline of newspaper companies’ ability to cover them. The next logical step would be the establishment of a state-funded national news agency. To do this well, it would help to have a strong tradition of insulating public institutions from the government of the day. Without this, a national news agency would be quickly reduced to a propaganda department, read by nobody but its political bosses. Wiser leaders would miss the good old days when independent journalists provided a credible national news service at no cost to the taxpayer. A few may even admit that they should not have made life so difficult for those same journalists.
THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM: PROFESSIONALS
There will continue to be work for professional journalists. The question is where. Many ex-newspaper journalists will be hired by the news and publicity offices of government agencies, private companies and NGOs, which I’ve predicted will grow. Their skill in writing compelling stories will be valued by these employers. Their work won’t be professional journalism in its highest form – the kind that single-mindedly serves the public and not the paymaster. But if members of the public are unwilling to be the paymaster, they can’t really complain.
Other journalists could team up to form self-governing syndicates. One such syndicate, Global Post, has just set up a worldwide network of stringers to serve news organisations that cannot afford their own foreign correspondents. Local and regional syndicates are likely to emerge, perhaps specialising in niche areas. Syndicated suppliers may be especially useful to the operators of new information platforms and portals that have no experience in journalism. For example, a mobile phone company that wants to offer subscribers a unique news feed as part of its enhanced services would probably prefer to engage a reliable wholesaler such as a syndicate than to try to get into the journalism business itself.
In rare cases, star journalists could develop personal brands. These would be nowhere near as profitable as the Oprah Winfreys or Martha Stewarts of the world, but could generate as much revenue as a newspaper job. An exceptionally influential sports writer, movie reviewer or stock market watcher, for example, could try to develop their own advertising-supported websites. Unfortunately, the “public good” characteristic of most public affairs journalism means that it’s unlikely to be commercially viable – except perhaps in exceptionally chaotic times. How to support such journalism is not just a problem for journalists but also a challenge for society at large.
In the United States, there is growing interest in the idea of foundation/endowment-backed journalism. This makes eminent sense. Call it a Civic Journalism Service (CJS), made up of 50-100 full-time professional journalists focusing exclusively on those genres of journalism that are clear cases of market failure: public affairs reporting, in particular. You will hear knee-jerk criticisms of such a model, mainly from commercial news media: how to ensure that a CJS isn’t influenced by its funders, for example. The truth is that there are enough best practices to learn from worldwide; it’s just that it has never been in the interest of the mainstream profession to highlight models that put their own to shame. Positive examples include the Guardian in the UK, published by a trust; the public-funded BBC; and the foundation-owned St Petersburg Times. They show that it is possible to institutionalise editorial independence far more effectively than most commercial publishers have been willing to.
In return for its guaranteed funding, a CJS should be based on a strong social compact. It should be required to state its mission clearly and publicly so that the public can hold it to account and so that its journalists aren’t allowed to forget why they are being paid. Models of such statements include the Committee of Concerned Journalists’ Statement of Shared Purpose and Citizens Bill of Journalism Rights. It should have an equally public code of ethics, like the UK editors’ code of practice or the exhaustive editorial guidelines of the BBC. It should establish meaningful accountability mechanisms such as the Ombudsman of the Washington Post, who is empowered to take to task publicly the organisations’ journalists and editors.
A CJS need not have its own medium beyond a website. Its products should be released to the Creative Commons as a free contribution to the civic life of the nation. This is not unprecedented, either. There are already issue-based news services that provide such free content. One example is the Panos Foundation, which specialises in Third World development stories.
For the future of journalism, a Civic Journalism Service run along these lines may not be the same as most of today’s newspapers. It has a real chance to be much, much better.