Thursday, January 19, 2017

The business of news

More than 10 years ago, after I decided to give up my dream-job I always wanted to have - journalism - I was deeply disappointed by the business of news as such. Under the pressure to become a profitable industry, journalism degenerated in a business-driven enterprise, where economic interests were dictating the angle of news and even the coverage or not of certain sensitive information for the owners. For me, as a young dreamer, such an approach was inacceptable and thus, I decided to give up the dream.
Fortunately for me, the online medium was developing rapidly and shortly enough I've found my perfect environment to share my ideas and interests, without the pressure of the profit and enjoying the professional independence I was so hungry for before. I was my own boss, spending as much time as I wanted to document a news and writing fully about issues that I was interested in. But it was no profit involved and, at least in the case of foreign affairs reporting, I decided to avoid completely to associate any financial implications to it.
Blogging was starting to develop, and more and more people were entering this environment to share their opinions and ideas. As in the case of any beginnings, there were some funny episodes, and not all the content aired was professional. Especially if you start as a lone blogger, taking into consideration the ethical standards and the golden rule of 3 sources seems to be not necessarily a main concern for the writers. Sharing was more important and if in the case of travel and leisure news, checking the facts is easier and doesn't require too much time, for foreign and home news, creating a reliable news report is always a matter of time. The longer, the better, as in the case of the good wines.
A new category of journalism was developing: citizen journalism. With the new wave of social media and high-tech tools, anyone was able to report and create the news. The most important thing was to report and share it with the world instantly, before the crew of the classical media outlets were able to reach the premises. In war areas - with limited access and sometimes without any presence of foreign journalists - or when spontaneous riots started, the rapid share of information might be the unique available reporting. But even in such cases, the documented reporting should use those snaps of information in order to create reliable news features and check directly with the authorities about various facts. Citizen journalism doesn't have the access or the desire to do this, but can provide an important piece of information, although not the full information itself.
Observing all those developments made me happy. I was jealous of all the resources available at the time dreaming about how my hard start in the field of news reporting would have been. But I was experienced enough to notice the risks as well, but was almost convinced - contrary to the pessimistic thoughts from The Net Delusion - that the good guys - aka the good journalism will always win. After all, it was the first time in history when there were enormous possibilities to do good and keep doing your job.
But the search engines and the Internet networks such as Facebook, were silently pursuing another revolution: that of the algorithms, according to which some content is more visible that the other, often promoted in exchange of minimal fees. When the amount of information produced is overwhelming, there should be a certain order to organise it, based on categories, key-words or other relevant mathematical - cold - rules. The SEO and search for visibility weren't necessarily promoting the best, but the most read news, where the visibility of a site was calculated up to the well chosen words used, based on the most searched words and expressions. It doesn't mean that this excludes the quality content to be found and read, but it requires a lot of extra work, not necessarily of journalistic nature and very often, when faced with the choice between checking facts and figures and becoming a SEO-Samurai, you rather prefer to publish an impeccable piece of news. Again, the risk might be that no one will see your story.
The phenomenon of the 'fake news' so popular during the last American elections isn't new. It is at least 8 years old when during the presidential elections in the same USA were bombarded with information about the unclear ethnic and citizenship origin of pres. Obama. I am not taking any stance for or against him, I just notice facts. The method was used in the next elections and the fact that right now it is a matter of concern is the result of the high standards the web techniques themselves reached. The fact that president elect Trump complains of being himself a victim of 'fake news' is pretty ironic, as in the last years and months, he was the main beneficiary of such campaigns. Practically, nowadays, everyone with a basic SEO knowledge and some $$ in the pocket can play with the news and support its own version of truth. The more resourceful financially and logistically, the better for a definitive version of it, even for a couple of hours or even days. Most probably, many people will prefer to keep in mind the first variant offered, without bothering to check the further developments. It is normal too, as time is limited and our attention nowadays is extremely split.
What is to be done? It is the end of journalism as we know it and the beginning of the informational chaos? The media landscape obviously changed and challenged. The business of news were never a good profitable one, unless people used blackmail and yellow media - which was all so popular at the beginning of the news too. The 'fake' news will continue to exist alongside serious information for now on and people will keep reading it, with the same appetite as they read gossip magazines. It is not a matter of human nature, but of readability and curiosity. 
However, people in the business of news do have serious obligations. First, they need to keep respecting their standards and regardless of the pressure and the stakes, to continue offering verified quality information. Second, it is important to educate both public and producers of news discernment, through online classes, books and media reports. To share experiences about how to separate 'real' from 'fake', about how to write and read responsibly. After all, there are so many people able to distinguish between a real luxury brand and a fake, because they got the proper education to do it. And if they choose to buy the fake one, they do it responsibly, aware of their choices. It is a difficult but not impossible task.