The adaptation and reinvention of journalism
The Economist's Alex Delamain reports back on the key themes from the World Media Group's Journalism 2020 briefing, featuring a panel of media experts and journalists discussing their future in an era of fake news
‘Fake News’. We all hate the term but the issue is going nowhere as darker forces continue to get paid for creating it for commercial or subversive means. Yet, panellist Tom Standage, Deputy Editor & Head of Digital Strategy at The Economist pointed out that ‘Fake News’ is by no means a new phenomenon.
‘Fake News’ is not a modern day problem
He believes it goes back to the early days of the printing press when, if you had nothing to print, you would dust off an old pamphlet about a witch trial or terrible disaster, change the names and locations and print it. It was essentially rubbish, but people loved to read these stories and it kept your press busy.
The big change came when the first daily newssheets were set up in the 18th century. The owners realised they had to convince people that they were reliable and trustworthy if they were to get them to buy their paper every day. These fledgling media brands worked hard to build their reputations and credibility. It was the beginning of trusted journalism as we know it today.
The return to ‘Fake News’ has been driven by the internet’s disaggregation of newspapers. Today, the provenance of a story can be impossible to find. You click on a link on social media and get taken to somewhere that looks like a news site to see a story and are unlikely to ever go back there again – so we’re back to the days of the pamphleteers who pumped out content to make money and didn’t care about getting you to return.
Quality journalism is essential for society
Clearly it’s worrying, but the panel agreed that it has led to the big media brands focusing more than ever on quality journalism. Hayley Romer, Chief Revenue Officer and Publisher at The Atlantic, believes that this is not just for commercial reasons but because the sustainability of trusted journalism is paramount to society. For instance, without it people would not have exposure to topics like climate change and so there would be no behaviour change.
Bénédicte Autret, Head of Strategic Relations at Google concurs, explaining that this was why Google is providing publishers with tools. Obviously, as a search engine they rely on good quality information, but also they believe they are part of the same ecosystem and as such have a duty of care to quality journalism.
The importance of education around the value of journalism
Autret also believes that it’s important to show consumers that good journalism comes at a cost. Phillipa Leighton-Jones, Editorial Director Innovation at The Wall Street Journal, commented that the big media brands need to do more than ever to educate the public about what the media does and how to know who to trust. For instance, with an increasing number of state-owned media channels coming into play, such as the Chinese Global Television Network, Russia Today and Al Jazeera, it’s important that consumers understand the context and implications of where their news comes from.
It’s not only important to educate consumers about the media, though, according to Medhi Benchelah, Senior Project Officer, Division of Freedom & Media at UNESCO. He explained how, as part of the UN’s Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, it is important to train national security forces about how and why they should respect and understand journalists. Yet, for those that worked for previously totalitarian regimes this requires a huge cultural shift as journalists were viewed as the enemy before.
Corporate brands apply journalistic rigour but, for quality media brands, church and state remain sacrosanct
It was heartening to hear from Kunal Dutta, Chief Editor of Digital Channels at Shell talking about the factual rigour being applied to corporate content too. His team members all have journalistic backgrounds which means they take a journalistic approach to information inside the business. They apply strict checks and balances to all their stories and truth always outweighs marketing messages.
However, the panel agreed that there were still strict guidelines delineating ‘church and state’ (i.e. commercial teams versus news rooms). That said, innovation is leading to more ‘bridge roles’ between the two. Creation of products requires input from both sides of the wall, but new products and closer ties with corporate news rooms will never be at the expense of their brand integrity.
Innovation must align with core brand values
Interestingly, Alex Wood, Europe Editor at Forbes believes students and cub journalists are much more commercially aware right from the start, which he thinks will be a catalyst for innovation. Dutta said that journalists should not just be thinking about how to develop a great story or podcast but look at what innovations they can use to tell a richer story – suggesting that what delivers the news could become just as important as the news itself.
AI (artificial intelligence) was seen as the most exciting innovation at the moment, providing huge opportunities for new products through its ability to delve deeply into information and also its ability to score quality journalism and monitor ‘Fake News’. However, as Standage pointed out, innovation has to be measured with a yardstick that is bigger than revenue alone. It must be in line with core brand values and do what your audience wants you to do.
Alex Delamain is President of the World Media Group (WMG) and SVP, Head of Client Sales and Services at The Economist
Photo: From L-R Hayley Romer, Alex Wood, >Bénédicte Autret, Kunal Dutta, Phillipa Leighton-Jones, Tom Standage
Photo Credit: Jane Clipston