The last thing that happened before the summer was that the Tromso office of the VG newspaper revealed extensive sexual abuse against children in the Tysfjord municipality. The reports provoked justified attention all over Norway.
Following this, VG closed its door in Tromso, and talented journalists sought shelter in the local newspaper and in other communications roles. It felt like a stab in the heart, but I shall refrain from commenting further.
This example is far from unique. In the last two or three years the national, regional and local newspapers have been drained of much blood. The information provided by papers breaks up into fragments of reality for most people. The question is what kind of journalism will we be left with in 2020.
In many countries, the number of journalists has decreased by one third over the last decade. The result is that information is communicated to the public in a blissful mix of facts, rumours and unverified information through social media. Polarisation is increasing, and thus we experience Donald Trump and Brexit.
In 2016, the lack of financing of the media houses has further weakened journalism that is useful for society. It was hoped last year that growth would come with digital advertising money, but it turned into a dramatic fall. In most media new action plans up to 2020 are being updated.
It’s about finding new revenue, obviously. But also about new cuts. The projects are about technology, organisation, distribution and printing. About platforms and payment systems; Facebook, Snapchat and Google. Only to a limited extent are projects about journalism. What media will deliver – and live by. Maybe it’s time to implement project “Journalism 2020”?
“It’s All About Trust”
While VG rolls up scandals in Tysfjord, I’m heading to Cartagena in Colombia. The Norwegian Association of Editors has given me a travel grant, so I’ll follow the presentations and discussions at the World Editors’ Forum. Editors from around the world are gathered in this beautiful coastal town overlooking the Caribbean.
Globally, newspapers are still strong, with a total readership of 2.7 billion. 40 percent of all adults read printed newspapers. In Colombia, the coverage is 70 percent, and people spend an average of a full hour on the newspaper. Further north – in the US – half of the population read the news on their mobile phones.
World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) presented the annual World Press Trends Report at the conference. It shows, strangely enough, that the world’s printed newspaper circulation continues to rise to 718 million copies. But this is not in my part of the world.
The congressional mantra is that a focus on quality will save the media industry and journalism. “It’s All About Trust”, it is said.
Regaining public confidence will take journalism to “The Next Level”. We are all going to “The Next Level” now.
According to the Brazilian president of the World Editors Forum, Marcelo Rech, the “Next Level” is the pursuit of truth, a concept that is in the genesis of journalism. It is more necessary now than ever.
The five principles are:
- In a world of hyper-information, credibility, independence, accuracy, professional ethics, transparency and pluralism are the values that will confirm a relationship of trust with the public.
- Next-level journalism is distinguished from other content by the vigilant and diligent questioning and verification of material circulating on social media. It acknowledges social media as a source of information for further fact-checking and as a platform for leveraging professional content.
- The mission of journalism at this next level is to positively serve society by providing high-quality verified information and to establish news brands as a trusted certificate of origin for content.
- A requirement of next-level journalism is that it goes beyond basic facts and enables and encourages analysis, contextual and investigative reporting, and informed expression of opinion, moving from the provision of news to knowledge that empowers.
- Next-level journalism should be driven by trust and the guiding principles of social relevance, legitimate interest and truthfulness.
These points are supported by the Ethical Journalism Network, a London-based charity, of which I am part of the board. The network believes that editors must play a key role in efforts to restore journalism as a cornerstone of the information landscape.
“It is vital. We have nothing to fear from the enforcement of fundamental principles of journalism”, says director Aidan White.
These principles do not resolve media industry’s problems. But they should perhaps form the basis for the implementation of an editorial project: What will characterise journalism when we pass 2020?
Le Monde Rescued from the Grave
A media company that was devoted special attention during the World Congress in Cartagena was the French Le Monde – the newspaper which, like VG, leaped out of the resistance movement against the occupation of Hitler’s Germany.
In 2010 this institution of a French newspaper had one foot in the grave. The editorial department had to relinquish ownership of a professional investor. It was the start of an entrepreneurial adventure.
In agreement with the traditionally reluctant French unions, an increase in news production was initiated: expanded coverage of events abroad, in science and business; new magazines; a new application with the morning edition of the newspaper, which has always been an afternoon newspaper; a French version of the Huffington Post; an iPad version of the primary version; a redesign of the printed newspaper; a Le Monde Festival where readers exchange ideas with editorial staff; a Le Monde Académie, where youth can work with the newspaper’s digital staff in the development of new ideas. In September Le Monde launched Snapchat Discover.
