Media change deniers: Why debates around news need a better evidence base — and how we can get one

Do you think that most people who get news via social media are caught in filter bubbles? Do you believe that online news use is more fragmented than offline news consumption? That young people will never pay for online news? Or that bots are the main drivers of disinformation online? If so, your views are based on arguments advanced by media change deniers — pundits who, like climate change deniers, are doubling down on arguments that are directly contradicted by a growing consensus in the best available peer-reviewed scientific research. (Don’t get me started on whether print “has a future” or the notion that linear scheduled television is doing just fine.) Media research is different from climate change research in many ways. It is a smaller field, less well-funded, and — because it deals with human behavior — necessarily less conceptually clear. (Because we all agree on how Continue reading "Media change deniers: Why debates around news need a better evidence base — and how we can get one"

Soft power — not government censorship — is the key to fighting disinformation and “fake news”

In many countries over the past few years, the political process — and social cohesion — have been threatened by various forms of disinformation, sometimes misleadingly and inadequately called “fake news.” Politically-motivated and for-profit disinformation is blamed, among other things, for the U.K.’s decision to vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Disinformation takes many forms and is driven by many factors. Foreign states sometimes try to subvert other countries’ political processes. People publish false and fabricated information masquerading as news for profit. Domestic politicians lie to their own people — and sometimes these lies are amplified by news media, by hyper-partisan activists, or spread far and wide via social media and other platforms. These different problems are serious — and many have called on public authorities to tackle them. The question is how? Only a small part of
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Continue reading "Soft power — not government censorship — is the key to fighting disinformation and “fake news”"

The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

I fear 2018 will be the year we will see a major platform decide that news is simply not worth the trouble and move to (1) reduce the role of news and systematically separate it from other content and (2) reduce the number of news organizations allowed to publish to the platform, strictly controlling who has the opportunity. We can call this the “Snapchat scenario,” as that is basically how news works on Snapchat. Some platforms in mainland China, Japan, and South Korea also control news distribution tightly and are only open to preapproved select partners. Relatively open platforms like Facebook or YouTube could choose to adopt this model, for any mix of three possible reasons rooted in politics, users, or advertising—

Is the digital content bubble about to burst? For some of the publishers chasing the broadest scale, maybe

Recent bad news for a number of digital-born news outlets (including BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Mashable, and Vice) is a symptom not only of the intense competition for attention and advertising online, but also of a digital content bubble where most news providers continue to operate at a loss — losses that cannot be sustained indefinitely. So far, the largest digital-born publishers have been sustained by investors, some of whom may be losing their patience. Legacy media outlets have used their offline revenues to bankroll investments in online operations that are still often not profitable on their own. Smaller digital-born operations have started out with money from their founders or philanthropic backers, but many are struggling to break even. More than 20 years into the rise of digital media, it seems clear that the content bubble will eventually burst unless more robust business models are found. Investors’ high Continue reading "Is the digital content bubble about to burst? For some of the publishers chasing the broadest scale, maybe"

The mobile money challenge

In 2016, every news organization will want to be mobile-first. But no one knows how to make the business of mobile news work. This makes the mobile money challenge one of the most pressing concerns for news and journalism. rasmus-kleis-nielsenIt’s clear that the move to mobile is a defining trend of news today. The rise of the mobile web in recent years has been faster and more global than the rise of desktop web access in the 1990s. In many countries, more than half the time spent with digital media is spent on mobile devices. Mobile Internet use is growing worldwide even as growth in home broadband access and desktop use is slowing. For many news organizations, more than half of their traffic comes from mobile users. To find an audience, especially a young audience, news need to be mobile, and media organizations are right to rush in, lest they Continue reading "The mobile money challenge"

What’s Missing From the BBC’s ‘Future of News’ Report?

The BBC is a globally important news organization and looked to all over the world for inspiration by other media, whether public service, private or non-profit.

That makes the new "Future of News" report by director of news and current affairs, James Harding, a particularly important publication well beyond the UK -- BBC World News <a href="http://advertising.bbcworldwide.com/home/mediakit/reachaudience/bbcworldnews"_hplink">say they reach a quarter of a billion households globally, and boasts over 50 million Facebook likes and over 8 million Twitter followers. Google, Facebook and Twitter may well be the only media companies with a wider global reach, even though China, Russia and Qatar are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in building their international state-owned media operations.

The report sets out an analysis of where news is heading over the next 10 years, identifies central strategic challenges, and lays out the case for the continued relevance of BBC-style public service media, funded not on a market basis (as with private media), or by donations (non-profits), but by a license fee levied on most of the population.

It is a very useful report, both for a good overall analysis of some of the main changes underway in the media and beyond changing what news is and where it should go. But it also leaves a number of key issues largely untouched -- most notably the role of digital intermediaries like Google and Facebook, the growing role of PR and strategic communication, as well as the global battle for press freedom -- which it is important to highlight.

In summary (see also here), Harding's focus is on what content the BBC (and others like it), but also on the technologies used to disseminate news and engage with users, and on the people that journalists ultimately need to reach and enrich.

On the content side, Harding argues that the BBC needs to emphasize "underreported stories", especially as private sector investment in news coverage continues to shrink in much of the world, including more focus on opaque power structures (especially cross-border ones), on international and local news (as opposed to national), and on making sure that the BBC delivers news for everyone, across age, class, race, etc. differences, especially given the huge information inequalities that characterize what he rightly calls our "uneven world".

