The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University just released its annual report on the state of the news industry – and it makes for depressing reading. The , informed by data from 46 markets, concludes that . Interest has fallen across markets, and sharply, from 63 percent in 2017 to 51 percent in 2022.
In India, just over four in 10 people trust the news overall. Although marginally improved from last year, such a low level of trust should set off alarms, for the news industry of course, but also for the country’s democratic health. For if the news media isn’t trusted, its worth as a pillar of democracy is diminished. Indeed, a public institution that doesn’t enjoy public trust arguably has no legitimate reason to exist in an accountable society. It’s quite alarming then that nearly and rank journalists among the least trusted societal leaders.
A key reason for the loss of interest and trust is that the news industry’s overdependence on social media for distribution and on advertisements for revenue has cast it into an insatiable beast that must be perpetually fed “content” to grab ever more eyeballs, ever more clicks. I call this the contentification of journalism.
Consider India. The bulk of what goes for journalism in a country of over a quarter billion people – and as many untold stories – has . As newsroom resources are dedicated primarily to generating content for clicks, there is hardly scope for investing in public service journalism. In fact even valuable journalistic work, when done, usually lacks in depth, rigour or quality of production. And because the mostly underpaid, overworked journalists are required to create content on an industrial scale, and cheaply, they go after the easy pickings – celebrity gossip, political slugfests, social media chatter, and, . An army of “content makers” then, running at full pelt on the "".
The problem will likely worsen in the coming years. The Reuters Institute report finds that consumption of traditional media like newspapers, magazines and TV is declining almost everywhere, and although online and social consumption isn’t “making up the gap” yet, the digital news industry is set to expand with the growth in internet and smartphone usage. Already in India, the report finds, 84 percent of news consumers get their news from online sources.
Source: Digital News Report 2022
The nexus of contentification and loss of trust and readers also enables a more malicious phenomenon. The Hindu supremacists and their allies in the media, taking a cue from American rightwing ideologue , flood the news with so much distraction, bigotry and triviality, it’s hard to tell news from propaganda anymore. To be effective, propaganda and distraction must be relentless. The media industry, therefore, must generate ever more content to shrinkwrap lies, xenophobia and ressentiment in.
One outcome, by default if not entirely by design, is Aldous Huxley’s where people are controlled not by being deprived of useful information, as George Orwell feared, but by being drowned in trivial information. Huxley lamented that the early advocates of free press who envisaged propaganda as a binary – it “might be true or it might be false” – did not factor in the development of “a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant”. Huxley saw irrelevant words, “words without reason”, as potentially more harmful than false words.
The contentification of journalism not only undermines its public purpose and is injurious to democracy, it’s a risky business gambit besides. A indicates that one compelling reason for cancellation of news subscriptions is that readers don’t find the “content” valuable or are simply overwhelmed by its sheer abundance. Nearly 13 percent of the survey’s respondents thought their publication of choice had become “too clickbaity or non-substantive or found that the content generally wasn’t useful to them, or just wasn’t worth paying for”. As many cancelled news subscriptions “because of information overload”. Some complained that the content wasn’t original. Why would they pay for content they could get for free elsewhere?
The latest Digital News Report suggests as much: “Digital and social media offer a much wider range of stories, but this environment can often be overwhelming and confusing. While many people remain extremely active and engaged with online news, the abundance of choice in an online context may be leading others to engage far less regularly than they did in the past.”
Still, news publishers mostly remain wedded to the “content for clicks” model. Why? The answer lies partly in the failure to recognise digital news as fundamentally different from the printed newspaper. Digital news is no more newspaper than Netflix is cinema.
The most profound disruption that the web caused the news industry was that it unbundled the newspaper and atomised its readership. No more did a sports enthusiast or a politics junkie, say, need buy the full newspaper. They had the equivalent choice of picking up only sports or politics pages, even individual articles within that section. The internet thus rendered obsolete the idea of publishing “something for everyone”. Yet, publishers responded by, as it were, bulking up the paper. If anything, they felt liberated from printing deadlines and limited editions, and cranked up the “churnalism treadmill” to full. If the idea was that more content would reel in more readers, social media threw a spanner in the works by supplanting last century’s information economy with an attention economy. Now publishers had to compete for attention not just with other news publishers, but with technology platforms as well. And they started out with a handicap: unlike Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, they could not tailor their content to each customer’s taste. They predictably lost ground, and quickly.