If there is a number you should remember, it’s the 20 million visitors we have through social media. This is where the future lies, says Louis Dreyfus – top boss of Le Monde. Overall the newspaper reach 25.5 million users in one month. About. five million of them via premium channels.
Hmm. I do not know. But there was at least one statement that warmed my heart: ‘There is a future for media and journalism as long as you are willing to invest in journalists’.
Louis Dreyfus thinks the search for quality is the solution to the media crisis. He points out that while working with the Panama Papers the newspaper’s circulation was doubled. Le Monde believes in the future and will next year move most of its 1,500 employees into a brand-new headquarters of 23,000 square meters.
Tablet on Weekdays
More French temptations: Canadian La Presse in Quebec is alleged to have relatively good success with its digital plus edition, launched simultaneously as the paper’s print edition ceased on weekdays. Now the printed version is distributed only on weekends, otherwise readers should make do with the free weekly edition of eReaders.
90 percent of the newspaper’s readers migrated to La Presse + (180,000) and there are 75,000 new readers. The reading time for tablet version is remarkably high: 40 minutes on weekdays and over 50 minutes on weekends. Coverage of eReaders in Quebec neighbourhood is now at 65 percent.
The digital plus version now accounts for 70 percent of the media house’s total advertising revenues. Since 2012 accounts show improved profits, and although income last year declined slightly, it is performing better than the market in general.
‘We will never go back to print on weekdays. Distribution costs in a declining media economy become too heavy to bear’, says Guy Crevier, president & publisher of La Presse.
In 2016 all media conferences cover the advantages and disadvantages of the third distribution channel – the social media. There is a fear of being too dependent on Facebook, which constantly changes its algorithm that controls the distribution of content. It’s like sitting outdoors in a tub filled with warm water and then someone suddenly pulls the plug.
But as Jeff Jarvis at Columbia University in New York says: We must recognise that our audience are in it already, and you have to be where people are. Therefore, the media should make greater efforts to improve relations with the global giants and give them more specific information that can make your browsing experience better. Advertising revenues do not come back, so we have to build business models of readers.
Juan Senor, from the British consul company, Innovation Media, touches another recurring theme at such congresses. He sums up the possibilities of restoring a sustainable business model for media:
- From click to watch. Display ads die, now it’s all about time spent on the ad.
- The media must focus on the freemium model (free + subscription). Meter model with a number of free articles before payment would not work in the long run.
- The media must focus on mobile first.
- Video, video and more video will provide substantial revenues.
- Media houses must invest in newly developed print products for profit.
‘The death of display ads is the best thing that has happened in the media industry. It forces us to change. Today it is more likely that the reader is hit by a lightning strike than that s/he clicks on a display ad’, said Senor.
The First Read and The Last Word
Developments are forcing digital media away from the lure titles and click content. Away from the noise and over to the news.
‘We got to be the first read and the last word’ says Matt Murray, deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. In the digital world, media cannot allow themselves to be number two on the reading list.
Murray believes that transparency in digital media makes for far higher standards of journalism. Media cannot afford to make mistakes. Therefore, all sources should be verified in the same way as when publishing in the newspaper. Nothing should be published until everything is verified. The editors should know all of the journalists’ sources.
According to Murray, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) does not publish anything from social media before it is verified.
The WSJ follows seven guidelines in digital transformation:
- To build deeper relationships with readers.
- To serve readers on any platform they want to use.
- To give readers stories they want. WSJ has therefore expanded its coverage in politics, sports, crime and fashion, as well as foreign affairs.
- Breaking News has lead to new records in readership.
- Context and analysis is essential. Must help readers to understand the news.
- Focus on exclusive stories that few others offer.
- Vital to maintain and reinforce the standards of journalistic ethics.
It is an interesting feature of the developments in many media companies that one wants to give the person exposed to critical journalism better and earlier information on what the newspaper intends to publish. People deserve a chance of real refutation and comment. This makes journalism better and informs readers in a better way.
‘No matter what technological solutions we have in about five or ten years, we know that there will be readers who seek quality stories and someone who tells them.’ Matt Murray, WSJ
In Europe we are also keen to preserve and develop quality journalism. The Panama Papers are used to spread the message about this effort. I almost think there were more articles and presentations explaining the great journalistic work than there are real revelations. At least in Norway.
