How to deal with the journalism challenges of tomorrow? Here are some clues

In a foreword to a prescient analysis of the state of the media industry by the Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, I wrote about the political, cultural, commercial and even psychological stresses on journalism and why it is such an important time to stand up to threats, innovate and show its value.

As the Global Editors Network 7th annual conference, the GEN Summit in Vienna is well under way, I thought it might be valuable to publish that extract on the GEN Medium publication to provoke discussion and point a wider audience to the report. All these issues are part of the Summit agenda with speakers including the Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, Timothy Garton Ash, the Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and Amy Webb, Founder of the Future Today Institute. All sessions are available for replay here.

The Journalism Report V, Innovation and Transition

I am grateful for the work of Andy Kaltenbrunner of Medienhaus Wien and Daniela Kraus of FJUM for allowing me to reproduce this section of the report and for their work in assembling such a powerful statement on the current state of the media and its outlook. You can download a larger extract of the report from the Medienhaus Wien site. The full report will be published at the GEN Summit in Vienna next week.

Here are some bullet points from my commentary:

  • The threat to basic tenets of journalism worldwide from the behaviour of Donald Trump and his administration is real
  • Innovation is happening in collaboration, technology, fact-checking
  • Technology platforms are waking up to their editorial responsibilities and immense power as communicators
  • Fake news is as much a creation of politicians as it is a genuine phenomenon and media does have to re-establish trust with readers.

Here’s the piece in full:

Confrontation Drives Innovation and Tests Strength

An unprecedented confrontation between the leader of the free world and the global mainstream media is calling into question some of the basic tenets of the role of the fourth estate in civil society.

The deliberate undermining of trust and confidence in the media by the president of the United States is forcing journalists and publishers to reconsider their relationship to audiences and the methods by which they gather and deliver information.

It is sadly ironic that the greatest threat to press freedom in its theoretical home — the United States — comes at a time when decades of shrinkage in traditional advertising and subscription models have left many publishers weaker than ever financially.

It is no accident that the instinctive corporate power broker Donald Trump repeatedly calls the New York Times “failing” and attacks one of its shareholders, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. This is as much an attack on the diminished corporate power of media as it is against what the media might actually publish each day.

It is also why Trump has effectively held hostage the AT&T bid for Time Warner, using his disquiet at reporting by CNN, to see if he can none-too-discreetly influence the tone of the world’s most important television news outlet through its prospective new owner.

Enemy fights back

In public, the president’s description of the media as “the enemy of the American people”, seeks to delegitimise journalism itself. And if you think this is just a U.S. problem, think again. Cambodian strongman Hun Sen used Trump’s outburst as justification for his own crack down saying: “Donald Trump understands that they are an anarchic group.”

Trump is just the tip of the spear of an outright attack on the role of media in civil society worldwide. Other factors at work are the steady erosion of trust among the audience — which may be almost impossible to regain once it is lost — and the huge drift in attention to social media platforms and algorithmically-defined news sources, which vacuum up and aggregate hundreds of news brands into an amorphous brand-eroding stream of information.

Against the combination of political, economic and technological threats it is arguable that innovation has accelerated over the past 12 months as media companies, journalistic collectives, some thinking politicians and technology firms realise what is at stake.

Norwegian fake news coalition of news publications, Faktisk

Innovation worth mentioning in this vein could include:

  • The Trust Project, led by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics atSanta Clara University in Silicon Valley and backed by Google, a wide range of media outlets and media philanthropist Craig Newmark. It is going to the heart of the lack of trust and finding incremental changes to reporting methods, transparency and areas like fact-checking in an attempt to restore trust.
  • The Washington Post, under new owner Jeff Bezos, is quietly revolutionising its underlying technologies, combining news metrics with news judgment to create new tools to get ahead of stories and detect public sentiment. It’s also turning itself into a technology vendor, offering its world-class content management system to others.
  • Norwegian publishers have joined forces to create Faktisk, a new combined fact-checking standalone operation to use reporting methods to confront the likelihood of “fake news” and the usual misleading claims ahead of the Norwegian election. It is a great example of news groups collaborating without being directed by governments, which is the way the fake news issue is playing out in some other European countries.
  • Collaboration was the big news of 2016 with the unprecedented work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in coordinating the analysis, dissemination and publication of the Panama Papers. We can expect to see many more of these large and small collaborations, including entirely new arrangements such as the BBC in the UK working with local newspapers to defend home town journalism.
  • Business models are also evolving with substantial input to journalism from philanthropic groups — from the Rockefeller Foundation supporting reporting on urban issues in The Guardian to multi-million dollar grants to investigative news outlets and fact-checking groups by U.S. businessmen Pierre Omidyar and Craig Newmark and others. Not to mention crowdsourced and member-funded projects like The Correspondent in the Netherlands and German investigative group Correctiv.
  • Platforms, led by Google with Facebook now following it into this area, are also taking their responsibilities more seriously. Google has long supported mainstream and independent journalism and has invested in the Digital News Initiative to create a fund to support innovation in Europe. Yes, there is a public relations dimension to this, but it is clearly constructive. Facebook is also realising its own importance while it has yet to accept the responsibilities that come with being a publisher.
  • Multi-talented newsrooms: one of the key innovations which has crept in over time but which, if you look at it over a decade, is remarkable, is the way newsrooms have retooled themselves. VG newspaper in Norway is now the primary source of breaking news in that market, The New York Times is now a leading video source, The New Yorker does podcasting, daily reporting and documentary films. Almost all newsrooms operate at a speed that was once the preserve of financial news agencies like Bloomberg and Reuters.

That record of historic and current innovation should stand the news industry in good stead (though none fully deal with the decline in the advertising business model, which is the subject of a different commentary).

However, when the greatest source of “fake news” is a president who has himself innovated and disintermediated the traditional role of the media, we have to stay on our toes and keep competitive with rivals and with our subjects.

Peter Bale, President, The Global Editors Network

About Peter Bale

Peter Bale is the President of GEN. He was until recently the CEO OF the Center for Public Integrity, a global nonprofit investigative journalism organisation based in Washington, DC. He joined the Center after three years at CNN International where he ran and other digital products outside of the United States. The International edition of the CNN site recorded double-digit growth in users, engagement and revenue during his tenure heading teams in Atlanta, London, Dubai and Hong Kong.