Is the Net the future?
Newspaper circulation numbers are falling and ratings are dropping for television news. Increasingly, people want to get their news for free. With the news industry facing this apparent crisis, a recent FCCJ panel discussion exploring the future of foreign correspondence attracted 40 regular members — the most the club has seen at such an event in a long time.
It is easy to understand why people are worried. Friends are losing jobs and organizations that once had fully staffed bureaus in Tokyo are either down to a single correspondent or gone completely. In many cases, the problems come down to economics. Reporting foreign news isn’t cheap. When budgets come under pressure, it is often easier for organizations to lose a single foreign correspondent than fire two or three reporters in the home office.
“How do you make ends meet when most people are resistant to paying US$50 for the Web and our structures and a newspaper’s newsgathering network is based on the premise that people are paying US$500 a year for the paper and ink newspaper,” said James Brooke, Tokyo correspondent for the New York Times and the emcee for the event. “We’ve built up our cost structure on basically earning US$500 a household for a newspaper subscription.”
The Internet has demolished that business model. With a few notable exceptions, consumers aren’t paying for online news and competition is coming from small companies that operate on a shoestring budget.
“A growing company like ours can use the Internet to break into territory that was formerly controlled by big companies with big budgets,” said Mark Devlin, founder of Crisscross News. The Tokyobased Internet news site, which is put together largely from news agency content by just two editors, attracts 1.7 million visitors each month.
One of the secrets to Crisscross’s success is giving readers a strong voice, Devlin said. They have a chance to react and discuss to every story in a way that is impossible with a newspaper or on television.
But becoming new media savvy isn’t as simple as just recasting a diary or opinion column as a blog, he said. “I feel a little bit that some of the mainstream media really don’t understand the user,” said Devlin. “They have a token blog here and a blog there but they’re not really engaging in a two-way discussion or not really letting the users discuss against themselves and they’re closing down on that.”
One of the most recent examples of this came in January when the Washington Post shut off user comments on the “post.blog” area of its web site, citing a large number of personal attacks, profanity and hate speech.
“It’s a shame that it’s come to this,” Jim Brady, executive editor of the Post’s web site wrote at the time. "Transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture, and it’s a disappointment to us that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently)
The Internet is about more than giving people a voice; it is also about giving people a choice they have never had before. More news, more sports, more finance, more gossip than ever before.
“There is a shift in thinking connected with the Internet,”
said Atika Shubert, CNN’s Tokyo correspondent. “Previously,
we were deciding what goes on the broadcast and saying this is important. With the Internet, consumers can say these are all my options and this is what I want. We have to adapt to the fact that the consumer is getting that option now, we don’t have a lot of choice in that.”
The journalist of the future will need to be more skilled, she said, knowing how to edit video, take a good picture and work with computers and technology to quickly get a story from where it’s happening back to the newsroom. But at its base there will always be the need for good, solid writing.
In the past, there was little data to suggest which stories were the popular in any single newspaper edition or television broadcast but now websites serve up tremendously detailed analysis of what is popular with whom, and what isn’t.
Advertisers only want to appear around the popular content, so news organizations have to consider this factor, said Bill Dorman, managing editor of Asia-Pacific broadcasts for Bloomberg News.
“For journalists, as painful as it may be, we’re going to have to think that business side. You can write a great story but if nobody reads it that doesn’t help the business,” Dorman said.
His comment, especially provocative in a room full of journalists, sparked concern from the floor that standards
will inevitably drop.
“What I hear tonight is advocacy about dumbing down the news,” said Bob Neff, former bureau chief for Business Week in Tokyo. “The shorter you can make it, the quicker you can do it, with the least amount of thought the better. I haven’t heard anybody address that as news professionals. Do we have no responsibility at all but to feed consumers whatever they want as cheaply as possible?”
To some of the reporters in attendance at the panel discussion, standards have already dropped.
“I was appalled that none of you mentioned the quality of journalism or journalists,” said Naoaki Usui, a correspondent for Defence News. “You are talking about business models and profitability of news operations but the essence of news organizations is the quality of journalists. My feeling is that ... quality has been constantly deteriorating.”
Giving consumers what they want doesn’t mean quality journalism is going away, the panelists said. There’s still an audience for investigative reports, but there’s also demand for Michael Jackson and journalists have to accept that, CNN’s Shubert said.
Bloomberg provides an example too, Dorman said. His company started by giving financial professionals and investors access to a range of data and content that’s difficult to get anywhere else. The success of that enabled the company to build a successful business news operation that now counts 1,800 journalists in 125 bureaus around the world — not bad for a company that didn’t exist 15 years ago.
In fact, big-media shouldn’t be cutting back on reporting and resources devoted to it, argued Devlin. It should be looking at the Internet as a way to slash distribution costs while still maintaining the news gathering network.
While established media outlets worry about maintaining quality and reducing their costs, new media outlets are beating them to big scoops, according to Christian Caryl, Tokyo bureau chief of Newsweek.
For example, The Smoking Gun Website was the first to report that the drug-rehab memoirs of James Frey, which had received considerable attention from mainstream media in the US, were filled with inaccuracies and fiction, he said.
“I was merely embarrassed that my mainstream media publication didn’t do that story first,” Caryl said. “These people at this ‘undignified little blog’ went out and hammered this story, they did it like a journalist should do it, they did it fantastically well. I don’t care if they are on the Internet or the printed page, it was great and I think we’ll see a lot more of it.”
So, the jury remains out on what exactly the foreign correspondent’s place will be in the coming years. There’s no doubt that our jobs will be changing as the impact of the Internet calls for more and diverse content and creates a much more competitive market.
As for the woes of the newspaper industry, which was the place where the evening’s discussion began, its position seems assured, said Anthony Rowley, former FCCJ president.
“Newspapers survived the coming of radio and they survived the coming of television, despite dire predictions to the contrary, and I think maybe they will survive the Internet age,” he said. “I think we’re in a transition phase when we haven’t decided which media does what best and perhaps we’re focusing too much on technology and not content.”