Journalism, the future and its future

The XXI century has, thus far, been the age of the internet and mobile devices, which has a huge impact on journalism. Technology has pushed so much in so little time that newspapers, the most ancient of the traditional sources of information, are becoming endangered faster than we all expected.

The fact is that it is in the Western democracies, where journalism thrived with freedom of expression (and of the press), that newspapers are facing their biggest decline. Hard news and reports with added value are being substituted by short headlines, more suitable for a fast paced environment.

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What the graph does not show is the reason behind this decline and I believe it can be credited, not only to the technological developments of this century, but also to a decline in the trust people have in journalists (which, unlike television, radio and the web, require you to get up, walk to a news stand and spend some money).

We have all heard someone or have ourselves referred to journalists in a negative way (even I have, and I am a journalist). Most of the times we have no facts to back up our accusations but the fact is that public trust in journalists has plummeted. In the United States only one in four (25%) Americans trust their newspapers. In the United Kingdom, the numbers are a little higher (for upmarket publications such as the Times or the Guardian), slightly over 40%. However, if you look at mid-market or tabloids, these numbers fall to 21% and 10%, respectively.

One of the reasons behind the trust problem has to do with the pressures media outlets have to guarantee profit. Despite its noble purpose, journalism is still a business, and it needs revenues. The current business model is supported by circulation that translates into add revenues. However, to compete with the fast paced world of the internet, traditional media has been forced to write more stories, trading quantity for quality. That explains why 60% of newspaper articles are mainly copied from press releases (in some cases wholly). The 75% of times these stories are not fact checked, which helps explain the distrust in newspapers and journalism in general.

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There are several cases of journalism, and journalists getting it wrong. People tend to remember these bad moments more than the times journalist’s actually get it right. And, I would argue, that is because journalists are supposed to get it right. The recent case of Narciso Contrera, who got his contract terminated after he altered a photograph, is one of those cases and it sparked a big argument surrounding the ethics of journalism. Among the ones that criticised the alteration, is The Guardian’s head of photography, Roger Tooth:

In a news environment it’s all about a chain of trust: from the photographers through to the agencies, newspapers and websites, and then to the readers. If that chain is broken, any picture could be suspect, and that can’t be allowed to happen.” he wrote.

These episodes, which have happened not only in print, but also on radio and television, can certainly explain the existing disappointment towards the media, that is somewhat similar to the feeling people nurture towards politics. We tend to look at it as a rigged system, that occasionally manages to break an interesting and impacting story, but, for the rest of the time, it looks like an echo chamber that has lost its former virtue (it still has that capacity but it is no longer the norm). This also explains the decline in profits, in all the traditional media branched and the downsize of newsrooms, in an endless cycle that breeds lesser quality and bigger distrust.

I believe journalism faces a moment of change. Digital has made everything faster, lighter, cheaper. And quality has costs. If journalists are to maintain their role as watchdogs (instead of lapdogs), as the fourth estate, quality must be their mantra, their standard, what sets them apart from every other person whose voice has been amplified by modern media.

Amplification is not necessarily bad. It only becomes bad if you have no one who you trust to verify the gigabytes of data that are fed to us daily. Quality, breeds trust, and “in a news environment it’s all about a chain of trust”. From there, sustainability seems a little more feasible.

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