25 years of the broadcasting school: a celebratory gaze into the future of news

I spent an interesting 24 hours in Christchurch on Friday and Saturday as a guest of the New Zealand Broadcasting School. I was a speaker at the school’s conference to celebrate 25 years of turning out great Kiwi broadcasters and industry heavyweights.

Some other interesting speakers too, including the head of the Australian Special Broadcasting Service, Shawn Brown, himself a Kiwi; Brett Impey, the CEO of Mediaworks; Rick Ellis, CEO of TVNZ, Jim Mather, head of Maori television and John Follett, the head of Sky New Zealand.

All of them had some interesting things to say about the state of Kiwi broadcasting, but they are also fairly optimistic that the industry is in relatively good shape-if only it wasn’t for this blasted recession. Advertising revenues are down somewhere between 15 and 30 per cent and of course there’s been several rounds of cost-cutting, particularly in news and current affairs, but each of them was surprisingly upbeat about the state of broadcasting, particularly television, in the relatively (in global terms) small New Zealand market.

I was on a panel talking about the future of news and my fellow presnters were TVNZ head of news and CAff, Anthony Flannery, his TV3 counterpart, Mark Jennings and a recent NZBS graduate, Katrina Bennett, who’s now with the Radio Network in Wellington.

We had a lively discussion and again both Mark and Anthony were confident that television will continue to be the dominant news media for some time to come.There were some great questions from the audience too: about the ubiquitous TVNZ live cross that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Anthony Flannery made the point that he thinks TVNZ news gets it right about 40 per cent of the time. There was also some discussion of how PR is tending to overshadow news to some degree and Katrina made the interesting point that to some extent journalists have just become the re-mediators of press releases. She asked why don’t organisations like the police just go straight to the public and this provoked some interesting responses from the panel and from the floor.

I suggested that for some organisations it was convenient to use the news media as a form of “information laundering”, by which I mean that the information presented as news loses the stink of being just PR when it is reformatted and given the credibility of news. Mark Jennings also made the point that in some cases if the media weren’t in there chasing the police they might just resort to lying about events like police shootings or accidents in which police drivers kill or injure pedestrians.

My presentation was based on the central theses of my forthcoming book, News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet. I can safely say that it’s nearly finished and will be with the publishers in a couple of weeks.

In case you’re interested here are the seven theses. None of it is really startling, except perhaps the public/worker control argument at the end. The idea is really to summarise the current state of events, suggest some ways in which we got here and to look at what’s being proposed as potential solutions, particularly to the vexed business model question.

One more thing before I go; there was an interesting short presentation on a new US business venture called Zillion TV and I think that perhaps some of the industry chiefs were too dismissive of it.

A key problem is monetizing the clickstream-that is finding ways in which it becomes acceptable for Internet users to pay for information that they currently get for free. I think this is a cultural issue-we used to stuff being free and are now reluctant to start paying.

Zillion TV gets around this by transferring web-based content into a TV environment. The cultural barriers to subscriber television are very low and we’ve been used to this model now for several decades.  So perhaps the idea of repackaging online content into a televisual space (from the computer screen to the TV screen) is not such a stupid idea.

Anyway, enough from me. Here are my speaking notes – a rough guide to News 2.0.

News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet

Thesis 1: the hunger for news is a universal human need, it won’t go away anytime soon.

People feel let down

Journalists are low on the global trust scale

However, because of their adherence to market forces the mainstream media has let down the public in terms of big picture political and social issues. The pursuit of profits has led the MSM down market, thinking that they were following, not creating public taste. We are now living in a sick celebrity culture that distorts our self-perception and that is slowly driving us all insane.

Thesis 2: digital technologies have forever changed the ways in which we consume news.

Globally, television is still the dominant news and entertainment media (Thussu, 2007), but for how much longer?

  • 1.5 billion televisions
  • 1.5 billion PC screens
  • Several billion mobile phone screens
  • 6.7 billion people on the planet
  • Uneven distribution: in some countries there are too many televisions, in others no where near enough

News is mobile

News is going mobile and it’s being condensed. It might be a worrying thought for some, but the 140 character text message and Twitter “tweet” format could be the future of most information exchange.

Markets are fragmenting

Mass markets for news are now fragmented—what the marketing mavens call “niche”. This has been bad news for the economics of all publishing and broadcasting that is advertising supported.

Impact on politics and social conversation

This fragmentation also impacts the body politic. Where do we have the important local, national and global conversations today when our eyes are on the phone screen and our ears locked to the beat of the iPod?

Thus the digital dialectic is both promise and curse.

Thesis 3: the singularity of convergence culture has also changed the world of news for ever.

Convergence culture – there’s no going back

Professional ideology of journalists is under pressure

Professionalism has become a trap for journalists – they are tied into a corporate culture that no one’s buying anymore. Perhaps, as Robert McChesney suggests, journalists have to become “unprofessional” in order to reconnect with audiences.

Convergence culture is UGC

D-I-Y news via social networking is on the rise, User-generated journalism (of which Citizen Journalism is but one subset) is also creating new forms. People are no longer reliant only on MSM for their news.

The people we used to call the audience

Should not be over-stated

The dialectic here is between a more democratic public sphere in which those we used to call the audience (Jay Rosen) are now the produsers (producer-consumers) and the desperate race of the MSM to further colonise this space and to cement it into their monopolistic  control – through copyright law and buying up the social network real estate

Thesis 4: we have to separate the crisis in the news business model from the discussion about the crisis in journalism.

They are related, but different.

Partly they are united by a crisis of trust and credibility and partly by the fact that in a capitalist economy the sale of newspaper/TV/radio/online advertising pays the wages of the content producers – in this case journalists.

