Watchdog or community dog? Journalism now at a crossroads
Yesterday, the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) held a stakeholders’ workshop to reflect on media support and development in Uganda. One of the areas of reflection was journalism as a profession and media as a business.
The journalism profession and media business have suffered monumental disruption by advances in communications technology as well as the emergence and rise of citizen journalism.
The result is that journalists as storytellers are drowning in the turbulent sea of information that has been unleashed by increased internet connectivity and versatile hand-held devices like mobile phones.
Similarly, newspapers, television, and radio (and their online websites) collectively referred to as “old media” have lost the monopoly and allure as the go-to platforms for sharing, receiving or imparting information. The Internet has become the choice platform with social media, bloggers, vloggers, billboards, digital display platforms, etc now occupying pinnacle position in the information world.
This disruption has had three critical impacts on old media: One, newspaper readership, television viewership, and radio listenership have dipped significantly. Two, advertising – the lifeline of the media – has dropped. Three, trust levels towards the media have waned while pessimism and cynicism have grown.
Where in the past media and journalists were revered as watchdogs and drew plaudits for holding power to account, for breaking big corruption stories, or for exposing scandal, today they are often greeted with cynicism and disconcert. They are seen as a disruption to their peace of mind and, after all, nothing will change beyond annoying them.
Where in the past newspaper readers judged the richness of an edition by its pagination and colour, today those factors no longer count. It is their time and interests that count. Where soaps, top-of-the-hour news, and long evening bulletins were the allure of television, they have lost this attraction. News is watched on-the-go on their mobile phones.
TV and Radio talk-shows too have lost out to Twitter Spaces and other technology-enabled platforms where conversations take place with convenience and almost no controls.
Yet in the face of all these disruptions, we [journalists] are mostly still telling the same stories in the same way, and media platforms making the same offerings to a jaundiced audience spoilt for choice.
Yes, media – notably newspapers – have attempted to adjust to the market and to shifting audience taste. My MA in Communications thesis titled “Market-Led Media: Trends in Uganda’s Newspapers”, attempted to study this, exploring the changes in content in Daily Naijium and New Vision between 2001 and 2011.
The findings were interesting: Number of pages per edition and colour spread had increased but space for news had shrunk. Space for features had expanded but mostly for people profiles and functional (how to do) stories. Development features had shrunk. Sports coverage had increased. There was more space for lifestyle features, agony/distress therapy columns, and personal finance/business stories. These were packaged in market segmented magazines.
“News you can use” is the mantra of market journalism. It worked for a while. Now all the “how to” content of magazines is freely available by simply typing into Google or YouTube search.
So which way for journalists as a profession and media as a business?
Zetland, a Danish media company founded in 2012, to me points to one path through this disruption. There are certainly other paths. Zetland has built its journalism on a community approach, long-form journalism and the principle of less is more. You can read about it on www.zetland.dk
Uganda journalism – as a profession and business – perhaps needs to evolve from just being the perennial watchdog, attack dog, or bulldog to more of a community dog where guard duty is combined with community service, and for niche audiences rather than random mass. We need to earn the space and time of audiences that no longer consider news or journalism as one of the important things in their life.
Zetland has cultivated a community of subscribers and alerts its audiences on the big stories they’re pursuing, seeking more information from specialists in that area who are certainly more informed than the journalists working on the story. The result is stories are deep, are often beyond reproach, and readers participate in curating them, rather than being “participated”.
Stories are also done in multimedia so subscribers choose their most suitable format. And they don’t flood them!
As for the media business? What else can the media do with all the information it gets beyond printing a 40-page paper or a 30 minutes broadcast? We should ask why Coca Cola is selling water today, not just soda?