Media industry publications and critics often mention a media shift from traditional outlets, like newspapers and magazines, to digital news sources. Going a step beyond simply being online, media organizations have begun to consider how news organizations use social media tools to keep their audiences and, most importantly, to keep bringing in funds to support themselves. Myriad opinions and ideas on the topic exist on social media’s presence in the journalism world; the volume of information can seem overwhelming.
One cannot talk about digital revolution minus talking about the internet and social media. The Internet is creating big changes in the field of journalism. Hoping to appeal to a youthful public which is fast abandoning the printed word, the world’s leading newspapers are creating a presence for themselves on the Net, and making imaginative efforts to transform the whole business of providing news and information. In these still uncharted waters, the least that can be said is that the new “reader” will have access to unlimited information.
For journalists as much as anybody, the Internet represents a challenge. The development of new communications networks is profoundly transforming the gathering, production and distribution of information. In fact, the digital revolution has already made the world a different place. But paradoxically, although we are at a historic turning point, we are not yet in a position to be able to predict the outcome. Worse still, all over the world business interests, professionals and educationalists are embarking on future- oriented strategies whose assumptions have perhaps not been sufficiently tested. In journalism itself we are heading for a revolution in our daily practice, but we are wholly unprepared in the sense of any common analysis.
“Social media is a term used to describe the type of media that is based on conversation and interaction between people online. Social media are media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques.” – Wikipedia
For almost two decades, the web has changed the world and revolutionized how information is stored, published, searched and consumed. The ripple effect has spread so wide that it impacts not just businesses and industries but crosses over into politics, medicine, media and breaches geographical locations, cultural boundaries and ultimately, affects people’s day to day lives. The great wave of web innovation since Google in 1998 has been in social media. Social media is about networking and communicating through text, video, blogs, and pictures, status updates on sites such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn or microblogs such as Twitter.
This essay seeks to examine the changing (and challenged) economics of print and television national news publishing in Uganda—and in particular, the likely commercial and civic impacts of the changing business of professional journalism. In markets across the globe and Uganda in Particular, news publishers are facing a structural shift in the economic foundations of their industry, as well as a cyclical challenge associated with the global economic slowdown.
The media landscape is becoming more chaotic and fragmented due to the confluence of demographic changes and technological advances. The underlying shift is from push to pull; from the generic push of mass media to the customized pull of new media such as blogs, social networks and virtual worlds. Powering this shift is a process we term the digital revolution; a revolution in the reach and speed of telecommunications networks; in the processing and storage capabilities of computing; and in the sophistication of software applications, notably on the web.
For many years in the past century, the news was effectively funneled from professional ‘producers’ to passive ‘consumers’, via the scarcity of print and the broadcast spectrum, and typically with some degree of subsidization from advertising. Barriers to entry remained high, due to the physical costs. That economic model is fundamentally challenged by the interactivity of the World Wide Web, and the plummeting cost of software and computer hardware. As an open network, the web has provided the basis for a radically different media ecology, in which the audience is no longer a passive recipient of the news but rather an active participant in its creation, verification and distribution. Reduced to the simplicity of binary code, the news can now be accessed, shared and combined in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago
The digital revolution creates a range of strategic opportunities for news publishers. Aside from the cost of online storage and bandwidth, a website can effectively deliver a wide range of audio, video and text to millions of consumers, at home and abroad, via wired and wireless connections. The result is that news publishers can now assert a virtual presence in foreign markets without any investment in capital-intensive printing facilities or expensive broadcast spectrum. Leading the way, for example, are Ugandan-based newspapers/sites such as the Chimp reports, the Insider and Big Eye, which have amassed impressive audiences overseas thanks to the web—notably most of the traditional media houses including The Daily Monitor Publications, The New Vision, The Observer have been forced to create their visibility online and thus they have the online versions of their newspapers.
In turn, the web generates a valuable torrent of market and behavioral information: the number and location of digital consumers; the popularity of specific webpages, stories and embedded audio-visual content; the route taken by consumers as they navigate the site; where they spend their time; and so on. Together, these electronic footprints comprise what we term the clickstream. The clickstream is significant in strategic and organizational terms because it means that news publishers can now track the performance of their digital assets in real-time; and by implication, closely monitor the productivity and commercial value of their staff hence attracting advertisers online.
The internet is bringing about a shift from ‘push’ to ‘pull’ in the media landscape: that is, existing forms of mass media distribution are being challenged by a raft of new internet-based delivery channels, which facilitate an unparalleled degree of customization, interactivity and user feedback. This is not only changing the fundamental nature of media consumption; it also means that consumers can now act as co-producers and co-distributors of content.
Changes in the nature and scale of Ugandan news consumption are eroding and redefining the economic foundations of professional journalism. News publishers are facing a long-term decline in their core revenue streams, and as a result are struggling to cover the underlying costs of original journalism. To survive, they will need to build successful web properties that can capture a share of internet advertising, sufficient to generate revenues able to pay for original reporting and informed editing.
The digital revolution is cementing new connections between publishers and alternative suppliers of news. In particular, news publishers are increasingly looking for stories, leads and information from two areas: first, the specialist communications experts and public relations agencies that now mediate access to most branches of government, commercial, charitable and scientific activity which in most cases are also online; and second, the new army of citizen journalists—equipped with an arsenal of camera phones, wireless devices and laptops—which increasingly provides real time publishers with a shortcut to the front line of breaking stories hence feeding the appetite of 24/7 media platforms.
One cannot talk about technology, especially social media tools, without evaluating ethical implications. Giving consumers the ability to publish information more efficiently isn’t good news for everyone, though; multiple problems emerge from the change. First, many blog posts are still opinion-oriented rather than first-coverage news oriented, meaning most blogs don’t offer journalistically reported news content. Second, the emergence of bloggers means news media organizations now face much more competition. Thirdly, true investigative journalism, like that done to uncover the Watergate scandal, faces a threat that could render it impossible because bloggers may not want to perform the meticulous work investigative journalism involves.
Social media is one of the best ways to get traction with the mobile market. Far more people have crappy cell phones than computers. This allows journalists to reach lower and even middle-income communities and minorities that news organizations have been overlooking. Why are you a journalist in the first place?
The public’s trust, or lack thereof, in the media may have played a role in causing the social media revolution. Social media has shown the value of local news organizations as well as the advantages the new tools can bring small media organizations. Finally, social media has given journalists new ways to report and has opened the door for members of the general public who have something to say but can’t go through a journalist for one reason or another.
Social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube offer skeptical audiences the chance to receive news straight from the witnesses. Rather than relying on a reporter to speak with someone at an explosion in Montana, audiences can reach out and speak to eyewitnesses themselves. Or if they are one of those witnesses, they can share their story with the world before reporters even arrive on the scene.
Finally, as it has already done to a degree, social media will continue to change the way journalists gather and report the news. Reporters can find sources and disseminate information using social media tools. Eyewitnesses will become reporters, but the world will still need “traditional” journalists to go in and verify the facts. Perhaps in the future, professional journalists won’t be so much pure information disseminators but truth disseminators. If you want to see what people say is happening right now, check Twitter; if you want to see what’s actually true and what might be false, check Chimp reports or The Monitor Publications (online).