Addressing about 25 mid-career students at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard during a speech practical earlier this year, I asked the class who among them had read the newspaper that morning. Not one student raised their hand.
A disciple of print (I had started out with a typewriter as a journ student at Rhodes), I was gobsmacked.
I then asked who had read the news online. Almost everyone raised their hand.
Still stunned, I was relieved that at least the class had an appetite for news, albeit online.
This was my rude awakening in the USA, where this trend has rattled the media industry in recent years.
South Africa too has been hit by the recession and the switch online, but nowhere near as dramatically as in the US.
But the media here is also feeling the pinch, with traditional media bosses insisting that newsrooms achieve more, with less.
In addition, we have another threat. Our independence – imperfect as it may be – is under threat of government interference (a threat that we thought was buried with apartheid).
But for now, I would like to concentrate on the insights I gained – especially about New Media - during my year in Cambridge.
As an aside, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the local media industry for supporting the Nieman Foundation over the past 50 years to ensure that a mid-career South African journalist is selected each year as a fellow. The first two fellows were Aubrey Sussens in 1960, followed closely by Lewis Nkosi, who passed away a few weeks ago.The latest fellow, investigative financial journalist Rob Rose, left for Cambridge on my return in August.
The result was a year of inspirational insight into the craft and power of journalism, and a group camaraderie that I will cherish forever.
I was exposed to the reality of life in the occupied zone of Gaza by Associated Press reporter Ibrahim Barzaq. I learnt about the violent campaign waged against journalists in Sri Lanka, when one of the fellows, newspaper journalist Sonali Samarasinghe described the day her husband, a newspaper editor, was assassinated on his way to work on January 8, last year. An outspoken journalist herself and fearing for her life, she fled into exile.
Among the things I was reminded was that all governments try to exert influence and control over the media, either covertly or overtly.
But sometimes – all too often - the enemy is within. For example, journalists described the disgraceful self-censorship that existed within US media during the invasion of Iraq in the wake of 911. The mainstream press has had to apologise to its readers for its blinkered view and for failing to bring home the true picture.
The Nieman programme has traditionally drawn its fellows from the print industry. In my year, 10 of the fellows were freelancers or self-employed. Only five of us – out of 23 - were returning to permanent positions at newspapers. The rest of the class was made up of journalists in radio, television, news agencies, war photography and online media. One journalist, Kevin Siteshttp://kevinsitesreports.com/KS/KSabout/KSabout.html, covered 20 wars in one year for yahoo.com with little more than a multi-media backpack that empowered him to stream words, photos and video in a flash. Another livewire, Jeff Howe, worked for the digital magazine Wired. He coined the term Crowdsourcing, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0-UtNg3ots, a word that is constantly referred to by disciples of the media digital revolution.
It was challenging for traditional newspaper hacks like myself to try and keep up with these IT-savvy journalists in our weekly New Media classes (another new addition to the traditional Nieman programme). I had arrived at Harvard barely able to log into facebook, and was dismissive of tools such as Twitter, which allow only 140 characters per entry.
At times, an Us-vs-Them divide developed, a divide that plays itself out in many non-integrated newsrooms. We would get defensive when new media disciples callously predicted that the epitaph has already been written for print journalism.
But as you can tell from my anecdote, I did get a wake up call. And this month, a Pew study showed that in the US, only 26 % of people surveyed had read a newspaper the day before, down from 38% in 2006.
I can’t tell you how many last-minute engagements I missed because the America that I was introduced to – it was Harvard after all – sent emails, not text message updates through the day. So, bad luck if you did not have email on your cell phone, you simply missed out.
Although international fellows all reported digital shifts in the media, nowhere is it more pronounced than in the cut-throat USA, the most advanced capitalist country in the world – a country under severe economic strain.
In the US, everybody knows somebody who has been laid off, newspapers have closed down, others like the Christian Science Monitor have switched online. These shifts have been well-documented
One blogger who tracks shifts in the media is Romanesko, on the Poynter Institute web site. It can be depressing to receive his news updates that monitor the attrition in the print industry.
There is even a ghastly web site, Newspaper Death watch - http://newspaperdeathwatch.com/, which takes great delight in highlighting the pressures facing newspapers.
American journalists at the fellowship often described the emotional upheavals.
I would like to read an edited extract from a friend and fellow Nieman from the Roanoke Times, a regional paper in Virginia. She sums up the sentiment of many US journalists in an article that she read out to the fellows:
Hunkering Down, by Beth Macy
“There are days when I dream about quitting the newspaper business and opening my own coffee shop. I'd call it the Underdog Café. On rainy days, the lunch special would be tomato pie and biscuits … Customers would feel so at home at the Underdog that sometimes – but not too often – they would forget to pay.
“But the daydream always ends there, before the dinner menu is even sketched out.
“After 23 years in the business, after seeing my white-haired brethren grudgingly accept buyouts, after the uncertainty of watching the corporate execs put our newspaper on the market – only to take it off when the economy tanked – not only am I still here at the Roanoke Times, but I still get excited when I happen onto a great story. That's why I stick with journalism, even as it threatens to bail on me.
“Call me a Pollyanna … But there's a certain relief that came when I decided earlier this year to plant my entire body in the sand, Reporter's Notebook and all. I don't like the presses shutting down in Denver and Seattle. I hate the fact that thousands of American journalists have lost their jobs to buyouts and layoffs already this year, and many others have made the preemptive move of getting out before they're forced out.
“But more than 40,000 newspaper journalists are still cranking away, and I'm grateful to be among them, having vowed to ride out the tsunami until they pry the company-owned laptop from my cold, ink-stained hands....”
