Buenos Aires Times

opinion and analysis ON THE FUTURE OF THE MEDIA

Journalism can excel in the digital age

After two years of bleeding red ink, which put almost every major media company across the globe on its knees, professional journalism appears to have found its place. Journalists, having accepted the creative destruction fostered by Silicon Valley giants, are testing the boundaries of storytelling, as newsrooms evolve and adapt to new tools and platforms.

Saturday 6 January, 2018
Foto:AFP.

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It’s fathomable that 2017 will be remembered as the year in which journalism emerged victorious. Technological innovation has spurred a sea change, one that could prove to be the most significant ever experienced by mankind. A set of changes in our societies and cultures, which span every aspect of our lives, coupled with a major shake-up of the geopolitical and economic order, make it paramount that societies invest in more information and better analysis. The dominant worldview that emerged in the aftermath of World War II and solidified its hegemony after the fall of the Berlin Wall — as the Soviet Union crumbled and the United States’ twin pillars of free-wheeling capitalism and democracy became the global standard — is undergoing a profound transformation. And this process will determine the relative position of our cultural tectonic plates for years to come.

After two decades of bleeding red ink, which put almost every major media company across the globe on its knees, professional journalism appears to have found its place. Journalists, having accepted the creative destruction fostered by Silicon Valley giants, are testing the boundaries of storytelling, as newsrooms evolve and adapt to new tools and platforms. As the Google-Facebook duopoly becomes ever more dominant – generating abhorrent digital deformations like “fake news,” or the possibility of influencing hundreds of millions of votes in the US and elsewhere through programmatic advertising – a journalist’s duty of getting the story right is more important than ever. Unexpected events like the electoral victory of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the “No” vote in the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group graphically make the case for a strong, plural, and independent media ecosystem.

We haven’t found our way out of the desert yet, as the exodus of advertising dollars from traditional media continues, and the duopoly greedily vacuums up every digital penny in sight. Yet our growing crossplatform audience and the development of new digital skills mean we can now see light at the end of the tunnel.

For major media organisations, from Perfil to The New York Times, it’s high time to invest boldly in the newsroom.

OFF-GUARD

Most newspapers and media publishers were caught off guard by rapid transformations in reader habits and a subsequent decline in circulation and advertising revenue, caused by the web. After a century monopolising the supply of advertising inventory, the rise of the Internet gave birth to a new dynamic. Accustomed to selling ad pages at astronomical rates, newspapers dumped their content for free on the world wide web, looking for more eyeballs to beef up their circulation figures. On the web, where audiences – and therefore advertising space – are so massive as to become practically infinite, excess supply caused ad rates to plummet. Financial crises across the globe – from the 2001-2002 implosion of the Argentine economy to the 2008 global financial meltdown sparked by the subprime mortgage crisis – progressively burst the advertising bubble in almost every country, bankrupting thousands of newspapers and magazines on every continent. The web also created a seismic shift in the ontological value of information, breaking the iron grip of powerful media companies on opinion and culture. The finite physical space of a newspaper or magazine created a constraint which turned editors and media owners into gatekeepers: they decided who and what could be published, and they amassed vast power in the process. A magazine or newspaper was a curated experience where publishers, editors and journalists put their reputation – and their interests – on the line in every issue (for good and for bad), creating a pact with readers who spent money on a finished product.

First, the web disaggregated that experience, ordering information in lists generated by search engines like Google which sought to optimise the flow of outputs. Then, it democratised content creation by allowing anyone to voice their opinion through blogs and, later, social media (particularly Twitter and Facebook). While a published article used to have a certain hierarchical standing in the realm of knowledge, by virtue of being published in a periodical publication, edited and curated by professionals, today it is no different from cat videos, promotional materials, spam or fake news.

As journalists, we were knocked off our high horse, being forced to compete in the attention economy with posts on Facebook and Instagram, particularly as smartphones proliferated and people’s attention became deeply fragmented. Our reach is the greatest it has ever been (Editorial Perfil, for example, has secured a record audience with 13 million monthly unique visitors, according to Google Analytics), but our capacity to capitalise on it remains limited.

TRANSFORMATION

Like other companies, we are transforming ourselves by focusing on what we do best, quality journalism, and what’s most important, the audience. Instead of chasing digital page views through clickbait, we must double-down on quality, while trying to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. Projects like the Buenos Aires Times, along with Perfil’s commitment to investigative and watchdog journalism, have set us apart from our competitors. The deep polarisation of Argentine society – a global phenomenon – and the honeymoon period shown to the Mauricio Macri administration by the mainstream media have handed us an amazing opportunity to solidify our unique editorial position. Relying on digital metrics, we are beginning to truly understand our audience. We will continue to pursue the most important stories, but we need to use every tool available — from print to digital, from video to virtual reality — in order to remain relevant.

Constant technological innovation in digital storytelling is a necessary condition for survival. Content needs to be packaged according to audience and platform. Speed, precision, and relevance are the names of the game, particularly in the era of mobile. At the same time, media companies have the obligation to generate multiple revenue streams, as there is no silver bullet. Advertising alone will not support a newsroom that is dedicated to high-quality journalism, much less when you have to serve multiple niches like celebrities and entertainment, outdoor and automobiles, fashion and female, and others, as Perfil does with our origins as a magazine company. In the US, for example, newsroom jobs have been slashed by half in less than a decade. Brands like Caras and Noticias are much bigger now than the traditional business we’ve built around them. We are already expanding into events, digital subscriptions, brand extensions, and e-commerce. The next step will be charging for content, even though we are not convinced by the model being pursued by the competition. As a company, we will also be expanding into radio and television in order to truly become a multimedia content-creation factory, unlocking synergies and hopefully streamlining costs. The world is much more complex than we thought it was only a decade ago, not to mention a century ago. Opportunity is without boundary. And so is risk. Nothing makes the need for powerful, independent journalism more evident. Let’s hope we are up to the task.  

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