This weekend’s anniversary of the first edition of the Buenos Aires Times could hardly come at a happier moment for newspaper prestige in Argentina – for fully a month now the news has been made by those reporting it, in the form of the investigative journalism bringing to light the copybook exposés of Kirchnerite corruption. Yet not all is sweetness and light in the wider journalistic world – at least 2,400 media workers have lost their jobs in the last 30 months or so. These losses are especially damaging because while newspapers and radio stations have suffered heavily (more than television), hundreds of these jobs have been scrapped at the news agencies entrusted with supplying the core information lying at the very heart of media coverage – the total closure of Diarios y Noticias (DyN) and the decimation of Télam state news bureau (with the alarm now sounding at Noticias Argentinas too). Meanwhile, all Argentina’s traditional newspaper titles survive (with the exception of the Buenos Aires Herald), sometimes with minimal readerships granted, but great or small, all have massively dispensed with the services of sub-editors and proofreaders. In short, the cuts have disproportionately hit those gathering the facts and those checking them, creating a perfect vacuum for ‘fake news.’ Some may say misinformation in the media is no new thing but in today’s online world, this truly matters: researchers have found that falsehood spreads quicker than truth online, some six times faster according to one study, given the algorithms that prioritise user engagement over veracity.
Beyond Argentina the world is even more hostile to newspapers. There are actually more newspapers in today’s world than ever before (just as there are many more candles now than in the 18th century when they were the central lighting system apart from their religious value) but this should fool nobody. All the expansion is coming from Asia, most notably India, where hundreds of millions are entering the middle class and where newspapers are as often a status symbol of social mobility as a source of information (along the lines of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s illiterate father who famously always carried a newspaper with him to command respect, taking care never to look at a page without a photo in order not to be caught reading it upside-down). But in many parts of the world newspapers are being supplanted by social networks and blogospheres and all the rest of it, even more rapidly than here – thus in the United States such an important city as Cincinnati has simply had no newspaper for over a decade now.
Fake news is usually assumed to be malice aforethought, as indeed it often is, but the general reality could be even more alarming – deliberate misrepresentation of the facts at least presupposes that the truth is known, but fake news is overwhelmingly born out of sheer ignorance. Investigative journalism stands supremely vindicated today but most newspapers no longer have the resources to support the long weeks of spadework and nor does much of the general public seem to have the attention span to await the results in this age of instant communication – opinion on social networks is cheap and quick if as insubstantial as ether. By way of contrast what appears in a newspaper is both a collective and selective process with trained professionals organising and prioritising the day’s news – the daily edition of a newspaper places everything within the perspective of a logical sequence and a timeline whereas social networks can function completely detached from space and time. Of course, this isn’t to deny the worth or value of social networks and the technological marvels that have reshaped the way our society interacts with one another. The Times, like the rest, has its own profiles on the most important platforms where we seek to spread our work and ensure its reach travels further than ever.
The changing nature of the media landscape across the world is breaking traditional models, creating new ones in their place, the most successful of which of late seems to be subscription models. But increasingly, it seems as though these success stories are only the large, established brands, such as The New York Times or The Washington Post in the United Statesm or La Nación or Clarín in our own country. Local journalism, in particular, is suffering as publishers gut newsrooms in a quest to squeeze profit – this can have a hugely detrimental effect on communities and see stories of great importance lost in the rush for clicks, likes and shares.
We expect our media outlets, our
newspapers, our websites, our TV
channels and radio stations to break
the news. Perhaps, as these unstoppable
winds of change sweep through the
industry, it’s time that we take care of
what is being broken along the way –
otherwise it may be too late to get some
of it back.