Sunday, March 6, 2016

The digital media revolution: 'Spotlight' reminds us what we've lost

(First published on on March 4.)
The strangest things are happening in the news media.
Everywhere you look, media outlets are abandoning their traditional areas of specialisation. They are no longer content to concentrate on what they have done – and often done very well – in the past.

There was a striking example of this when Radio New Zealand’s nightly current affairs show Checkpoint was relaunched in January as Checkpoint with John Campbell, a programme that’s video-streamed live online. You can now watch it as well as listen.
This illustrates the profound shift that has transformed the media.

In the past, newspapers did print, radio did audio and television did visuals. These were fields in which each medium developed its own particular expertise.
Now they have relinquished those crucial points of difference. Instead they are all competing head-on with increasingly similar products.

This is called media convergence, and it has become the new paradigm in the industry. But why stop focusing on something you did well, and that no one else did, in favour of something that everyone’s doing? At worst, it seems a formula for mutually assured destruction.
There have been many casualties along the way. Lots of wise, experienced journalists have been “let go”. There seems little room for people who don’t buy into the glorious revolution.

A significant pending departure from the industry is that of TV3’s long-serving head of news and current affairs, Mark Jennings, whose resignation coincided with the appointment of a gung-ho “chief news officer” known for his evangelistic embrace of the new way.
Multi-platform content and digital-first are the new buzz phrases. Journalists are encouraged to be “platform-agnostic”, which supposedly means that content is the key and the means by which it’s disseminated is secondary.

This sounds fine in theory, but the quality of that content has suffered because the demand for immediacy prioritises haste over depth. The race to be first is more intense than ever.
Radio, print and TV are all using similar tactics to attract viewers’ eyeballs. Inevitably, this tends to lead to a race to the bottom.  “Clickbait” – the industry term for online stories that appeal to the casual browser or trigger an emotional response – takes priority over serious content because it attracts more online traffic.

It was presumably to counter this perception that Fairfax Media, which publishes the Dominion Post, this week announced the appointment of a crack investigative reporting team. That’s a welcome sign that solid journalistic priorities still count for something.
Commentators refer to the media revolution as an example of disruptive technology – change which fundamentally reshapes traditional ways of doing things.

Disruptive it certainly is. It has changed the industry I spent my working life in to the point where it’s almost unrecognisable.
Whether it’s change for the better remains to be seen. I’m deeply sceptical, but then I’m a reactionary and a bit of a Luddite.

No one knows quite where it will ultimately lead, but I do know what we’ve lost in the meantime. I was reminded of it watching the first-rate, Oscar-winning film Spotlight, based on real events, in which a team of Boston Globe journalists in 2001 exposed a systematic cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
I was unexpectedly moved by a scene in which the edition carrying the story is shown streaming off the Globe’s mighty printing press and a convoy of delivery trucks trundles out the doors into the frosty Boston night.

The Globe is still a great newspaper, but like others it has taken a serious hit from the digital revolution. Watching that sequence, I wondered how much longer such papers will be able to continue doing the sort of vital journalism that made the Globe a proud Boston institution and earned it 23 Pulitzer Prizes.
Could the more destructive effects of the media revolution have been avoided? I don’t know, but I do believe the newspaper industry made a mistake when it allowed itself to be panicked into putting content online free of charge.

Quality journalism costs money to produce, after all, and it seemed crazy that readers should be invited to read the news without having to pay for it.
People used to be fined for stealing papers from honesty boxes (remember them?), and here was the industry effectively putting up a big sign saying: “Help yourselves”. It didn’t make sense to me.

Unfortunately the clock can’t be turned back; this is the way it is from now on.  But accepting the reality of the media revolution doesn’t stop me from mourning what has been lost.

Footnote: This column was written for The Dominion Post, but the space it would normally occupy was devoted to a tribute to the late  cricketer Martin Crowe. The column was published online instead.


Julia du Fresne said...

So your piece had to go online to make way for yet more column inches on Martin Crowe (have I got the name right?)

What delicious irony.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

At the same time newspapers were allowing content on-line for free, people like me were sending in op-eds free of charge (2000s). Sorry about that.

Now blogs have become platforms in their own right as people with specialist knowledge eg. retired professionals (energetic baby boomers) remain current and connected and can share without previous constraints. That's a good development.

Actually, what I really wanted to comment about was John Campbell's News at Six (whatever it is called). A devotee of RNZ, my husband has changed over from TV3 News.

But there is the very awkward period when the visual News ends and the Checkpoint audio continues accompanied by unrelated visual. Naturally we look to the screen for the pictures that go with the story (even when they no longer do.) Our brains are trained that way. So last week I was hearing Judith Collins describing a typical gang family and their reliance on welfare and contact with CYF, while seeing a photo of a young African man sitting on his doorstep claiming police racism. Not hard to imagine the inference that could be taken from mixed audio and visual.

My point is that in this supposed new and better media environment, we are actually going backwards in many ways and this was just one concrete example.