Our editors & readers talk
Content, convergence and creativity
The following speech was given at the Association of Online Publishers conference in London on October 7. Chris Cramer is Reuters Global Editor, Multimedia.
But I can see you sitting out there and thinking: “Here we have a traditional mainstream media guy.” And I’m happy to own up to 40 years or so working for mainstream companies:
The BBC for 26 years – always in news.
CNN for 11 years – always in news and channel management.
And now at Reuters — this time head of multimedia in a business which primarily serves the financial professional.
All three organizations have a lot of history. Reuters has been around since 1851. So a career in pretty traditional news organizations, though in the case of all three they have each managed to reinvent themselves several times down the years to stay ahead of the competition.
In the case of Reuters we are still doing it. More of that later.
I also want to talk about the trends in social media and social networking. What does the news and information business mean in the era of Facebook and Flickr? Is accurate information threatened by Twitter and the twittering classes, or does social media offer a fabulous opportunity to open up the entire world to a different type of journalism and transparency?
Are the existing business models for the media completely broken or is there a new opportunity for news and information flow? What shape will the reinvention and respositioning need to take over the next few years?
I’d also like to offer some views on what we all need to do to respond to some of the new consumer demands and some of the fabulous new technologies and trends we have at our disposal.
When I started as a journalist back in the sixties — first in newspapers — the profession didn’t need to face any of the challenges it now faces. Fast-forward forty years or so and you could argue that disruptive technologies threaten the entire industry.
Old theories busted, many media businesses closed in the face of competition and rising costs, tens of thousands of jobs in the media lost in the last few years — and it’s not over yet. The old paradigms, the old rules and theories, are really in disarray.
And what about so-called citizen journalism?
Is everyone an active newsgatherer these days? Journalists and non-journalists, with more than a billion high-definition cellphone cameras out there in the world.
Let me also say a word today about integrity and trust and whether that still plays any part in media coverage – and also where does opinion and spin fit with the notion of impartial journalism?
So, let’s start with the blindingly obvious.
The media world is changing so rapidly and so quickly that many of us who work in it are almost overwhelmed by what’s going on, frequently frightened at the speed of change and frightened as well that we may be left behind. Recent research in the United States says only about 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 even look at a daily newspaper.
More than 30,000 media jobs in the States have disappeared over the last two years. And that pace is accelerating in the past few months. A similarly horrible picture exists here in the UK. More journalists are being laid off this year than ever before — print, TV, radio, and online. No part of the industry seems to be immune from this downturn. Major newspapers are in trouble. Some are contemplating going from daily to weekly or out of print and into online only.
At the same time, we are living a fragmented and confusing world, a world of so many information options that our level of trust in conventional media providers is at an all-time low. A Pew study in the States a few weeks ago showed the level of trust in the media generally, is down lower than in the last 20 years of surveys.
Hardly surprising then, that many people believe that the traditional media has had its day.
You can take it from me that much of the media, certainly in the U.S., is thrashing about in an identity crisis trying to rediscover its connection point with the consumer, the audience, the end user, frequently experimenting with reality TV, raucous news delivery and opinionated ranting.
You know what I’m talking about.
Those news programmes that are delivered with a fake and breathless hysteria. Some people call it “run for your life TV.” Everything is presented to create fear and conflict, with news which draws no distinction between the real and the imaginary.
So what do we do as publishers? How do we react when, it seems, many parts of the media are apparently letting our customers down??
My view: It’s time for a reset moment.
At the same time it’s useful to remind ourselves that mostly everything has changed. For a start, we are no longer the gatekeepers of information. These days it seems that the whole world is a newsgatherer. Everywhere you look someone is holding a camera and shooting what’s around them.
You can upload all that stuff to Facebook or to YouTube, add some commentary, and you have potential access to millions of people overnight. You can become the brand.
You know how unusual it is these days for a professional journalist to be first on the scene of a news story. It’s becoming rare for us to break news these days. There are plenty of recent examples like the civil unrest in Iran after the election results. Very few journalists were there, most of the foreign media was expelled or banned from covering the story, and much of the realtime information came via Twitter and Facebook and Flickr.
The same at the G20 riots in London, hurricanes in the US, and earthquakes in Mexico. A plane went down on the Hudson River in New York City, right outside my office window I should report — though I ended up gawking like all the rest and forgot to take a picture.
In fact most compelling pictures and stories these days come from local citizens or tourists, eyewitness on the spot, producing news and photos that are much more than anything a journalist could have produced arriving on the scene a few hours or days later.
