What Does the Future Hold for Journalists in the Digital Age?

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In an era of social media and fake news, journalists who have survived the print plunge have new foes to face.

“We are, for the first time in modern history, facing the prospect of how societies would exist without reliable news,” Alan Rusbridger, for 20 years the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, recently warned.

Technology has radically altered the news landscape, he argues, and once-powerful newspapers have lost their clout or been purchased by owners with particular agendas. 

Algorithms select which stories we see. The internet allows consequential revelations, closely guarded secrets, and dangerous misinformation to spread at the speed of a click.

These sinister developments have dire implications for the future of democracy, Rusbridger argues in his book The Remaking of Journalism.

What is true here is also true in the US, the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore writes. 

She says that between January, 2017 and April, 2018 a third of America’s largest newspapers, including the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury News, reported layoffs. 

In a newer trend, so did about a quarter of digital-native news sites. 

“BuzzFeed News laid off a hundred people in 2017; speculation is that BuzzFeed is trying to dump it. The Huffington Post paid most of its writers nothing for years, upping that recently to just above nothing,” she writes.

“And yet, despite taking in tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue in 2018, it failed to turn a profit.”

The New Yorker quotes former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson as saying that “there are not that many places left that do quality news well or even aim to do it at all”.

The local story, the magazine says, is worse and its exceptionally high mortality rate is now so well known that it has almost become old news.

Even so, the rate of decline of local papers in the US is still terrifying. Between 1970 and 2016, the year the American Society of News Editors quit counting, five hundred or so dailies went out of business; the rest cut news coverage, or shrank the paper’s size, or stopped producing a print edition, or did all of that, and it still wasn’t enough.

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“The numbers mask an uglier story. In the past half century, and especially in the past two decades, journalism itself—the way news is covered, reported, written, and edited—has changed, including in ways that have made possible the rise of fake news, and not only because of mergers and acquisitions, and corporate ownership, and job losses, and Google Search and Facebook and BuzzFeed,” Lepore says in the New Yorker article.

“There’s no shortage of amazing journalists at work, clear-eyed and courageous, broad-minded and brilliant, and no end of fascinating innovation in matters of form, especially in visual storytelling. 

“But journalism, as a field, is as addled as an addict, gaunt, wasted, and twitchy, its pockets as empty as its nights are sleepless. It’s faster than it used to be, so fast. It’s also edgier, and needier, and angrier.” 

But don’t sink too much into a pit of despair, The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade argues, because the trade is not completely dead yet.

“The optimists fall into two categories,” he writes. “The Micawbers who believe it will come right in the end, as if by magic; and the Googlers who have adopted the digital revolution’s mantra, innovate or die.”

Greenslade argues that a new breed of entrepreneur has emerged who believe that it’s possible to not only to persuade readers to pay for access to newspaper and magazine content but also persuade advertisers to pay a sensible amount for their ads by providing them with proof that the ads have been read and understood.

One of the entrepreneurs quoted in Greenslade’s article is Rowly Bourne, co-founder of a startup called Rezonence.

Bourne argues that publishers are making as little as 50p per reader per year from digital. As a response to this, many of them have erected paywalls which restricts access to journalistic material. Moreover, readers who do pay for access are irritated by the number of ads that intrude on their reading experience.

“I believe there is a better way,” Bourne says. “Instead of a paywall, we call it a freewall. It’s a simple cost-per-engagement mechanism in which readers are presented with a single advertisement. In order to read the full article, they are required to answer a relatively simple question below the ad. This proves to the advertiser that the readers have paid attention to their brand.”

According to his company’s own estimates, freewall access to a site by, say, 10 million users would produce more than £10 per reader. By contrast, it is doubtful if paywalls produce 60p per reader.

Another entrepreneur, Dominic Young, founder of a startup called Agate, believes that circulation revenue could provide the answer to journalism’s woes.. He has developed a method aimed at encouraging readers to make payments into an online wallet. They pre-pay an amount into the wallet, which gives them access to a range of outlets, and the price of each article is deducted by the publisher. Each site can charge as much or as little as it thinks appropriate. When the wallet is empty, the reader can top it up.

“Meanwhile, as every online Guardian reader knows,” concludes Greenslade, “the paper has enjoyed success by asking readers for voluntary contributions. More than 1 million people worldwide have made a donation over the past three years, with 500,000 of them paying on a regular basis.

“No one can be certain which of these funding models will work in the long term and, incidentally, they are not mutually exclusive. But they should give journalists hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been walking down for the last 20 years or so.”

So it could just be that rumours of the death of the industry are exaggerated…

Alastair Tancred, Christians in Media Editor