Fueled by the economic meltdown, the year 2009 was possibly the bleakest year for print media in the US. The local paper, the Boston Globe, had just come out of a culling operation. During a tour of the newsroom, the lights were dimmed on a lifeless wing with rows of empty desks and terminals lying idle.
But the editor Marty Baron was upbeat that the worst of the attrition was over. They were rebuilding with the resources available. The newsroom was fully integrated, with online and print mediums working together, and a combined staff operation. I noticed with interest:
- the role of the online editor, who is a powerful figure, attending all news conferences. A simple rule is followed: breaking news goes online immediately, and exclusives and insight is written up for the following day’s paper.
- The use of social media tools such as facebook and twitter to build communities and to build the paper’s profile online.
- The use of flipcams – nifty video recorders for reporters, so they can return from a breaking story and post a video online. The same is done with audio recordings for podcasts.
- A new lease of life for traditional agency reporters – they are skilled at “instant reporting” and also filing updates repetitively, which is what is required online.
- Reporters were enthusiastic about learning new skills, they didn’t want to be left behind.
The term used to describe the new scribe is a tra-digital journalist or transitional journalist, somebody who is willing to combine traditional elements with digital innovations, somebody who is willing to learn from the younger generation about the new way of communicating.
Faced with dwindling revenue, a big debate – a somewhat tiring one - in the US is whether to charge for online content, something the Wall Street Journal had done successfully but right from the start. But traditional newspapers have been reluctant to set up paywalls so far down the line in fear of losing audiences to other networks.
At the fellowship, speakers would address us about alternative business models. Some web sites have been set up that call on people to contribute funds to do specific investigative stories, others rely on philanthropic funding. A local example would be health-e, which relies on funding to carry out a vital task of health reporting. Controversial calls to consider the government stepping in to subsidise the industry to keep journalism alive were hotly contested because of the potential threat to the industry’s independence.
few examples of new media models and buzzwords doing the rounds in the US include the following:
- Hyper-local is a buzzword. The Vegas Sun was working on a plan to launch hyper-local news sites based on zip codes – with news, crime, entertainment for the area.
- Synergies are being investigated: the New York University journalism department has teamed up with the NYTimes to start an online newspaper called the East Village Blog (http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/).
- Huffington post is a big national site that offers free online content. The downside, and it is a big one, is they have a history of not paying their bloggers, and they rely on a lot of aggregated news – news that is not sourced themselves.
- Wikileaks, which is described as the first stateless news organisation, one that defies any form of state clampdown on information.
- Citizen journalism is a buzzword, generating a lot of discussion about all the pros and cons that come with that.
- The potential for democratization is enormous – anybody can blog and transmit news online. This has put big corporations and media empires under threat – and many predict that we have reached the end of the business model as we know it. Of course, you need access to the web and either a computer or a mobile phone, which are fairly costly and out of the reach of many sectors of society, even in the US.
We reminded ourselves that irrespective of the medium, journalism is about storytelling, truth-telling, exposing injustice and abuse of power.
We were reminded of the power of print newsrooms:
• For instance, that up to 80% of the aggregated news found online originates from newsrooms.
• We were reminded that the long narrative is far from dead. Front page stories in the US often turn to inside pages, running 1000s of words long. People definitely want to read.
During the year, we looked at ways that the Internet and social media can complement newspapers, not cannibalize them. We looked at ways for newspapers to build online readership.
And anyway, doomsayers are wrong when they say that newspapers are dead. There is some life in our ink-stained bones yet.
Figures released by the World Association of Newspapers show that :
1.7 billion people read a daily newspaper, representing 25% of the world’s adult population.
While overall, paid-for daily newspaper circulation fell about 1% in 2009, in Africa, it rose almost 5%. Over five years, circulation in Africa rose 30%.
The report showed that circulation declines largely occurred in mature media markets of the developed world, and that trends in the US do not necessarily reflect the picture in other parts of the world.
In developing countries, there is a keen interest in mobile technology. Mobile news delivery appears to hold more promise for newspapers than traditional internet delivery.
The report found that though traditional newspapers in many mature markets have lost readership, these companies are at the forefront of the digital revolution.
They have embraced new ways of operating, and combined the printing operation with a digitally expansionist new business model.
They focus on coexistence, building synergies between mediums and integrating operations.
I returned home on Mandela’s birthday, a week after the closing ceremony of the world cup.
Soaking up the afterglow, it was a blow to find myself on the picket line in support of press freedom within weeks of returning. This was an activity I had last participated in outside the Star in Sauer Street in the 1980s.
This is a big concern, and one that requires a concerted campaign, not only from journalists but from civil society.
But when it comes to the digital revolution, I have a new resolve to be positive: the struggle is about saving journalism, fighting for a fearless and independent press, focusing on investigations that expose the abuse of power, and also on ground-breaking local stories.
For democracy to work, we need a free, thriving press, irrespective of the medium. We need robust newsrooms that are equipped to play their role as credible watchdogs. We need to fight for resources to build strong newsrooms.
Sure, I have a few new tools: a netbook, a twitter account, a blog, more comprehensive knowledge about facebook , especially as a source of information for news reporting. I have google news alerts, I have a Blackberry with g-mail, instant messaging and constant news updates, though I rely on the young reporters in the newsroom to guide me through the weird apps.
I need these tools because the world is changing the way it communicates. The reality is that all journalists – yes even print journalists - need these tools to access information.
Every now and then, I feel the urge to pack it all in and set up a surf shop in Muizenberg. But, like my friend Beth Macy, the moment soon passes.
There is no point feeling threatened. We need to experiment. We need to look at different ways of reporting news. But we also need to uphold the traditional values of good journalism, and ensure that whatever models develop, these core values are always upheld.
* See the Cape Town press Club web site: http://www.capetownpc.org.za/events/janet-heard-the-tavola-restaurant-claremont/