We are now in a critical juncture and the global financial crisis is a further threat to the political economy of the news business.

Thesis 5: new online business models for news publishing are not yet tried and true.

The current experiments with Christian Science Monitor, for example may yet turn out to be expensive failures.

The confusion is evident in the roller-coaster ride taken by the Finnish financial daily Taloussanomat that stopped its print edition in 2007 (Thurman & Myllylahti, 2009), but was not able to contain costs and increase revenue enough to maintain an independent online presence. By quitting its paper editions, Taloussanomat quickly saw its costs fall 52 percent. But, according to Thurman and Myllylahti, the new online only service,Taloussanomat.fi, also lost 22 percent of its users and 75 percent of its revenue. Less than two years later, the company that owns the Taloussanomat brand announced the merger of the financial website with a mass market tabloid Ilta Sannomat newspaper it also owns (Andrews, 2009). The company wants to achieve savings of around 30 million Euros, but according to management, was only half-way there in May 2009.

“The programme launched in January will save us about EUR 15 million, but unfortunately that is not enough. New actions are called for in order to keep the foundation of the company sound, in order to be able to invest resources in further development and in order to continue securing the prerequisites of independent journalism” says Mikael Pentikäinen, President of Sanoma News. (WebWire, 2009)

Thesis 6: we can take away some positives from social networking and Web 2.0.

Collective intelligence

BUT: Noise to signal ration very high in some situations

In particular the collective nature of trust and verification is a key element of peer-to-peer sharing of information and this can apply to news. One key point from this is also that in terms of the book’s argument about working journalists, there is collective strength in the union.

We need to position journalism (in all forms and formats/platforms) as the collective wisdom of the public interest and speaking truth to power. This will ultimately require some form of collectively organised system for gathering, analysing, interpreting and distribution information in the format of news.

Thesis 7: Can journalism survive the Internet?

What happens to “news” when the economics of the news business are no longer working?

It is not clear that the current commodity form of news can sustain itself, unless there is a solution to the broken business model of publishing and free-to-air broadcasting.

We might expect there to be some other commodity form for information, but what is it?

Subscription models—such as pay TV—are available, but it is not certain that people will be willing to pay for content online. The internet has been “free” for so long that the cultural expectation of free content will be hard to break.

If the news industry collapses, how will we get our information and exchange important news?

If news is a universal trait of human society (thesis 1) then a method needs to be developed of continuing to provide reliable and common news-like information from trusted public sources.

Perhaps we need to redefine journalism as “public reporting” and recognise that for the foreseeable future it’s going to be a mix of the industrial model (commodity journalism with all its dualities and contradictions) and an emerging model of prosumer news of varying levels of complexity and quality.

Extending the watchdog role through alliances (various pro-am experiments) and building the collective strength of the reportorial community (in which both working and amateur reporters collaborate, cooperate and critique each others work) are the key.

Platform is somehow irrelevant in an informational sense of the democratic circulation of ideas and information in the easily-digestible form of news. Newspapers in their current formats will have a finite life; we may have to start paying for information from the web—though information may continue to “want” to be free.

There will continue to be tension—the dialectic—between journalism’s commodity form (exchange value) and its informational use value.

The pressure from below: user-generated content—amateur, or alternative journalism (Atton & Hamilton, 2008) and “produsage” (Bruns, 2008)—is not going to ease. There is a variety in amateur public reporting and that is one of its strengths. But there is a high noise to signal ratio in social media still and the collective strength of the reportorial community will have to maintain the pressure against attempts for further commercialise the clickstream.

Ultimately, we need to maintain some form of paid, organised collective reportorial community for the sake of democratic reform and change.

What is unclear is whether or not this can have a viable commercial commodity form (the industrial journalism model)

The basic principles around which a community of journalists—the new “reportorial community” (Hirst & Harrison, 2007)—of working (professional) journalists and a variety of amateur communities (citizen journalists, eye-witnesses, accidental journalists, bloggers and gatewatchers) can be outlined as follows:

1.    Defend and extend the public interest

2.    Access to news is a human right

3.    Through collective strength journalists (public reporters) speak truth to power

4.    The union represents the class interests of journalists and the present form of its potential democratic and collective strength

Andrews, R. (2009, 9 May). So much for onlne-only; Finnish web paper back in print. Retrieved 16 May, 2009, from http://www.paidcontent.co.uk/entry/419-so-much-for-online-only-finnish-web-paper-back-in-print/

Atton, C., & Hamilton, J. (2008). Alternative Journalism. London: Sage.

Bruns, A. (2008). Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From production to produsage. New York: Peter Lang.

Hirst, M., & Harrison, J. (2007). Communication and New Media: Broadcast to Narrowcast. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Thurman, N., & Myllylahti, M. (2009). Taking the paper out of news. A case study of Taloussanomat, Europe’s first online-only newspaper. Journalism Studies, iFirst Article, 1-18.

Thussu, D. K. (2007). News as entertainment: The rise of global infotainment. London: Sage.

WebWire. (2009, 7 May). Sanoma News expands its rationalisation programme. Retrieved 16 May, 2009, from http://www.webwire.com/ViewPressRel.asp?aId=94463

2 Responses to 25 years of the broadcasting school: a celebratory gaze into the future of news

  1. John Passant says:

    Martin

    Could I put the seven theses on my blog to stimulate debate (again)? Attribution and a link to your site of course.

  2. […] by Martin Hirst from Ethical Martini and the AUT, is reproduced with his permission. Here is a link.   I spent an interesting 24 hours in Christchurch on Friday and Saturday as a guest of the New […]

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