It was like news publishers had seen their captive lake of fish fracture into countless disparate pools, each holding a fish, and resolved to catch them all, at once, by simply enlarging the same net. A misguided enterprise if there ever was one, Don Quixote tilting at windmills. The readers didn’t want more content, as surveys would show, they wanted more valuable content.
The churnalism model might still have worked had the web not birthed a more existential challenge: the devouring of digital advertising by Big Tech. As tech platforms pulled ahead in the race for people’s attention, their slice of the advertising pie grew fatter and the news industry’s, conversely, thinner. In 2021, Google, Meta and Amazon .
That’s when the penny dropped. Many news publishers realised that they needed to diversify their revenue streams to survive. The Covid shock only “reinforced a view that the industry needs to break an unhealthy dependence on digital advertising, which is blamed amongst other things for encouraging clickbait, reducing quality, and creating a poor user experience”.
An obvious source of revenue is the reader. But how can we convince the reader to pay? Simple, really: give them content that is worth their time or money, ideally both. Trustworthy, original journalism. “,” as French journalist Sophie Casals summarises it.
The "less but better" approach presents a break with the flailing but still dominant news industry practice of generating mountains of content. It frees up resources for doing quality work and addresses the endemic crisis of overwork in the news industry. Substantially less content also means readers aren’t exhausted and driven away by information overload. In essence, to use business logic, the audience gets a better service. The media, to paraphrase Bannon, isn’t "".
In the Indian newsroom, however, this idea will find purchase and have a chance of success only if it’s accompanied by two significant changes. One, the news industry must become vastly more diverse. It’s currently run overwhelmingly by the historically privileged upper caste men and women who are less than a fifth of the population but near . The issues that move them are usually not the same as affect the lives of the marginalised masses. In the newsroom, this translates to “proper journalism” being focused mostly on a handful of “issues” that upper caste proprietors and editors deem important; the rest of the news space or airtime is filled with “content”.
Two, the newsroom must rely for at least a portion of the revenue on readers rather than advertisers. This will ensure that news publishers aren’t compelled to produce content for the sole purpose of generating clicks, the key metric for landing ads.
Improving journalism by weeding out content of questionable value and making it more substantive, as it should be, will also earn back people’s trust and persuade them to pay for the news.
As Prof Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute, notes in the foreword to the Digital News Report, “Internet users have access to an unprecedented amount of content, products, and services competing for their attention and hard-earned money, and news needs to stand out, connect, and create value, if it is to convince them to pay.”
The Guardian in Britain, Mediapart in France, Dennik N in Slovakia, El Diario in Spain, Tiempo Argentino in Argentina, and Quartz in America have all adopted the “publish less but better” model – or aspects of it – with varying degrees of success. In the main, they have found that publishing less but better enables them to invest in quality rather than quantity of content, which entices readers to pay, reducing their reliance on advertisers, boosting credibility, earning public trust, and smoothing engagement with readers. Content de-addiction, in short, yields a news model that combines the essential elements of fine journalism – quality, independence, trust – with financial sustainability.
This approach isn’t without pitfalls, of course. It could lead to publishers “super-serving richer and more educated audiences and leaving others behind”, dissuade exploration of revenue streams other than subscriptions, deepen ideological rifts, and feed into a situation where, as the American journalist Nathan J Robinson describes it, the . It could, that is, trap publishers and their loyal audiences in destructive bubbles.
Such risks can be significantly mitigated, however, by creating more diverse newsrooms, ensuring transparency in editorial and business decisionmaking, and making what the Guardian’s head of innovation Chris Moran describes as “data-informed” rather than data-led choices.
As the first step, though, news publishers need to see “content” not as product, but capital. Which will yield rich returns, for news publishers and democracy, only if it’s judiciously invested. Every single piece of it.
This article is partly adapted from the writer’s , published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
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