On the technology side, he underlines the need to continue to operate with a mix of distribution platforms and technologies, including "legacy" ones like traditional TV and radio, but also on more emphasis on more distinctly digital and mobile formats and platforms, as well as the need for more data journalism, more personalized news services ("If you like this, you might also like..."), and more engagement with users, all facilitated by digital technologies.

While recognizing many of the challenges ahead, Harding's overall stance is up-beat. In his view, news is changing "for the better, overwhelmingly." A colleague from a private news organization would probably be the first to say that is probably more true when one is funded by a license fee than if one is struggling to break even on a market basis.

What's missing from this, then, beyond the limited attention paid to the challenges commercial players face? I would highlight three important things that are underplayed in the report.

First, the increasingly important role of digital intermediaries like search engines and social media. In six of the 10 countries we surveyed for the 2014 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, search engines are a more widely used way of finding news online than the websites of news organizations like the BBC. Digital intermediaries often offer amazing and highly valuable services to their users, but it is also important to keep an eye on their increasingly central place in the overall media environment as the sites via which we find news, where we consume it, where we engage with it. As Emily Bell has rightly argued, this puts the biggest of these companies in very powerful positions and raise questions of accountability and conflict of interest. Continue reading "What’s Missing From the BBC’s ‘Future of News’ Report?"

The Abundant Riches of American Political Journalism

Jurek Martin complained in a recent Financial Times column about the rising poverty of American political journalism, decrying the "crippling reliance on opinion polls", the relentless churn of 24-hour television "news" (good thing he isn't on Twitter...), and the near-obsession in some circles with the 2016 Presidential Election at the expense of reporting on what is actually going on now, why and what it means.

Martin complained, "[I]n the 40-plus years I have been familiar with American political journalism, it has never been as poor as it is today."

All the phenomena that Martin mentioned exist, and they can be annoying. Yes, too often, opinion polls are reported in a mindless fashion. Yes, much of what passes for news on television is superficial and driven by self-promoting pundits ready at hand with pre-packaged opinions and professional outrage. Yes, many political stories speculate about the distant Presidential Election instead of focusing on the monumental challenges at hand in Washington, D.C. and in state and local governments around the country.

But Mr. Martin, you don't have to watch Fox News if you don't like it. You don't need to read premature speculation about 2016. And you don't have to care about what respondents have answered in the most recent poll. Because American political journalism today is not impoverished. It is abundantly rich.

You have so many other options, quality daily news coverage from a number of mainstream news outlets, long-form articles in magazines and online, intelligent satire, a growing number of blogs focusing on minutia of policy, interactive data journalism helping you understand the flow of money in everything from the federal budget to the most recent campaign.

Yes, there is much crap, plenty to provide endless anecdotes to support the that the state of American political journalism today is poor. But there is also much excellent work being done, timely, accurate, multifaceted reporting on what is going on.

I am even tempted to suggest that the best political journalism today is better in some ways -- more contextualized through links, less arrogant and self-satisfied, more conscious that it has been taken for a ride in the past and that many citizens are losing patience with journalism, and have many other ways of spending their time -- than political journalism was in a past when a few newspapers and a few television news programs held a much more dominant position in the American media landscape and political system than any one outlet does today. Was American political journalism really great during the Reagan presidency, for example? In the coverage of the first Gulf War? Some of the best commentators at the time did not think so. It is hard to see when exactly Martin's Golden Age was, and how golden it was.

This doesn't mean contemporary American political journalism doesn't have any weaknesses, flaws, or problems. It has many.

It has well-known problems, many as old as the profession itself. Political journalism remains reliant on a narrow range of pre-approved authoritative sources who mainly represent their own or their institution's self-interest. It struggles with slow-burn issues like poverty, climate change and the transformation of our economy, stories that have few obviously colorful personalities and little overt conflict. It remains insular, more in tune with what is going on inside the Beltway than with Paris, Texas. More interested in Paris, Texas, than in Paris, France. Ordinary Americans and their hopes and problems are rarely featured (except through opinion polls or as anecdotes).

American political journalism also has new problems -- problems I discuss in my new book with Raymond Kuhn, Political Journalism in Transition -- but these problems are not the problems of poverty that Jurek Martin complains about in his frankly back-wards looking and jaundiced piece in the Financial Times.

The new problems are problems of a growing polarization between the information haves and the information have-nots as more and more Americans no longer trust politicians or the journalists who report on them and tune out. They are problems of often harsh cuts in newsrooms, not in the number of reporters covering the White House and the most high-profile partisan and intra-party conflicts, but in a declining number of reporters who write for a general audience about municipal governments, about state-level politics, and about more specialized policy areas like housing, the environment, and defense, where special interests, both public and private, often slug it out in darkness with, but few journalists reporting on what is going on in matters than concern all of us.

These are the problems we should be concerned with -- the risk that political journalism increasingly orients itself towards reporting for the few who follow politics closely, not for the many, the risk that political journalism is reduced to covering a few aspects of the many facets and many layers of modern politics. Complaining that things where much better back in the day will do nothing to address these challenges. Journalists of Martin's generation had their chance, did their job. Now, it is up to a new generation of political journalists to prove that the fundamental mission of their profession can be renewed for a new age under new conditions.