By Ikechukwu Amaechi
Nine years ago, I was in Durban, South Africa, for the 14th edition of the CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Awards, which took place at the prestigious Durban International Conference Centre on Saturday, July 18, 2009.
The four-day event included a panel discussion on the “Impact of Digital Media in Africa,” and I was one of the four panelists that included Kim Norgaard, CNN South African Bureau Chief, Duncan Mcleod, Associate Editor, Financial Mail of South Africa, and Emmanuel Juma, Head of Nation Television (NTV), Kenya; moderated by Jeremy Maggs, anchor of eNews, South Africa.
The most interesting question was asked by Nigeria’s Tolu Ogunlesi, a young journalist and blogger – he is presently Special Assistant on Digital/New Media to President Muhammadu Buhari – who wanted to know from me the fate of the print media in the era of citizen journalism.
It was a difficult question because African media had just entered uncharted waters where almost everybody with a camera and mobile phone was able to tell a story in real-time.
The creation of the World Wide Web (www) by Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist at the Cern Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland (1989/90), and the exponential growth in the use of the Global System of Mobile Communications (GSM) and internet engendered a revolution in the media landscape that radically transformed everything, particularly the way news was gathered and disseminated.
Few years ago, if a story was 48 hours late, it could still be fresh but today, if it was two hours late, it may well be an old and stale story.
At the heart of this radical change was the unconventional media or what Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, called “We Media,” driven by the then journalism fad – blog, a digital newswire, facilitated by the proliferation of the internet, low production and distribution costs.
The attraction of personal publishing was in its ability to change the power structures in journalism, giving yesterday’s readers the option of being today’s journalists and tomorrow’s preferred news aggregators.
Teenage kids, Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive of the News Corporation, noted in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, on April 13, 2005, “Want news on demand, continuously updated. They want a point of view about not just what happened, but why it happened…they want to be able to use the information in a larger community.”
Blogging, which successfully merged this democratisation of the media with speed of news delivery, became an instant hit. The rise of citizen journalism and social networks like Facebook, Twitter, My Space, etc., became means of self-presentation.
Besides, the increasing reliance of the mainstream media on the new media for breaking news created a volcanic shift in global journalism paradigm.
For instance, moments after the execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on December 30, 2006, the graphic details were in the public domain.
Interestingly, the new media beat the mainstream media to what arguably was the biggest story of 2006. An amateur video containing low-quality footage of the execution drama, which was also notable for the fact that, unlike the official footage, it included sound: witnesses could be heard taunting Saddam, became the major source of news on the execution. The video was shot using a camera phone.
That was also the case in the September 7, 2005 terrorist attack in London where eyewitness camera phone photos became dominant in the mainstream media’s coverage of the bombings.
When Bill Gates’ prediction in 2005 that the internet would attract $30 billion in advertising revenue annually in the next five years is thrown into the mix, the augury became starker.
These developments led Shel Israel, author of the book, Naked Conversations, to conclude that, “In the information age, the newspaper has become a cumbersome and inefficient distribution mechanism. If you want fast delivery of news, paper is a stage coach competing with jet planes.”
Some professionals, including Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson, Californian bloggers, predicted Armageddon, having concluded that newspapers would, sooner than later, be consigned to the garbage bin of history.
“The year is 2014, and people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age. Everyone contributes in some way. Everyone takes part to create a living, breathing mediascape. However, the press, as you knew it, has ceased to exist. Twentieth century news organisations are an afterthought, a lonely remnant of a not too distant past,” they declared.
But my take was that unlike the new media, the traditional print media still remained the custodian of the core values of journalism – accuracy, objectivity, reliability and pursuit of truth.
In a hurry to sacrifice
The audience didn’t seem to be in a hurry to sacrifice these values on the altar of speed, a fact which Patrick Baltatzis agreed with when he wrote that, “There are snakes in this new media ‘Garden of Eden.’ Rumours seem to have a natural habitat in the blog world, as well as ranting and personal opinions. The issues of trust and reliability are difficult.”
So, I told Ogunlesi that the transformation was fundamental but just like the coming of television didn’t lead to the extinction of radio, citizen journalism or social media will not lead to the death of the mainstream media, particularly the newspapers.
That was nine years ago.
Today, things have changed even more dramatically.
I was in Lisbon, Portugal, for the 2018 Global Editors Network Summit which held between May 30 and June 1, with about 750 participants from 70 countries.
The theme of this year’s summit was “Towards the Augmented Newsroom” and the conversation went beyond internet and mobile phones to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in newsrooms, which is making it possible for robots to write real news and AI algorithms turning scientific research papers into simple news stories. AI bots are changing the newsrooms by writing news, fact checking, promoting stories, and assisting journalists generally.
The questions in Europe and America now are; will their advent mean reporters becoming redundant? Or will it upgrade how well they can work, making them even better journalists? Should journalists fear losing jobs? Or should they embrace the promise of this new phenomenon, what some pundits refer to as the “new disruption in media”?
Peter Bale, the Global Editors Network Board President said the 2018 Summit theme was informed by the fact that “the traditional notions of news – who creates it and how – are being upended by new technologies and new business models in a process which augments existing methods,” urging media chiefs to become AI literate.
The innovations are breathtaking. Newsrooms are making digital development a top priority for all their publications by using proprietary algorithms to analyse public tweets in real time and delivering the earliest alerts to global events as they unfold, using blockchain technology, which was invented by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008, to miximise content distribution.
For instance, NRK, the Norwegian government-owned public radio and television broadcasting company and the largest media organisation in Norway is working on making all of their content easily searchable with the help of speech and face recognition.
Aftenposten, the second largest newspaper in Norway is perfecting the personalisation technique on mobile and their homepage while avoiding the echo-chamber effect.
Making room for artificial intelligence has become the new journalism fad just as many media organisations in the West are embracing robot journalists.
Best practices and actionable insights
Journalists are consistently exposed to what is called the best practices and actionable insights on how to successfully implement AI, voice AI, and machine learning in the newsroom. Companies like Utopia Analytics in Helsinki, Finland, are creating AI-based moderator systems, fully-automated real-time moderation tools that protect online communities from abusive user-generated content and cyberbullies.
That is now the focus of newsrooms in the West and some parts of Asia.
I came back from Lisbon confused. Some of us think that these developments are too far-fetched.
Maybe! But there was also a time the blogosphere and the revolution it engendered was a distant phenomenon.
Will the print media go into extinction? My answer is still no.
After my Lisbon trip, I now appreciate better the assertion of Alan Rusbridger, a British journalist, and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, that “The newspaper of the future may or may not look like a newspaper – it could be printed on paper, on a screen or exist in electronic ink on a sheet of plastic. But it will behave like a newspaper.”
But to be globally competitive, Nigerian newsrooms must innovate.