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Is credible journalism in retreat?

Published in Nov-Dec 2019

Arifa Noor, journalist and lead anchor for News Wise on DawnNews, poses the question.

We live in times where journalism itself has become the story. Its form, its practices and its authenticity, everything is as uncertain as the profession’s present and future – and practitioners have more questions than answers.

In recent years, journalism in the West (which perhaps we looked towards) has struggled. Long-standing print publications have shutdown; venerable newspapers were sold or struggled as workforces were downsized; subscriptions fell and advertising revenues left for cyberspace.

Delve into any one of these issues and it seems the villain tends to be the internet and social media. The print copy (of magazines and newspapers) has lost readers/subscribers as well as ad revenue. Giants such as Newsweek are closing and legacy publications such as The New York Times (NYT) and the Washington Post (sold to Jeff Bezos by the Graham family) are struggling financially to produce quality reporting and writing. Across the Atlantic, the Guardian also struggles. The previous editor may have covered himself and the paper in glory, but he left behind a paper facing a financial crisis. In 2011, it was reported that the Guardian’s parent group was losing £33 million a year and earlier this year, the paper finally said it had broken even after years of loss.

There was a time when it was hoped that the new internet media companies (which had made their fortunes as the old ones lost theirs) would take over the mantle of serious journalism from the legacy media. Hopes were high as the likes of the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed hired journalists for investigative reporting once they had established themselves as brands; but in the last couple of years, these organisations have seen layoffs and firings of journalists, including one who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work for the website. All this has led some to predict that the digital media bubble has burst.

Nevertheless, in the same period, some giants of the legacy media, such as the Guardian and the NYT, have been able to reverse their dwindling fortunes. The Guardian has been able to break even (which has been linked to their calls for support from readers while keeping their website free) and the NYT has seen its online subscriptions grow. Yet, it is too soon to say if either can provide a model for struggling newspapers everywhere.

But where the World Wide Web has attracted revenues away from print/journalism, it has also made old style journalism – with its reporters and editors; rules for sources and neutrality; division between fact and opinion – increasingly irrelevant.

Journalists are no longer the main source of news – people don’t wait for their newspapers in the morning or the six o’ clock news to find out what has happened. All day long, news arrives on our Twitter or Facebook feed – big and small; from the story of a bombing to the latest outfit worn by the Duchess of Cambridge. And if one ignores all this, someone or the other is bound to WhatsApp the news to us, true or false. It is a sign of the times that WhatsApp has become a verb!

This in some ways compounds the financial crisis – not only for the reasons mentioned earlier, but because it has reduced the value of the brands which were the face of journalism. In this day and age, few wait for a credible news outlet to confirm a development. If it’s on Twitter or Facebook, chances are it will be deemed correct by those clicking on the link. No one is going to bother to be sceptical, because their relationship is with the social media giant, which brought them the link and not the portal which put up the story. What this means is that even if the best in journalism are part of the fare offered by social media, readers may or may not develop any recognition of the brands.  

A 20-something may click on a story or analysis by the Guardian or NYT or DAWN (closer to home) but does so without making a conscious decision to open the home page of one of these brands because of their reputation or credibility. For the user/reader it is just a story recommended by Facebook or a popular one on Twitter. Or, it could have originated from an unknown website or even someone’s individual blog.

This is not to argue the latter cannot produce good journalism, but to explain why the bigger names in journalism may not be attracting the ad revenues their reports may be generating by being read; the clicks happen elsewhere and therefore the proceeds go elsewhere too. And in the process, the brands lose the ‘value’ they once enjoyed. No wonder more than one journalist has pointed out that the crisis is one of ‘revenue’. And this perhaps is the biggest crisis of all the ones facing the media industry.

Among the others are the attacks from governments (even the leader of the ‘free world’ is in the habit of attacking the press in his country in his tweets and in countries with weaker democratic structures, the attacks are becoming more and more menacing) as well as issues of relevancy and the growing gap between the citizen and journalism. However, while these too need to be addressed, the financial crisis has to be addressed first and foremost – the press has to survive in order for it to be able to rebuild its relationship with the consumer, the citizen, and grapple with hostile states and governments.

This is why, many argue that the social media giants who are benefitting from the work of traditional news organisations will have to share their profits with the latter if journalism is to survive. In fact, an effort to set up a one billion dollar fund to support journalism (which was discussed at a media conference held in London earlier this summer) aims to garner significant donations from social media platforms.

It remains to be seen if this will materialise but in the meantime, the social media giants – which have now emerged as the main distributors of news and dominate the traffic as well as revenue on cyberspace – do not share a very comfortable relationship with the traditional news media.

A journalist working for a well-known European newspaper once explained that his paper hired ‘editors’ whose job it was to negotiate (all day long, every day) with social media giants on the amount of content that would be allowed through the algorithms despite the paper’s content being behind a firewall. The back and forth is a daily battle. This is because firewall or free, these algorithms decide how much readership a particular website or link can get, which then determines the revenue.

These are not issues which may be addressed soon. In the process, the traditional news outlets, and even the new ones which aim to produce good journalism, will struggle to find the resources to do so. One can only hope that until answers are found, good, solid journalism will continue to be done. For in all the debate over the financial viability of journalism, whether or not new players will do it or the traditional ones, no one has ever suggested that solid, credible journalism has become irrelevant or is unnecessary.

This should not escape anyone of us.

Arifa Noor is a journalist and the lead anchor for News Wise on DawnNews.