New Media as the Future of the Newsroom: Myth or Reality?

New Media as the Future of the Newsroom: Myth or Reality?

Friday, November 29, 2019 12:22 pm


 

Edward Dickson

The new media is the translation of Marshall McLuhan’s prediction in his seminal 1964 book, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, to reality. In that book, McLuhan predicted that the Internet would turn the world into a “global village,” make the world more interconnected than even television, close the gap between consumers and producers, eliminate space and time as barriers to communication as well as demolish national borders. All of these have become, to those of us who live in this generation, a reality. When McLuhan said all of those things in the 1960s, they were in the realm of conjecture. Apart from those who were interested in those words for academic purposes, not many people took the outstanding media scholar seriously. But here we are now, face to face with the reality of the Internet not just turning the world into a global village but also redefining journalism and its practice. Now, the new media, aided by the Internet, has taken over from the orthodox or traditional media. As they say, it is now the “in thing”. Anyone who ignores it does so to his own peril.

According to Robert Logan, a protégé of McLuhan, in his book Understanding New Media, new media refers to “those digital media that are interactive, incorporate two-way communication and involve some form of computing.” He adds that new media is “very easily processed, stored, transformed, retrieved, hyperlinked and, perhaps most radical of all, easily searched for and accessed.” Dennis McQuail in his Mass Communication Theory, published in 2007, describes new media as “disparate form of communication technologies that share certain features apart from being new, made possible by digitalization and being widely available for personal use as communication devices.”

Andrew L. Shapiro (1999) argues that the “emergence of new, digital technologies signals a potentially radical shift of who is in control of information, experience and resources.” W. Russell Neuman (1991) suggests that whilst the “new media” have technical capabilities to pull in one direction, economic and social forces pull back in the opposite direction. According to Neuman, “We are witnessing the evolution of a universal interconnected network of audio, video, and electronic text communications that will blur the distinction between interpersonal and mass communication and between public and private communication.”

Neuman further argues that new media will alter the meaning of geographic distance, allow for a huge increase in the volume of communication, provide the possibility of increasing the speed of communication, provide opportunities for interactive communication, as well as allow forms of communication that were previously separate to overlap and interconnect. Other scholars such as Douglas Kellner and James Bohman aver that new media, and particularly the Internet, provide the potential for a democratic postmodern public sphere, in which citizens can participate in well informed, non-hierarchical debate pertaining to their social structures.

Therefore, new media is characterized by its digital nature and its low physical costs of production and distribution. It relies on the Internet for distribution, thus making its production and distribution much easier for individuals. New media, in the real sense, is the democratization of news gathering and dissemination. With an internet-enabled telephone, anyone can gather and disseminate news.

Between New Media and Social Media

While new media refers to on-demand access to content anytime, anywhere, on any digital device, as well as interactive user feedback and creative participation, social media refers to the means of interactions among people in which they create, share, and exchange information, ideas and user-generated content in virtual communities and networks. Social media depends on mobile and web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms through which individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss and modify user-generated content. It introduces substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organizations, communities and individuals.

Though new media and social media deploy similar technology to achieve similar end, the effects are different. This is what Robert Metcalfe, who invented Ethernet, refers to as the network effect. The network effect is the increased value a network enjoys with an upsurge in its traffic. While the social media derives its importance from its traffic and interaction with the content consumers, new media does not necessarily do so. For instance, while a news platform will not cease to be a new media platform whether or not it generates reaction from the consumer of its content, Facebook would cease to be a social media platform if it does not generate reactions from the participants. Ditto for Twitter or LinkedIn. The strength of these social media platforms is the interaction they generate. If their contents or conversations do not generate interactions they will cease to be social platforms.

New Media Leads to Media Convergence

The extensive deployment of digital technology in communication has resulted in media convergence with all the three legacy media outlets performing essentially the same function. These days, newspapers provide video clips, television stations offer interactive chats, while radio stations also have web-cams. So, there is no clear cut difference among the platforms.

According to Jenkins (2006), media convergence is an interaction between different media forms and platforms. Similarly, Erdal (2011) suggests that media convergence should be viewed as “cooperation and collaboration” between previously unconnected media forms and platforms, while Burnett and Marshall cited in Grant and Wilkinson (2008:5) explain convergence as “blending of the media, telecommunications and computer industries” or, in other words, as the process of blurring the boundaries between different media platforms and uniting them into one digital form.

So, media convergence is the merging of different platforms into a single digital form.

Fundamental to convergence is the digitization of data and globalization of content. Digitization is the process of converting information into a digital format. This means that all information (whether from radio, television, newspapers, movies or blogs) is encoded in exactly the same format, eliminating distinctions between their forms and thus the need for multiple devices. This is what McQuail (2005) calls “information of all kinds and in all formats carried with the same effi­ciency.”

