Friday, 29 September 2017

Journalism in the Digital Age

The transformational impact of the so-called ‘digital age’ on traditional, legacy media is undeniable. As an industry, mainstream media have virtually lost monopoly status with respect to news, views and information that matter.

In many ways, this follows on a longstanding relationship between mass media and technology. Think of the value of the modern printing press to newspapers and the innovations in wireless communication to broadcast media. Print lost to radio what radio went on to lose, in part, to television. Yet, whatever their respective conditions, they endure to today.

The immediacy of broadcast media now shares important space in the world of online content. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others are broadcasting and narrowcasting ‘live’ and way in excess of the reaches of broadcasting towers and cable connections. At the helm of these new platforms is a cadre of ordinary people telling ordinary and often extraordinary stories – much of it ‘journalistic’ in nature, but this is not ‘journalism’ in its purest professional sense.

The relationship between technological change and the practice of journalism however appears to have been important but somewhat less linear in character when compared with developments in the media industry as a whole.

On this question, for example, it had not mattered at the elemental level of journalistic practice, that the Gutenberg press and its associated functions had given way to more efficient mechanised processes. Tracing the development of the T&T Guardian over its 100 years tells us as much about the news of the day, as it provides us with an insight into the application of new publishing technologies.

It is undeniable though that the current era has challenged both traditional media and the journalism they produce. This has been achieved through the undermining of previously impervious revenue streams that served as platforms for the practice of professional journalism and through a diversification of alternative, virtually unmediated sources and streams of data, information and opinion.

Yet, journalism remains steadfastly relevant and important. This is in part so because though the aggregating of news and information is now possible by way of app and algorithm this is incapable, on its own, of advancing knowledge to the point of understanding or providing meaning. What some offer as the “DIKW continuum” comprising data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Some insert “understanding” before the word “wisdom”.

There are numerous studies on the manner in which the new digital landscape affects notions of verifiable news and information. GML technology correspondent, Mark Lyndersay, has written extensively on the subject. He points to the fact that online publications are already turning to “automated solutions to create basic stories” and in the process dramatically challenging the “modus operandi” of newsgathering and therefore some important pillars of traditional media practice.

This may eventually prove that the nature of what is broadly defined as “newsgathering” may evolve beyond current reliance on journalists as we know them (already there is the vexing question of so-called “citizen journalism”) and turn attention to the mechanical features of aggregating vast streams of data and information.

Yet, journalism remains at the core in so far as there continue to be the imperatives of verification, accountability and the nuanced voices of reporters on the ground, whatever their professional or vocational manifestation.

A Tow Center for Digital Journalism paper on Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present prepared by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky concludes starkly that while all journalism may not prevail, “hard news is what matters in the current crisis.”

Yes, journalism matters. But the real question is, which journalism. In my view, Lyndersay and the Tow Center researchers are not those many poles apart.

Another Tow study ‘The Story So Far’ by Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave and Lucas Graves enters the discussion from the vantage point of the media industry.

“Fifteen years after most news organisations went online,” they ask, “it is clear that old media business models have been irrevocably disrupted and that the new models are fundamentally different from what they once were.”

“What made traditional media so vulnerable to the Web? Or perhaps the better question is this: Why has digital technology, which has been such a powerful force for transmitting news, not yet provided the same energy for companies to maintain and increase profits?”

They conclude that even as the industry wrestles with the monetising of news and information in this new era, “we think the world needs journalism and journalists.” Why? Because while people now have unprecedented access to data and information, much of what media audiences need to know “will go unreported and unexposed without skilled, independent journalists doing their work.”

It is true that the nature of the job remains in transition. Today’s journalists are reporting and editing, but also aggregating data and information from a much deeper and wider pool of resources. Anderson, Bell and Shirky describe the process as capable of yielding “the iron core of news.”
It is this “iron core” that remains as the steadfast bastion of professional journalism. To me, this represents an important moment to reflect on the value systems that drive and motivate the work of journalists.

As a working journalist and trainer of some seniority, it has occurred to me that the current generation occupies favourable technological space even as they confront the dilemma of medium and message in ways we could not have previously countenanced.

Clearly, tomorrow is already here. What it portends for the media industry shares space in the eyewall of the storm alongside journalism and all the profession continues to offer.

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