Journalism changing fast: Wilkinson

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

Earl J WilkinsonThe International News Media Association (INMA) , according to its own words, is the world's leading provider of global best practices for news media companies looking to grow revenue, audience, and brand amid profound market change. Earl J Wilkinson, CEO of INMA, during his recent visit in Dhaka spoke to Prothom Alo about the evolving changes in the media industry and the future of journalism.

Prothom Alo: First, I want to start with the theme that you are working on, ‘Future of Journalism’. The world has changed, and it is changing quite fast, in terms of technology, evolving technologies, how journalism is changing?

Earl Wilkinson (EW): I think journalism is adjusting to the platform, it’s adjusting to the contours of the technology. You know, gone are the days when you could write in a simple narrative, etc., that simple narrative doesn’t work on 140 characters on Twitter, it doesn’t work in a visually work in a stunning way on an i-pad. It doesn’t work necessarily in lot of these platforms. So I’m thinking it’s less the raw news in journalism but sort of how we tell the story in words, visually and by voice that matter for that matter is changing.

PA: So, you are eluding us towards the social media phenomena, the under one hundred and forty characters, which is breaking news largely, not getting into the story, or in the depth of the story. Is it the future of journalism?

EW: No, I mean I really do think those are simply pointers, you know, those are great connectors to great journalism; and so I don’t think that’s something we should fear, I think it’s something we should embrace. And look ... at the end of the day, we should always be media companies that go where the consumers go - and if they all are on Twitter, that’s where we need to be, if they all are on Facebook, that’s where we need to be. So, you know, we suddenly realised these questions are getting a little negative, and look ... technology is disproportionately positive to journalism, to getting into more hands, to get people engaged to it deeper and deeper. So, I’m thankful for opportunity of social media to get people to engage, I just want to find ways to pay for it.

PA: So you are actually referring to the question of monetising journalism.

EW: Yeah.

PA: How important is that?

EW: Well, there are a couple of maxims. It does no good to write an article that nobody reads, it does no good to write an article if you’re not going to get paid. At the end of the day, I’d love to think the world operates without money; but, look ... we have to figure out a way as we leave the shell of print, which is the most magnificent funding mechanism for news in journalism. As we leave the comfortable confines of print, how do we find ways either through advertising or direct consumer know - how do we get the money to fund the quality that’s so important moving forward. There are so many examples of that right now. Pay walls are an example, close garden applications are among those. You know ... there was this crazy story, remember the crazy story-two years ago, former American Olympian Bruce Jenner changes sex, has a sex change operation and becomes Caitlyn Jenner. Vanity Fair Magazine, this is not widely known, Vanity Fair Magazine went to its existing database, sent an e-mail around and actually charged strictly for the article, early access for the article. They sold tens of thousands of access to this article. Okay, I haven’t heard too many of those examples out there. So, I think there are lots of different models that are emerging, none are killer applications. I can mention Blental, Paid Preview, the i-pad app with Free press in Canada. The pay walls around the world. So yes, it’s vile, and yes we are coming up with new ideas. I just wish they were coming faster.

PA: The local editions - there was a time when most of the newspapers had several editions, regional editions, but some of them are dying in the western world. But in our part of the world, just across the border, in India, some of the major titles, they have dozens of editions, regional editions, and they are doing very well. Do you think that in the new environment, that edition business will remain in the print media?

EW: So, that’s a really complicated question, I haven’t heard that question in the last few days, I’d like your new question. So let me share with you some different experiences which is why this is going to be different. In my hometown of Dallas, Texas; the local newspaper there is the Dallas Morning News. And you have this sub-urbanisation and ex-urbanisation. So people are moving further and further away from the city centre. To the point where people are losing their affiliation with the city of Dallas, and the Dallas Morning News did an interesting piece of research in last ten years and they asked this question to the people in the suburb of Plano, and Frisco, and Arlington; simple question-what city do you live in? Every one said Dallas. So, you know, on the one hand, you have a situation where people are losing their sense of identity to the mother city and so you do need that sort of local editions. Those walls are now going the opposite direction, I think the trend you said, I think the regional editions have started to die because for some reason are beginning to affiliate to the city centre again. It’s different in India. Especially in the Hindi belt, because long before there was digital, long before the internet, companies like Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar had dozens, they had hundreds of editions. But you know what makes special and different; each edition had a different dialect. In Dallas, the people in Plano mostly speak the same language as the people in Dallas. So, in Texas those editions started going away. They are still pretty damn important in a lot of Indian cities, especially in the Hindi belt, because of the dialect. Can you imagine a hundred different editions in hundred different dialects? Wow, that’s amazing.

PA: So there is still hope for regional editions, local editions.

EW: I think so, but again, every company is different. There is no universal answer.