Realtime information and video is much faster and sometimes more accurate than conventional news exchange. What we have now is millions of newsgatherers the world over. I look at them as millions of electronic canaries in the online mineshaft, all of them alerting us to what is happening around them in real time.
And we should see it for what it is: The democratization of news and information flow. One of the most historical events of the decade – the execution of Saddam Hussein – was filmed not by the Iraqi authorities or the Americans but by one of Saddam’s prison guards. on his cellphone camera.
Take any day, take any week, take a major event or a relatively minor event and more often than not the traditional media can be left flatfooted.
So is this a passing fad which gets our attention for a while and will then morph into something else, or does it add real value to the information chain?
Of course it’s not a fad — it is newsgathering of first resort.
And here I part company with many of my senior colleagues in the industry who somehow think it is an intriguing addition to what real news organizations do, among them the same people that still debate how important 24 hour news is on TV and radio — that somehow continuous news is not real journalism.
The same folk, maybe, who figured that electricity never really had the same ambience as gaslight and candles. Colleagues who really are still in the dark.
Social media trades in information of first resort — raw, unfiltered and there for the taking. This new electronic dialogue, the online conversation, is here to stay and it has enormous power, as a much more targeted approach than anything we have been exposed to.
So maybe the mainstream media has had its day. Who needs it when we have this disruptive technology to bypass it?
Just hang on.
It’s easy to get carried out with the excitement. Of course there are some downsides to all this. The downsides are about trust and credibility, and the occasional abuse and misuse of social media.
The Internet is a great spawning ground for rumour and rant, a perfect place to pursue a fixed agenda or perpetuate a myth or a conspiracy theory.
Social media is perfectly constructed for those who want to dispel or debunk the apparent truth, whether it’s the real cause of Lady Diana’s death or the known facts behind Michael Jackson’s death, or, more recently, to question whether the 1969 moon landing happened or was a giant con trick.
Much of the social media reports and pictures coming out of Iran during and after the election was totally accurate and a real insight into the truth. Other reports were fanciful, with some designed to distort what was really going on there and spin the outcome.
For me that’s a reminder that journalism does have a purpose. You already know I consider myself lucky enough to work for the last 40 years for the finest news organizations: BBC, CNN and Reuters. What they have in common, each would argue, is something called editorial integrity.
All three believe that news and information have no value unless they come with integrity: a simple set of values, a moral compass if you like. All three organizations have never rested on their laurels. Each has repositioned, reinvented everything apart from their special brand of integrity.
Reuters defines its journalism in a number of ways, through its history and its breadth of its journalism. But it also defines its journalism by something called the Reuters Trust Principles.
We believe that trust is everything. We believe that everything done commercially enhances our reputation rather than undermining the principles that have taken a century and a half to build up, that integrity, independence and freedom from bias define the organization.
And we’re a business. We make profit, and we’re currently repositioning ourselves again to ensure that everything we do is completely focused on our users, our clients, and our customers.
We’re investing million of dollars in what we describe as connecting the dots, majoring on information that is completely relevant to those who pay for our services. We’re shortly launching a new broadband financial news service for our global clients — absolutely not broadcasting.
We are talking narrowcasting here — targeted information and interactivity delivered to paying clients at the workplace and, via their PDAs, while they’re on the move.
At Reuters we also firmly believe in the link economy, where stories that Reuters journalists write are automatically linked to other, equally relevant stories and sites.
We believe a two-way link economy adds value to our content and to that of others. We have made it clear that we are up for discussion with any content provider to determine how we work together to monetise this new content landscape.
One of my senior colleagues, the president of Reuters media, Chris Ahearn, has dubbed it Journalism 3.0, with business models that can be all-inclusive. Underpinning al of this is our firm belief that trust and integrity make us a much stronger business.
We think that customers, end users, place a true value against these qualities, which is why when we make mistakes — and we do – we are quick to own up to those. to explain how they happened, to put guidelines in place to ensure they don’t happen again.
So we are very excited by social media becoming the newsgathering of first resort – but also wary that everything we find there needs to be validated, checked and checked again before it goes out in our name.
Far from being despondent about ceding our status as a major information provider, we believe that new and stronger business models will come from curating global information, filtering it, editing and placing it in context.
We think the future of successful journalism is to produce information, intelligent information that matters to people and has context — news that enhances their lives, news that has a point and a relevance, and news that remains a good business model.
Let me end.
I’ve always taken great comfort from believing that audiences and customers do gravitate towards the editorial brands that they trust, that it’s worth staying true to the values you believe in. They used to say that content was king; what’s equally obvious now is that convergence is king
And if you want to run a successful business in the digital space then best to always remember that the consumer is king (and queen). Passive audiences are gone. The digital conversation is the future.