Media convergence brings together the three C’s; computing, communication and content. Media convergence transforms established industries, services as well as work practices and enables entirely new forms of content to emerge. It erodes long-established media industry and content ‘silos’ and increasingly uncouples content from particular devices, which in turn presents major challenges for public policy and regulation.

But according to Roger Fidler (1997), media convergence is nothing but mediamorphosis, a term he defined as the transformation of communication media, usually brought about by the complex interplay of perceived needs, competitive and political pressures, and social and technological innovations. Fidler argues that all forms of communication media coexist and co-evolve within an expanding, complex adaptive system. As each new form emerges and develops, it influences, over time and to varying degrees, the development of every other existing form. He stresses that new media do no arise spontaneously and independently, they emerge gradually from the metamorphosis of older media. When newer forms emerge, the older forms tend to adapt and continue to evolve rather than die.

Part of the adaptation to the new reality is the adoption by legacy media platforms of new things such as newspapers engaging in broadcasting activities and television stations turning their broadcast into text for those who might prefer to read rather than watch. Fidler, therefore, submitted that all forms of communication media, as well as media enterprises, are compelled to adapt and evolve for survival in a changing environment. If they don’t change, their only other option is to die.

Newsroom of the Future

We travelled this route so as to arrive at the point where we will be able to provide an answer to the question in the subject of our discourse; New Media as the future of the Newsroom: Myth or Reality?

To make the answer to the question clear, let us extract some facts from our discussion. From what we have discussed certain things have become clear.

1. The practice of journalism has changed from one in which feedback was delayed to an era of instantaneous feedback as a consequence of new media.

2. The tools of the practice have also changed as a result of the coming of new media.

3. The various platforms have been fused due to the emergence and influence of new media.

4. Even the means of dissemination has changed since the coming of new media.

The import of all of these is that in the very near future, not only will new media shape the newsroom; there will indeed be no newsroom without the new media.

So, the answer to the question, New Media as the Future of Newsroom: Myth or Reality is that there is no myth about it, it is the reality.

However, where does that leave us as journalism practitioners and managers? Are we ready for the future which is here already? How do we prepare for the future? How do we prepare the newsroom for the new media? How do we retool our people to make them relevant in the new reality?

The preparation, from my perspectives, will involve principally the personnel and the newsroom.

Personnel

Since we cannot pour new wine into old wineskin without suffering losses, we cannot also talk about new media without focusing on new media practitioners. If the medium is changing, then the practitioners must change to fit into the new reality. In 1973, Tom Wolfe came up with the idea of new journalism which was not driven by new media technology but one that was motivated by the desire to make journalism more exciting for readers. The idea did not fly at the time but now as a result of the avalanche of new technologies, the practice is forced to reinvent itself.

If there is just one word that describes new media, it is digitization. The new media is all about digital. It then means that analogue practitioners cannot thrive in the digital era. So, the primary requirement for the practitioner is to retool to be able to fit into the new era of digital journalism.

According to the findings of a 2019 survey conducted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) on the State of Technology in Global Newsrooms and a 2017 report, Newsroom of the Future, by Dr Andrea Carson and Dr Denis Muller both of the University of Melbourne, the requirements for a digital journalist include the following:

i. Being grounded in the use of digital equipment

The ICFJ reports that the ability to effectively use digital equipment is central to being a journalist in the digital era. This position is buttressed by Drs Carson and Muller in their report. According to them, digital editorial staff must have a broader range of skills and must be able to work on multiple platforms. “They not only gather, prepare and present news in textual, audio and video formats, but they provide headlines and thumbnails on their stories and pay close attention to how their stories are followed on social media.” The report adds that “the style of modern news writing is more personal, more open, less reverential, more humorous and more consciously in tune with the intended audience.”

ii. Practice must be data-driven

Both reports stress that in the digital age, the practice of journalism must be data-driven. Drs Carson and Muller went a step further to state that, “In the data age, numbers are important sources of stories, and provide new ways for reporters to tell stories through data journalism. Data journalism stories are becoming more desirable because they can tell stories through graphics and other visualizations.”

iii. Deployment of fact checkers and verification tools

In the age of fake news, the ICFJ report says, it is incumbent on journalists to fact check their stories and make use of social media verification tools before publishing their stories to increase audience trust. This position is supported by the Future of Newsroom report.

iv. Being conscious of social media share-ability

Before publishing a news item, a digital journalist must factor in its social media share-ability. Every story must be presented in a form that will ensure greater reach and engagement on social platforms.

v. Style of writing

In the digital era, while stories must be factually accurate, it is also more personal, more open, less reverential, more humorous, consciously in tune with the audience and designed to directly engage the audience. The old idea of an impersonal, detached style full of all-knowing authority is dead.