Chief editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung, where it all started, is still very proud that they managed to keep the entire project with 400 journalists in 100 countries secret until the 12th minute before publication. World Editors’ Forum said that the project has helped to restore people’s trust in the media. Not least in Germany, where the popular debate about the so-called “Lügenpresse” has been an increasing problem for the media houses. In the wake of the refugee flow, people ask if we can still rely on traditional media and their journalists?
Süddeutsche Zeitung still publishes 4-5 stories a week from the extensive material in the Panama Papers. Chief editor, Wolfgang Krach, calls the whole thing “rebirth of confidence in journalism.”
Will Journalism Survive?
Yet the big question on the lips of all of the world’s media professionals is if journalism will survive the social media era. How does social media affect the journalistic methods?
Ricardo Gandoura, Brazilian editor and professor of media studies, is one of those who try to penetrate this exciting issue. He is also linked to the Columbia Journalism School in New York and will shortly publish the results of their research project about the fragmentation of news that creates an undetermined mix of information and opinions, rumours and fact. Under the editors’ World Congress, he presented his work in an exciting animation.
Gandoura has examined the effects of the digital transformation in 60 media companies in 20 of Brazil’s states.
Newspapers represent a circulation of two million copies daily and 60 percent of total circulation in Brazil. In the past decade, 78 percent of newspapers have reduced the number of pages and 83 percent of them have reduced the number of journalists in the same period. The sections for politics, locally and nationally, are least affected by the cutbacks. It has worst affected foreign coverage and sport coverage.
Regarding the number of journalists, the cuts are hardest in the ranks of sports journalists and cultural and entertainment journalists. About half of the papers have reduced the use of content from news agencies over the past decade. The amount of content produced has also decreased, especially in sports, culture and economy. While 8 out of 10 stories are the reproduction of previously published material.
But surveys also show that during the past three years (2013-16), the number of digital interactions has increased significantly. It has almost quintupled, while public authorities have also opened a large digital window directly to the people, enabling them to communicate directly with citizens. The question is what this means for journalism and for democracy.
The Intelligent Editor
Many media people are committed to creating a greater engagement around content. Large amounts of data will be used to provide readers with more of everything they love. This was also discussed during the congress in the Norwegian National Association of Local newspapers (LLA) in Oslo in April.
Here Espen Sundve, Vice President for Product Management in Schibsted Media Group, presented the challenge this way:
‘We must redefine the next generation of journalism as a personal experience. What if we could tell the news in a way that makes readers feel that the algorithms give them a personal and intelligent editor’.
An intelligent editor – unlike all of us who use our gut to provide readers with new challenges. OK, I let it shine through that perhaps I am a bit sceptical about dashboards that make journalists able to give readers more of everything they enjoyed before. But I have definitely great faith in better communication of journalists and increased engagement with readers.
During the World Congress in Cartagena, this was a topic that particularly preoccupied local newspaper editors. Here also Roar Vigeland Osmundsen in Søgne and Songdalens Budstikke, leader of the Norwegian National Association of Local Newspapers, participated:
‘We must focus more on engaging people, if not, we will lose readers to social media’.
Osmundsen told the World Editors Forum how four Norwegian local newspapers have set up a three-year project, which involves long-term coverage of a select topic in each community. The aim is to achieve greater impact on the community through engaging ordinary people more directly in the media; to make the media more hospitable for most people; and to get more people to vote in local elections in three years.
It is a known problem that experts are over-represented in the selections of media sources. In my time as an editor of VG, source censuses showed 20/80 distribution between ordinary people and experts of various kinds. Often experts use a language that few people understand.
According to Osmundsen, it is easy for journalists to choose the most accessible sources – experts who always responds to media inquiries. We should instead provide proper space for interviews with ordinary people.
In this picture, it is not a good idea to shut the comment fields of digital news media. Rather, we should develop new methods to increase the quality of the posts and provide better moderation.
The Coral Project
Greg Barber is Director for Digital Editorial Projects in The Washington Post and is responsible for the Coral project of the media house. The aim of the project is to build an open communication platform for readers; it is a collaboration between Wapo, New York Times and the Mozilla Foundation. The project is funded by the Knight Foundation and involves 300 employees in 150 newsrooms in 30 countries.
