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The challenge of staying relevant

A new book reflects on how it will be suicidal for journalists and news organisations to remain hostage to the old structures of journalism and not adapt with the changing reality

A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

Author:George Brock

Publisher: Kogan Page
Pages: 242+xii
Price: $24.95

It is time to save journalism from journalists and traditional news organisations. This is not exactly what George Brock, a former journalist and now a professor of journalism, says in this book (Out of Print). But his central thesis is somewhat similar. The world in which journalism operates is changing rapidly as a consequence of technology and business exigencies. Brock correctly argues that no change is without pain. But there is no point in ruing that inevitable process of change and, worse, doing nothing about it. Indeed, anticipating change and then driving it would always yield better dividends than simply being swept away by it.

Newspaper circulation is dropping in most developed markets and even the growth seen in Asian countries, particularly in India, has already been challenged by the spread of the Internet and the proliferation of platforms on which more news is consumed by an increasingly larger number of people. Existing business models that rely on advertisement revenues to take care of the bulk of the costs of running news operations have been challenged, even as newer alternative models are yet to offer hope or create a sustainable base for themselves.

Journalists cannot simply moan about this. For, journalism is not in danger. Journalists and news organisations, therefore, must reinvent themselves, grapple with the forces of change and address the demands of a new generation of readers who want to consume news or reliable public information on newer platforms that would continue to evolve at an even faster pace than now. Those journalists and news outfits that refuse to draw the right lessons and devise newer and more appropriate business models are likely to go extinct. Brock does not articulate it as openly, but the message from him is clear and simple: journalism's future can remain intact and promising only if journalists and news organisations recognise this changing reality and the need to stay engaged with the evolving business exigencies of the news medium.

His caution in not being as blunt as that is understandable. As a former journalist, Brock has perhaps a considerable degree of empathy with the subjective sensitivities of journalists to the time-honoured values of objectivity, fairness, balance and credibility. Remember that some of these concepts have been challenged by the emerging new integrated media where the process of content creation for the print, television and internet platforms has merged. Yet, Brock has the rare advantage of having stepped back from active journalism and engaged in teaching it as a subject in a university. That benefit results in his objective assessment of what has gone wrong with the journalistic obsession with those values, believing as though they would never change, and the consequent failure of not reorienting them to adapt to the evolving needs or different platforms. The core values of course remain intact. But they need to be adjusted to the specific needs of different media platforms.

That dual approach has helped Brock in providing in the ten chapters of the book a measured assessment of the tectonic changes that have taken place in the journalism business. Brock is a journalist at heart. His confession at the start of the book reveals that in ample measure. The book is in some ways a response to a taunt by a business columnist that had doubted the ability of a journalism professor to offer credible and useful advice on business. By the time you finish reading the book, you realise that Brock has more than addressed that concern, without using even for once an Excel sheet with intricate numbers or complex business jargons. Yes, he uses graphic tables to argue his case, but then these are well-established journalistic tools to illustrate a point that can otherwise get confusing by excessive dependence on plain numbers.

What clearly stands out in Brock's analysis is his articulation of the changing paradigm of the journalism business. Rapid technological innovations have underlined the need for a close look at structures that pre-existed those changes. Without changing those structures to meet the requirements of the new reality, journalists and news organisations could become irrelevant. A case in point is the growing use of what is often described as "point-of-view" reportage of events, where a journalist looks at an event from a specific perspective by interspersing reportage with his judgement on what really happened. This would be considered sacrilege in the earlier print-media world. But this would not be so on a website, where the journalist even while offering his angled take on an event has the advantage of simultaneously allowing readers access to an objective view through a video clip or a web link to the original statement or the official document. It would be suicidal for journalists and news organisations to remain hostage to the old structures of journalism and not adapt with the changing reality.

Yet, Brock warns that there are dangers in a mindless approach to tackling the changes that have rocked journalism in the last three decades. He cites the example of soccer players in a field trying to chase the ball wherever it goes. Journalists and media organisations need to understand the futility of such an approach. It would be better if they placed themselves in a specific position in the field and expect the ball to reach them so that they can negotiate it to their advantage. This task, admittedly, is difficult. But Brock has listed more than half a dozen business models that have either already emerged or are likely to become significant sources for raising revenues by the new media organisations. The good news Brock leaves you with is that journalism still has a valid business proposition. It can make business sense if journalists ensured that what they offered as content had a distinct value for readers and if organisations understood the importance of staying lean, technologically savvy and open to exploring diverse sources of income.

First Published: Fri, September 27 2013. 21:48 IST