Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard Kennedy School has a new book, Informing the News. It is a must read for journalists and newspaper managers.
Christina Pazzanese, a staff writer with the Harvard Gazette who interviewed Patterson about the book, has dubbed it “a philosophical hand grenade at today’s moribund news business.”
The word ‘moribund’ has some scary synonyms like: on the way out, on its last legs, waning, past its best days and dilapidated. All these terms describe today’s news business and should worry traditional media executives in radio, TV and newspapers.
Rwanda annual media dialogue just ended recently but the question to chew on between now and the next edition should be: How can newspapers survive in this world of new media?
Newspaper circulation managers will tell you how it is becoming harder to sell more copies as people seek their news from Internet-backed social media.
Subscriptions by government offices are being cancelled as governments trim budgets. As a result, commercial advertisers are getting reasons not to buy space resulting in the collapse of smaller publications.
Newspapers have to compete with thousands of online news websites that are posting all sorts of information—some sensational and often not researched rumors. There’s even a new term, ‘citizen journalism’ that has imposed itself into the discussion.
But there’s demand for all this just like Oscar Wilde put it: ‘The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.’
The problem is that, this niche is no-longer a monopoly of journalism. Journalists have to share space with millions of faceless people armed with just a laptop and a small digital camera and a new field, ‘citizen journalism’.
But who should be taken more seriously?
Unlike other professions such as law or medicine, anyone seems to be welcome in journalism and therein lay the real problem.
Newspapers can’t break news anymore; this right has been hijacked by instant publishing made possible by new media. The race to break a story before anyone else has reduced accuracy levels and as a result half baked information hits news consumers like a tsunami. Who will point them to the truth?
Informing the news
In his book, Patterson’s argues that, with the proliferation of people and organizations claiming to provide news in the digital age, the public is inundated with information, but little guidance to distinguish what is useful and trustworthy. Yet while journalists are the best positioned to provide trustworthy information, they are not equipped to do the job properly.
It’s at this point that Patterson suggests in his book, a need for a new form of journalism based on “informing the news rather than reporting it.”
This however requires a higher caliber of journalists who can be authoritative in not reporting but explaining and put the dots together for the readers. It’s not an entirely new approach. Some publications such as The Economist already use this model.
“You would like journalists to function like a profession and professions tend to run off of specialised knowledge that gives the professional the leverage that’s different, and makes them special in dealing with that situation compared to the layman. But when you look at journalism [today], there’s no knowledge base that underpins journalism,” said Patterson in the interview with Harvard Gazette.
Journalists must have specialized information on the subjects they cover or face the risk of either misguiding their audiences or simply reporting inaccurately.
In Rwanda, it’s a problem of limited resources. That is why you see a crime reporter covering a BNR press conference and you will find the same reporter at a REMA event—churning out mediocre reports that are full of inaccuracies.
Recently a journalist with this newspaper, Eric Kabera, won three awards from the EAC Media awards, but this is someone who has been reporting EAC affairs for almost five years and the results are loud.
If a news Magazine can’t find enough operational resources, it can choose one area to specialise in rather than operate as a general news magazine. A magazine specializing in environmental reporting can deploy all its resources to become an authority in that area.
The benefits include a niche audience that would even result in special funding opportunities and specialised training for the journalists.
Alternatively, small news outlets can consider merging in order to pool resources to become richer and more competitive. With these ideas, traditional media can attempt to survive in the world of new media.