Is journalism dying?

Mashiul Alam | Update:

Prothom Alo IllustrationIf you ask Google, ‘is journalism dying?’, around 24 million links will pop up in a second. That goes to show the extent of concern about the very existence of journalism. The crisis has reached an extent that even the ‘death’ of journalism is discussed. So is journalism actually dying as a profession?

Why does such an ominous question have to be raised? Can journalism die? What will happen to democracy then? What will happen to accountability and responsibility in governing the state, in wielding power, in applying the law, in spending taxpayer’s money? What about political rights, human rights, freedom of expression, right to information? How will the world go on without the media and journalism?
There are many more questions closed entwined with the death-like crisis that grips journalism. It is necessary to look into why we have reached this predicament.

On 3 November, the eve of Prothom Alo’s 21st birthday, Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam in an interview highlighted certain major challenges faced by journalism on a global level and in the Bangladesh context.

One challenge is political. The world over, powerful leaders are coming down hard on the media and journalists, using words and the laws against them. The elected president of the country known for its free press has called journalists the lowest form of life. Such laws are being enacted in various countries, where journalists can be tied by rope and taken to jail. Their tools are confiscated. They are even accused of espionage and legal action is taken against them accordingly.

The next challenge comes from the world of technology. Due to the exponential expansion of digital technology, news and exchange of views is no longer limited to the news media. Media which has nothing to do with journalism is now exchanging news and views in the blink of an eye. This challenge is felt strongest in the western world. The once powerful newspapers and TV channels are shrinking rapidly and are struggling for survival. In less than a decade from 2005, the largest news institution in the world became a losing concern. The New York Times which was once most successful in business terms, earned US$ 2153 billion in 2006. In 2015 that dwindled to US$ 633.87 billion.

It is even worse for another American media giant, the Washington Post. The owners faced such losses that they had to ultimately sell it to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. But he too struggled with the paper’s losses.

In the UK, The Independent closed down its print edition and remains online only. Before that, its ownership changed hands several times over. It is now owned by a Russian billionaire who has rendered two thirds of the journalists redundant. Even then the paper struggles and it is uncertain how much longer it will continue.

Guardian, the nearly 200-year-old British newspaper, faces the threat of extinction. It has staggering losses and has had under changes. From broadsheet it has been reduced to a compact tabloid size. They have had to shut down their press and it is now printed at the press of the Mirror group. There has been a cut down in journalists and other staff and the lay-off continues. In 2016 the paper’s owners announced that 20 per cent of the staff would be laid off and 20 per cent costs would be cut. In December they will review whether 20 per cent costs have reduced.

Television stations around the world too are counting big losses and the downward trend continues.

Why is the revenue of these top media houses in Europe and America plummeting? Has the demand or news or the necessity of news dropped? No, not at all. The demand for news and news analysis has not decreased an iota. The thing is that the people no longer have to rely solely on the newspapers or TV channels for news. They are getting everything from the social media and the online news portals.

The main reason that the revenue of newspapers and TV channels is decreasing is that the number of advertisements are falling. The advertisements they would get before are going to Facebook, Google, Amazon and such digital platforms which do not practice journalism.

These non-journalistic platforms have created an unprecedented crisis in the over 500-year-old history of journalism. Before people would flock to whether there was news and so that was where the advertisements went. Newspapers and TV were the only media for advertisements. And advertisements are the main source of income for the newspaper and TV channels.

Things have undergone a radical change. People now don’t crowd the news media any more. They crowd the non-journalistic media of Google, Facebook, Amazon and so on. These media institutions snatch up the ads. In 2017, Google and Facebook grabbed 61 per cent of the online ads globally. They won 73 per cent of the American online ads. And I one year they pocket 83 per cent of the entire money generated by advertisements over the world.

When readers of the print media fell and they turned to online news media, it was hoped that the advertisements too would go from print to the online news portals. But that did not happen to the expected degree. The news media struggles to capture ads.

The business model which had continued for so long in the news media, no longer works. So does journalism, and the news media as an industry, now face an existential crisis?

It certainly is a crisis of existence. However, no one actually says that journalism is faced with death. A reliable model may not have been created as yet, but I feel that the business model can no longer rely on advertisements alone. That ship has probably sailed. Probably a mixed business model will emerge in which the focus will be on the news consumes. They probably will play a pivotal role in the keeping the news media and journalism away from death’s door. They need the news media.

No matter how crowded the social media and other media platforms may be, at the end of the day the people have to resort to the news media which they can trust. So these news consumers, the subscribers, will be the saviours of journalism and the news media.

Alongside subscription-based revenue, there will be advertisements too, to an extent. They there will be revenue sharing with non-journalistic media because Facebook, Google and all use content created by the news media and will continue to do so. The sooner such a mixed revenue business model emerges, the sooner the crisis of professional journalism will clear. That is the direction in which the New York Times is headed.

* Mashiul Alam is assistant editor of Prothom Alo. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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