Journalism faces up to its most pressing challenges

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THE multi-faceted role of the traditional media is under severe strain in a fast-changing information landscape. What happens next, asks David Lee

JOURNALISM is in crisis.” It was a stark opening to a conference on the future of media in Scotland by event chair, STV presenter Juliet Dunlop, yet few delegates would question the enormity of the challenges ahead as the media landscape shifts inexorably and traditional players seek 21st-century 
solutions to survive and thrive.

However, there was also optimism that the core skills of journalism – and its role in society – meant there would be continuing opportunities for those wishing to make a career in media.

In her presentation, Why The Media Matters, The Scotsman writer Joyce McMillan summarised its role in a democratic society as “information, accountability and the creation of identity”. “From the town cryer to the Huffington Post, the media has been essential for passing information about communities to those communities, and communicating about those communities to the wider world,” she said. “The role of the media as a supplier of unbiased information is a subject of debate, but without a flow of information, it is difficult for human beings to believe they belong to a community at all.”

McMillan said journalism’s accountability role was also crucial and, when it functioned well, it held the powerful to account. She highlighted the MPs’ expenses scandal as a good recent example.

In terms of forming identity, she said: “My sense of identity was very much shaped by watching the BBC; I wanted to be Richard Dimbleby from a very young age. At its deepest level – and this is often little understood – the news media has played an absolutely vital role in forming people’s identities and the political communities they belong to. However, in this diffuse world to which we now belong, where do we find our sense of political community?”

McMillan said we could not underestimate the revolutionary and profound changes now taking place in our media, the variety and vitality of which had largely come about by “happy accident”. Politicians had taken little interest beyond debates on regulation and the future of the BBC, she suggested.

She said we had to accept the plurality of the media landscape, whether or not we liked its constituent parts; she disliked the Daily Mail, but recognised “the vitality and energy of this kind of press is part of the lifeblood of the democracy in which I live. We have to ask, ‘If it is not there, what then?’”

Pat Kane, pictured left, a writer, commentator and a founding editor of the Sunday Herald, agreed the media was a necessary part of a functioning democracy, but argued purely commercial models would not guarantee a 
diverse and free press in Scotland.

He summed up the modern-day dilemma for traditional media as “reach does not mean cash”; his favourite newspaper, The Guardian, had an enormous online readership of more than 4.5 million but lost around £46 million per year. Kane quoted research by polling firm Pew suggesting that for every $1 gained in digital revenue, $16 was lost in paper revenue.

He said independence was a chance to do things differently in Scotland and suggested a number of radical alternatives, including citizens’ news vouchers, where people could apportion a sum of money to support a media entity that fulfilled a number of criteria – it would take no advertising, be available online and be regulated at arm’s length, for example.

Kane also suggested public funds could be used to support indigenous, high-quality Scottish journalism – and although he eschewed the McCluskey report as a future blueprint, he said it offered the basis for a Scottish Media Commission after the 2014 referendum to examine global best practice and how we might secure journalism as a public good.

In terms of citizen journalism, Kane argued: “There are means whereby motivated citizens can pay for the new media service they want.” He used the website Wings Over Scotland as an example of a relatively small operation that has successfully raised money – and highlighted larger schemes such as Mediapart, a French “hardcore investigations” publication funded entirely by subscription.

Stewart Kirkpatrick, head of digital for Yes Scotland, supported Kane’s theory that there were opportunities for journalists to thrive and make money online, but urged a measured approach. He described his own experience with online newspaper Caledonian Mercury, where he had very limited success in attracting advertising and sponsorship – despite a monthly high of 160,000 unique browsers and 300,000 page views. “I would be driving a Bentley if I had a penny for every time I have been told ‘We love what you are doing and we are tired of the old media landscape, but we are going to keep advertising with The Scotsman and the Herald’,” he said.

However, Kirkpatrick said the Cale Merc had done well with donations, though they were sometimes seen as an admission of failure. He described the online financial conundrum – a small number of journalists producing a large amount of content to achieve high browser and page-view figures, but not enough to earn sufficient income to pay for the journalists in the first place. His future model involved ideas which worked in an integrated way across all platforms, were produced by small teams and attracted a small, committed audience willing to pay.

“The great dictum of social media is that if you are getting it for free, you are not the customer, you are the product. Cut out the advertisers and just ask people for money,” he concluded.

Kirkpatrick thought print would
always be part of the mix, a point made forcibly by Ashley Highfield, chief 
executive of Johnston Press, who gave an upbeat assessment in “a period of huge adjustment, accommodation and change”. “We thought the iPlayer would kill Saturday night television, but it’s pulling in the same audience as 20 years ago – and I don’t think the internet will kill print newspapers,” Highfield said.

Kane pointed out the only category of decline in a PWC Entertainment and Media index was print media, but Highfield suggested the decline, from £19.9 billion in 2012 to £19.4bn in 2016 (in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa) was tiny.

“We will still be printing newspapers across all our titles for many years, perhaps indefinitely,” said Highfield, who insisted that digital audiences were more than outstripping the decline in the physical product. He admitted his thinking had shifted on paywalls, influenced by more than 400 regional newspapers in the US introducing “porous paywalls” in the last year. He said: “I couldn’t see it six months ago, but now I can,” and suggested that JP’s 250 newspapers would allow it to experiment with different paywall models, though most online users would see no difference and might be allowed access to 20 different articles a week before paying anything.

Highfield also stressed the growing significance of the audience sourcing content through mobile devices – up from 5 per cent to 20 per cent in the last year and set to grow much further – and made it clear that contributed content would rise to around 50 per cent of the JP total. This would not be “a massive amorphous range of bloggers”, he insisted, but carefully filtered material. At the same time, printed newspapers would move to “more in-depth investigatorial and analytical comment – with more instant, quick, digestible stuff online”.

Highfield echoed McMillan, saying people still believed in a local community reflected in a local newspaper and its website. While consolidation of the regional media was “inevitable and desirable”, he felt this would not lead to a loss of “plurality of editorial voice”.

“We will become ever more local,” he pledged, stressing that journalists were being equipped with quality laptops and smartphones to ensure they could deliver news from the ground, allowing a massive increase in video posted by JP titles. This would be backed by a shift to more “utility websites”, with more travel and entertainment information, and the launch of JP TV stations, which would be on demand, highly local and contributed to by readers as well as journalists.