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Considering journalism in a digital age

Tuesday, October 3, 2017
Deborah Rayner delivered the keynote address, Journalism in the Digital Age.

Five days ago, the T&T Guardian hosted a conference to contemplate and discuss the role of journalism today.

The event was held as part of the commemoration celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of the newspaper’s first publication in this country.

Accordingly, a number of first world journalistic notables were invited to T&T for the event, most presenting as part of panel discussions on selected facets of the problems facing the practice of journalism in an era hallmarked by the free distribution of information.

What happened was a mixed bag, as discussions meant to consider news consumption, the future of journalist practice, the monetising of the business and the challenges facing the practice fell prey to more timely issues, such as fake news, the role of journalism in disasters and the blurring of information sources.

The first stake of significant value planted in the morning’s discussions came from Nic Newman, of the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism, who participated in the News Now panel and reported on recent fact finding into the state of journalism.

“Traditional media companies risk losing relevance unless they put digital at the heart of what they do,” he summarised at the close of his presentation, “and the smart phone is the key device of the digital age and must be the focus of the strategy.”

While television remains a valuable point of contact with audiences in Germany, in the US the Internet has overtaken broadcast television as the main way of getting news.

In one compelling graphic, essentially an inverted bell curve, Newman demonstrated the reality of the generational divide, showing the vast difference in consumption patters between today’s digital natives who have grown up with social platforms and the generation that grew up with printed and broadcast news.

While social media growth is currently seen to be slowing or even dropping, 33 per cent of those digital natives use social media as their main source of news.

WhatsApp has grown dramatically as a news resource, leading messaging apps used this way, with 50 per cent of users reporting that they use it as a source of news, with only one third preferring to go directly to a news website.

“More people are getting information that’s selected by a machine through an algorithm than are getting it from an editor,” Newman said.

Computers are dropping off as a way to access news and smartphones have risen to the meet the tipping point of that decline. Of these mobile readers, 46 per cent use it in bed, 32 per cent on the toilet.

In the actual consumption of news, stories told using text with photos and video embedded are overwhelmingly preferred to stories told using only video.

The next platforms that the Reuters Institute sees media moving to are voice driven devices such as the Echo. Four per cent of the audience in the US are using these devices and half of those are using them to access news.

“The advertising model is not going to support modern journalism,” Newman stated bluntly, “181 million people, a quarter of all users and half of all young users, are using ad blockers.”

Adrian Van Klaveren, Head of Strategic Change, BBC News and Current Affairs, has been working on the biggest expansion of that broadcaster’s public profile since the 1960’s and reported that “It’s very important to remember who you’re doing it for. To be an experimental platform you have to be willing to fail as well as to succeed.”

The BBC’s strategies have included extensive localisation of the news service’s content and a deep investment into penetrating mobile devices and extending its digital delivery.

“In the old world,” Newman said, “it was very clear what a news organisation was and they all looked like each other.”

“Those restrictions have been lifted, and we are going to see very different news organisations pursuing stories in different ways and they won’t look like each other.”

“You have to make choices; you can’t do everything. In a world of infinite possibilities you have to be really clear about what you’re doing.”

“If you have a heritage, you have to deliver a product that is true to those values.”


  • An expanded version of this column and additional reporting on the conference is at


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