PA: Millennials. That’s a quite pet subject now for most of the businesses.

EW: yeah, definitely.

PA: And also for the newspaper industry. They have handheld gadgets.

EW: Yes, they are publishers.

PA:  Yes, they are publishers. Their opinions, they are publishing all the time, every minute probably. So, how newspapers are going to connect or interact with those individuals, their views, their opinions?

EW: You know, I got a question, I think today someone said how do we get millennials to connect with newspapers, and I came back and I said I think you are asking the wrong question. I don't necessarily need a millennial to embrace print, it'd be nice! Brands are better in digital. But I think in long term, I just want you to fall in love with my brand. And I want you to fall in love, how do you make people fall in love? You do advance to that demographic. You do a 'words competition.' You do concerts, you know, you find ways for them to emotionally associate with the brand.

PA:  It depends on the brand. Brand has to connect.

EW: Yeah. I mean absolutely. And so I think that's more important. And so if we are a print newspaper in ten years, they will go into print, if you were a mobile only brand in ten years they will go with you. We will have to get them to connect with what the DNA of the brand company ultimately is. To me truth is too easy, I think all should stand to the truth. I think we need to know are you urban, are you agro-cultural, are you rural, are you leftist centric, are rightist centric. Just be truth, truth about who and what your brand represents, and then somehow connect with those millennials.

PA: While television came in or radio was dominating, newspapers didn't encroach newspapers territory. But newspapers, when they are going to digital adapting to visuals or video contents, they are actually encroaching television's territory.

EW: Yeah.

PA:  How it is going to affect the television media?

EW: Well, I think the television media will always be around. I think what's happening is that the tools for video, as we get into the big data era as the tools to produce video, you know just get better and better, cheaper and cheaper, just like the millennials and their smart phone, they are now a publisher. And now then, I've learnt a newspaper is a video producer! And suddenly a TV channel.

PA: Even citizens, individuals are video producers.

EW: I mean, yes. You may get into a perspective that I just don't have a big enough imagination, but I see two ice bergs slowly colliding into each other. You have traditional television, going in the same direction, but now you have this online video, every news organisations is going to have a video operation. And you saw Canada's Fairfax Media, they have 15 channels. All online and that's getting better. TV, traditional TV, its good, but it's not doing better. At some point, I am going to be able with this smart phone to produce as high quality as CNN. You know, I sort of joke, you know in television you have this macro brands, and then now micro brands, in online video you have micro micro brands, you have the Catholic school children network. My Goodness! But that's how the economy is working. It's possible now. And it's very cheap to produce and you can sell high CPM (Cost per minute/ thousand) advertising for it. Because it's usually a very targeted subject and a targeted audience.

PA: So, in the longer term, you are talking about, within three years, there will be big changes in the newspaper industry or news media overall? But beyond three years, what do you see?

EW: It's like imagining your child at the age of nine and what's she going to look like at 24. It's hard to imagine. I think that, there will only be news companies. Not newspapers, not magazine, not TV channels, all news companies. And the TV channels are going to, they have websites, they already do. Some of them may reverse to publish into print. Why not? I thing prints are going to be more involved in video. They are going to be more involved in pod-cast, I thing you are going to see the death of FM radio and the rise of digital radio. So, you know, back to the core question here, the future of journalism. It's the eco system that is changing, and you might have to change the story telling a little bit, but the core of journalism is going to be what it has always been.

PA: So it is multi platform?

EW: Absolutely. I mean I don't know how anyone could survive as a uni-platform news brand in the future.

PA: And finally, artificial intelligence, they are producing news now for many news organisations, including TV channels, Bloomberg, Reuters, especially financial stories. Do you see any threat for creative journalism or as a profession journalists will face serious challenges from this artificial intelligence?

EW: I don't know, if you look ... that's a deep question. If you look at the totality content produce, and say, what percentage of all that universe, if thats a 100 per cent, and here is a pi, what percentage is there in modern news? What percentage of my story about writing down sports scores and manually taken, I mean, in some ways don't we want them to go away? If a computer or a software programme can do that don't we want them to go away and free of work time for better quality, better quantity or better speed. I don't think it's a bad thing at all. I think it's a good thing, and, you know I've never analised what percentage of the total output of a news room is commodity versus value. That's a great question. For all A.I. are basically taking out of human hands the commodity part of it. It's by the way the same situation in terms of Uber, and a driverless car versus a driver in the car, GPS versus Uber take you exactly where ... is it a bad thing that we are getting rid of those drivers? Not for the consumers.

PA: But ultimately a human touch will remain.

EW: Oh, human touch will absolutely remain. But it's going to be focused on the highest valued things, things that required judgment, things that required opinion, things that required heart and soul, and the commodities will hopefully leave human hands. 

PA: Thank You.

EW: Thank you too!

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