‘Our point is that readers commenting and reading the comments fields are the newspaper’s most loyal readers’, says Barber. He describes the Coral project as a measure to build new trust between readers and the media.
The project will develop three new products:
TRUST – an algorithm that identifies and ranks the comments as high/low quality and that builds user history and sends notifications to the moderator. The system will give priority to the most valuable comments and slide elements of lower quality down the feed.
ASK – a test version already provides the opportunity for more flexible communication with readers. The system will give the editors the ability to request information/reaction from readers, conduct investigations, solicit user contributions and process data in a database as part of the strategy for the dissemination of news.
TALK – is the third product to be launched towards the end of 2016. Here, media houses publish LIVE contributions from users in connection with major news events.
A demanding, high-risk, project if you ask me.
Robots and Newsbots
Algorithm-controlled tailoring is described by several media experts as the new wine of the future of journalism. Among these experts is Professor Rosental Calmon Alves at the University of Texas in Austin:
‘We go from mass media to a mass where mass media is included. As in the Amazon jungle where every bacteria has a chance to survive. Everyone has a computer’.
Professor Alves believes in journalist robots that will be able to report regular news ten times faster than the human and far from flawless variant. And news via social media will be replaced by so-called “newsbots”, which collect specific news articles from various news sources about topics that interest individuals.
In Europe, the Springer Group made good progress in this work after the launch of the Upday project, a free news app for Samsung phones. The application gives users two products – news by “Need to know” or “Want to know”. Four months after its launch in February Upday had gained one million users in Germany, Poland, France and Britain. The goal is to reach ten million users by year-end.
80 employees work on the Upday project. In each country 6-7 editors search for stories on the web of the section “Top News”. They write brief summaries of news articles based on 2000 sources and links to the original publication. Springer report high traffic and growing support, but the service does not yet earn money.
Upday will shut down users of ad blocking. It will only show ads on an entire mobile screen after the user has read a certain number of articles. Axel Springer plans to launch a tablet version of the service and expand the offer to other countries.
The important journalism
Here at the end of the summer I try to summarise some of the impressions from the editors’ world congress. Like many others who have worked more than a generation in the media, I am concerned about the weakening of journalism and the sharp reduction in the number of journalists during many cutbacks.
I was present during a townhall meeting when Trine Eilertsen in Bergens Tidende said that by working smarter better newspapers could be made. It was probably true in the first round downsizing and perhaps in the second, but …
The regional newspapers are now under hard pressure and forced to narrow their coverage areas both geographically and thematically.
‘For journalism it is only one road out of the impasse. We must be essential for people’, says Sven Egil Omdal in a recent interview.
I agree. Even when he makes the point that the strength of the “the fine paper” is that it always broadens your perspective.
I am very interested in cooking and am very enthusiastic about Italian “Slow Food” – delicious meals with quality ingredients slowly cooked in the bottom of a pot. I am the antithesis of progress and junk food. To my great joy, I see that a book about “Slow Journalism” is now published, it is written by Peter Laufer.
But contrary to popular slow-TV from the Bergen train, the coastal steamer, Saltstraumen, and the nesting birds in Finnmark, this is about genuine news. Slow News Movement represents a counter voice to everything done in the shortest possible time. Today’s demands for speed lead to less fact-checking, poorer language and imbalance in the editorial work.
‘We must stop using up the limited resources of the editorial offices… on news that people do not strictly need. Such is only used to fill up time and space in the media’ says Laufer. In the book “Slow News” he reminds us that better food costs more. We should cut down on news with less calories.
In this respect it is interesting that Stavanger Aftenblad, which in recent years has been forced to downsize the newsroom by a third, will now expand the number of journalists in the investigative group from 3 to 5. It will be interesting to see if this initiative is sustainable.
Maybe it’s time for some media companies to start to go against the flow. Among those who believe that we are in the midst of a fundamental change of the very values of journalism is The Guardian‘s new editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner.
Many newsrooms are in danger of losing sight of the most important qualities of journalism: being present everywhere in society and asking the challenging questions that reveal what some will disguise. In her own newspaper Katharine Viner writes this summer:
‘My belief is that what distinguish good journalism from poor journalism is labour.’
I cannot say it better.