 

Requirement for the Newsroom

i. Use of analytics

To drive traffic and to gauge the relevance of their stories to the reading public, digital newsrooms make use of analytics to track what people respond to and what stories do not get attention.

ii. Use of market research

Market research is also used to better understand the audience’s needs, wishes and desires. According to Carson and Muller, “the audience is part of the process and invited to participate in discussing and sharing the story. Each outlet knows who their primary audience is and stories that do not attract these readers and viewers are generally not included in the news mix.”

iii. Breadth of skills

In the digital newsroom, the reporter is also a sub-editor, video-maker, audio-maker, provider of data for graphics, and creator of presentational aspects of a story, including headlines and thumbnails.

iv. A flatter hierarchy

Carson and Muller, in their report, say that the digital newsroom has a small, light executive structure with only a couple of layers of management – editor and news editor, typically. They add that unlike the newsrooms of legacy media, digital newsrooms don’t try to cover everything. Instead they focus on areas they think their audience is especially interested in or in areas they see as under-reported but interesting to young people.

v. Stylistic flexibility

While there cannot be any argument concerning commitment to answering the basic Who, What, Where, When, Where, Why and How questions, in the digital era there is no rigid adherence to the inverted pyramid story structure. Carson and Muller say that “It happens that this is still commonly  used because it is the best way of telling the essential facts quickly, but there is plenty  of room for the structure to change to fit the story, rather that the story changing to fit the structure.”

vi. Making use of social media platforms

Since the era of delayed feedback in news reporting has become history, it is best that newsroom in the digital era make use of social media platforms to maximise their distribution. They should use all of the social media platforms to reach their audience given the platforms are where the readers can easily be reached.

For journalists to continue with the practice of mass communication, they have to lean on the social media. That is where the people are now. To reach the people with the news, journalists have to master the art of deploying the social media.

Revenue in the New Media Era

Carson and Muller as well as ICFJ acknowledge that digital advertising does not earn as much as print advertising. According to the Nieman Lab’s “newsonomics” numbers, the New York Times draws 37 per cent of its revenue from advertising, down from 68 per cent in 2005. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal’s parent, Dow Jones, now gets only a third of its revenue from advertising. So, the reality is that though the advertising market is growing, media companies cannot get the revenues necessary to support journalism on the scale that was possible in pre-digital times. The 17 August 2017 edition of Media Week Australia quotes Standard Media Index as saying that media agencies reported that total demand for advertising demand went down by 12.5 per cent to $496.6m at the start of the 2017 financial year.

So, what are the options for raising revenue in the new media era?

Both ICFJ and the University of Melbourne reports agreed that advertising still remain the primary avenue for raising revenue. They, however, counsel that media managers must look beyond advert revenue if they do not want to consistently contend with illiquidity.

Other avenues for generating revenue recommended include:

i. Building databases to sell access to them.

Media companies gather information. This can be segmented and built into databases for which those who need will be required to pay.

ii. Developing new media products based on market research

Media organizations can actually develop media products needed by the market after proper market research and sell these to raise revenue.

iii. Hosting events related to a company’s digital media content

When media organizations have developed a niche in an area and built strong reputation in same, they can leverage their reputation to organize events regularly in that area of strength.

Case study: National Geographic Magazine

National Geographic Magazine, the official magazine of the National Geographic Society, started in 1888 and thrived until the advent of new technologies threatened its existence. With the upsurge of electronic media as well as the internet, National Geographic saw its subscription nosedive. But rather than surrender, it leveraged the new technology to reinvent itself. In 2001, though it kept its magazine in print, it went into television shows by establishing the National Geographic Channel which has hosted some of the most amazing reality television shows in the world. It also seized the moment and became active on various social media platforms. Currently, National Geographic, in addition to revenue through subscriptions from its television channel and proceeds from its magazine publication, has close to 70million followers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

What is the key to National Geographic’s sustained success?

It is reinvention. The company continues to reinvent itself, so it continues to wax stronger year after year.

Conclusion

The key to sustainable success is continuous reinvention. The advent of the new media is a call to us as media managers to reinvent our organizations. It is also an invitation to us to study the trends in our industry and correctly interpret these so that we know how to turn these to our advantage.  If we continue to do this, we will keep our organizations not just afloat but relevant.

I thank you for your attention.

Text of a paper delivered by Mr Edward Dickson, Managing Director/Editor in Chief African Newspapers of Nigeria Plc, at the 15th All Nigeria Editors’ Conference held in Sokoto from November 27 to December 1, 2019

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