Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Journalism will take newspapers into the future

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Journalism has changed a lot over the years, but the basics are still important. Photo / Thinkstock
Journalism has changed a lot over the years, but the basics are still important. Photo / Thinkstock

I have never, to be honest, embraced change.

When it comes to technology, I'm not so much a late adopter as a mulishly resistant one.

At journalism school I banged out my stories (literally) on an ancient Imperial typewriter that even then would have been considered an antique. It was a heavy metal thing that I fancied lent weight to my student musings.

I suppose that makes me particularly well suited for the newspaper industry.

The influential media guru Marshall McLuhan once said that "people don't actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath."

Unfortunately for those of us in newspapers, fewer people seem to be stepping into hot baths these mornings.

I started at the Herald back in the dark ages, before mobile phones, the internet, and even fax machines.

In those days, reporters running close to deadline had to dictate their copy on the phone. A noisy teleprinter machine spewed out national and international news by the paper mile. And bylines (without photos) were strictly rationed to writers of the really long and really big stories.

I liked the anonymity of that world, but it is gone.

I'm grateful for the technology that allows me to work from home, to download books in mere seconds, to find out what the Twittersphere or the blogworld is saying about any topic at any given moment.

But it comes at a price.

For better or for worse, change has been forced on the newspaper industry globally. Technology has transformed the media landscape, bringing new levels of visibility, and accessibility. There is more immediacy, more engagement, a more diverse range of voices and news sources. These are all good things.

But the digital revolution hasn't been kind to newspapers. For at least the last decade, commentators have been reading the death rites for "dead-tree technology". Adapt or die, newspapers have been told; some have died, many are in decline.

It's clear the old business model no longer works. As the online audience accustomed to free news has grown, print circulation has declined, as has advertising revenue.

In the US, according to the Pew Research Centre's Project for Excellence in Journalism, the newspaper industry has shrunk by 43 per cent since 2000.

That's a lot of journalist jobs.

Money is certainly being made online, but the great bulk of it by a small number of technology giants who are now "controlling the future of news, consolidating their power by becoming the makers of 'everything' in our digital lives".

Meanwhile, "the search for a new revenue model to revive the newspaper industry is making only halting progress".

Has the industry been driven to lower standards to attract readers? Along with complaints about media ethics, there's been justifiable concern at the blurring of commentary and reportage, and the growing prominence of celebrity-driven "news" and gossip.

Who cares, then, if newspapers don't survive?

Most people would say they're more concerned about the future of journalism than the future of newspapers, but to what extent is that linked to the survival of newspapers?

The "civic implications to the decline of newspapers" is becoming clearer, says Pew. There's evidence that newspapers, whether print or digital, "are the primary source people turn to for news about government and civic affairs. If these operations continue to shrivel or disappear, it is unclear where, or whether, that information would be reported."

Everyone says they want good journalism, but how do we nurture and support serious journalism in this environment?

Can readers really be persuaded to put their money behind quality journalistic endeavours? Or might we have to look to new models that don't rely on the market?

Public funding, say.

Or a model like ProPublica, an American "non-profit, independent newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest". Launched five years ago, it has garnered top journalism awards.

A glimmer of hope: Pew's 2012 State of the News Media report notes that mobile devices have made news "a more important and pervasive part of people's lives". It's also "strengthening the lure of traditional news brands and providing a boost to long-form journalism".

It's not technology that will save us, but good, old-fashioned journalism.

- NZ Herald

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