Wednesday, March 06, 2019

From Cinderford to Davos (via Alnwick and Devizes): Decoding the latest output about the 'Future of Journalism'

PORING over the finely-crafted pages of The Forester – “At the heart if the Forest since 1874” – it might seem a stretch to take in the ‘Future of Journalism’ bon mots delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos of all places.
The cut and thrust of life in Cinderford – “By-pass plans take step forward” – is indeed a world away from the Swiss alpine town where 3,000 of the world’s great and good gathered to wheel and deal and listen to where we’re headed on a wide range of social and economic issues.
Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen delivering
the report (below) at the World Economic Forum in Davos
So, let’s be grateful that journalism got an airing, courtesy of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford who delivered their new report: More Important, But Less Robust? Five Things Everybody Needs to Know about the Future of Journalism.
The report’s authors claim the five trends will impact the work of professional reporters as well as everybody who works with them and relies on them, from the general public to politicians, NGOs, and private enterprise.
Those clever people from Oxford University seem to have got to the bottom of many of the issues that publishers, editors and front-line journalists are facing on a day-to-day basis. But the language is a bit academic so we are pleased to include an exclusive PJ News interpretation of their findings, plus real-world examples from a random selection of newspapers.

1 We have moved from a world where media organisations were gatekeepers to a world where media still create the news agenda, but platform companies control access to audiences.

PJ News interpretation: Most of the news still comes from newspaper businesses but Google and Facebook control how it’s read.
In this ever-more competitive battle for attention, speaking is not the same as being heard, says the report. “Far from the death of gatekeepers, we have seen the move to two sets of gatekeepers, where news media organisations still create the news agenda, but platform companies increasingly control access to audiences.”
The Forester, a Tindle-owned title serving the Forest of Dean on the England/Wales border, has a well-serviced website that provides regular community updates. Yes, some of that information is also available elsewhere but as the ‘gatekeeper’ of news from that particular corner of the UK it is difficult to see how that position may be usurped.

2 The move to digital media generally does not generate filter bubbles. Instead, automated serendipity and incidental exposure drive people to more and more diverse sources of information.

PJ News interpretation: While the targeted, contained world of the newspaper is constrained by its shape and size as well as the area it serves, digital media can take the reader off into hitherto unimagined areas.
In practice, most people only go directly to a few news sources on a routine basis, rarely more than three or four, says the report. “For most people, digital media use is associated with more diverse news use, but information inequality is a real risk, as is political polarisation – risks that are fundamentally rooted in political and social factors but can be amplified by technology.”

3 Journalism is often losing the battle for people’s attention and, in some countries, for the public’s trust.

PJ News interpretation: The Brexit news overload and President Trump’s bleatings about ‘fake news’ seep into public consciousness and they eventually start to give up on news.
In a revealing study from the United States data from comScore suggests only about three percent of the time spent online is devoted to news, and just half a percent with local news. Put another way out of an hour online less than two minutes is spent looking at news and only about 20 seconds on local news
Equally strikingly, in an era of unprecedented abundance and ease of access, journalism is facing widespread problems of ‘news avoidance’, says the report. “People turn off the news because it feels irrelevant and depressing and does not help them live their lives; they often turn to entertainment or social media instead.
“These differences are not only a function of competition for attention. They also reflect that much of the public is questioning whether journalism is in fact helping them in their lives, and that people in many countries doubt whether they can trust the news.”
Attacks on journalism and news media can in turn further undermine trust demonstrating how trust in journalism is dependent both on trustworthy reporting and on a political context where public officials respect independent news media.
The Devizes edition of the Gazette and Herald in Wiltshire runs to 108 pages, plus a 12-page property pull-out. There’s no lack of “trustworthy reporting” here or the commercial partners to support such a vibrant product. There’s the traditional diet of police reports: ‘Cat had its legs tied together’ and council news: ‘Parking spaces plan supported’, plus schools, charities and community news. There is also a letters spread bristling with local people eager to join the debate. No evidence of any attention being lost here.


4 The business models that fund news are challenged, weakening professional journalism and leaving news media more vulnerable to commercial and political pressures.

PJ News interpretation: If the traditional news media can’t make it pay they may be tempted to go easy on businesses and politicians.
The good news is that the majority of professional journalism is still funded by newspapers. An estimated 90 per cent of publishers’ revenues worldwide still come from print and digital revenues are in many cases growing only slowly. “Most of the existing forms of funding for professional journalism will decline as we continue to move to a more digital media environment, leading to further job cuts in newsrooms,” warns the report.
“The sustainable business models for digital news developed so far are diverse and promising - including a mix of advertising, reader revenues, and non-profit approaches - but they also generally support far leaner newsrooms than those historically found in legacy media.”
City A.M. – the “Business with personality” daily distributed free in London – records the activities of hundreds of companies in each issue, and there’s no evidence of anything but robust reporting. If news media are to become “more vulnerable to commercial pressures” it’s more likely to be in traditional go-to areas like travel, property and motors where tie-ups make sense for all parties without compromising any editorial integrity.

5 News is more diverse than ever, and the best journalism better than ever, taking on everyone from the most powerful politicians to the biggest private companies.

PJ News interpretation: There is lots of good journalism out there still
Journalism is facing stiff competition for attention and its connection with the public is threatened by news avoidance, low trust, and the perception that news does not help people live the lives they want to live, says the report. “But in many ways, the best journalism today is better than ever – more accessible, more timely, more informative, more interactive, more engaged with its audience.”
Up at the Northumberland Gazette, one of England’s most northerly weeklies, not only is there a spread on drone “near-misses in our skies” but also a page given over to the county council budget plans, put together by the ‘Local Democracy Reporting Service’ that has given a new lease of life to rummaging around at the local council.


In conclusion, the movers and shakers at Davos heard that strong journalism is essential for both the public good, politics, and private enterprise. “It can help ensure that the rise of digital media and our current turbulence results not in chaos, but in change for the better,” Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen told the forum.
He said that everybody should be concerned by the risks posed by a combination of shifts in how people get their news and what media they use, transformations in professional journalism and the business of news, and change in the political environment that independent news media operate in.
“In the absence of independent professional reporting providing accurate information, analysis, and interpretation, the public will increasingly rely on self-interested sources and rumours circulating online and offline, a shift that will hurt both the political process, civil society, and private enterprise,” he said.
He concluded with a rallying call to journalists and news media: “Continue to adapt to the digital media that people all around the world are eagerly embracing at the expense of print and broadcast, and build a profession and a business fit for the future.”
Wise words, no doubt, but a virtual trip down the streets of Cinderford, Devizes or Alnwick via the pages of the legacy media weeklies that are still recording the community’s comings and goings with enthusiasm, professionalism and not a little wit and wisdom may point to a different present, if not the future.

Alan Geere has never been to Davos in his 40-year newspaper career, but has succumbed to the charms of Cinderford, Devizes and Alnwick. E: T: @alangeere

  • This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of PJ News

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