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Two sides to managing the digital-age media

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The world has changed and it’s still changing; so has the media.

It is difficult to predict with accuracy what life would be like in the next decade. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterised by the rise of artificial intelligence and perpetuation of the digital age, is here and experts believe it will advance rapidly.

One can imagine that the speed of information-sharing would inch even closer to that of light and a lot more role in global communication, as well as some other aspects of life, would be ceded to robots and automated systems.

The growing impact of robots and automated systems is topic for another day. Today, let’s consider how to manage the digital disruption of the media – a reality that has changed how people get and share information, and has cast a shadow on what is now known as ‘traditional journalism’.

Unlike it was about a decade ago, newspapers can no longer afford the luxury of having their reporters cover events or witness news-worthy incidents, record them, and then commute for several minutes or hours to their stations to type up their reports and send to their editors. Reporting on-the-go has moved from being an aspiration to an inevitable requirement.

Social media and mobile internet has made it possible for the millions of users to get news, as soon as they break, right on their mobile devices. Internet users can now share their content with the whole world with relative ease and the IT revolution continues to occur at a speed that is, at the least, scary. Think about Snapchat – how instantaneous. Who knows what other startling innovations are brewing in the Silicon Valley and its Nigerian equivalent, the Co-Creation Hub in Yaba, Lagos, as you read this?

The recent visit of the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerburg, to Nigeria (making an important stop at Nigeria’s Silicon Valley) was profound. It brought to life the sense of how powerful digital media has become and also how even more powerful it would be in the near future.

The high point of Zuckerburg’s interaction with Nigerian tech entrepreneurs and enthusiasts in Lagos, was when he predicted that soon we will no longer need to own many things physically. He said a lot of things be pulled up in virtual reality, used and shut it down.

Decades ago, such a prediction would have been Nostradamus’ call. But Zuckerburg said it and illustrated it by playing the game of chess on an imaginary chess board, with all the pawns, rooks, bishops, queens and kings. If the audience was fantastically wowed by that; it wasn’t obvious. This is how changed we have become – ready to embrace tech innovations, no matter how bizarre they might be.

The media in Nigeria has continued to struggle with managing the digital disruption it’s faced with. Let’s look at the two sides to managing the media in this digital age. One side is the speed of news delivery; the other is ethics and quality of content.

Speed of news delivery

The question I ask often is: Why should I purchase a newspaper when I can read at least 90 per cent of its content on the Internet? This is a question newspaper proprietors and editors should answer before putting their next edition to bed.

The truth is that if Nigerian newspapers fail to change their mode of operation fundamentally, they will most-likely be out of business within the next decade. The issue here is the speed of news delivery. Globally, newspapers are facing a tough time, and many of them have been forced to rework their business models, downsize, seek other avenues to maintaining a health bottom line, or close shop outright. Advertising revenues are gradually, but surely, moving in the direction of online platforms, as newspaper circulation figures continue to go south. This is made worse by the opaque nature of the system. The reach of messages published in newspapers cannot be ascertained with exactitude, and they are often exaggerated. Therefore, advertisers who are keen on measuring impact and making every kobo count, now prefer online.

Though most newspapers in the country now have websites where they upload reports, features, analysis, Op-Eds, etc, the speed with which they deliver these content remains sub-optimal. This is largely because of their reluctance to embrace a completely different model of operation. The printed newspaper has remained the main course while uploading news on their websites is treated as a necessary aside. The obsession of most editors remains ‘putting the newspaper to bed’.

This is evident in the fact the most newspaper have an online units usually staffed by less than half a dozen persons. This number includes one or two IT specialists and a so-called online editor, whose job description hardly exceeds making sure the content going online are grammatically and factually correct, and managing the human resources in the unit.

Apart from reports generated from social media or re-written from blogs and foreign news sites, the online units usually wait for the newsroom to pass on to it stories filed by reporters, who had gone to the field. The problem is that while the reporters are filing their stories to their editor in the newsroom for the editing and proof-reading process to begin, the bloggers have breezed through their lean process and published the same stories.

The solution for big media organisations is certainly to separate the co-joined twins. Let the online unit operate as an online news platform and let the print uphold its legacy of being a journal. If the print must live then it has to offer readers exclusive in-depth findings, analysis, Op-Eds and not breaking news, which is the forte of the online media. The website of a newspaper and its adjunct social media assets should be run as a distinct business entity from the print. The finding that about 93 million Nigerians surfed the Internet – accessing news, interacting on social media, among other things – using their mobile phones in 2015, is a pointer to where the semi-literate and literate population is headed. How many people will buy printed newspapers in 2026? I’m just asking.

Ethics and quality of content

The controversy over who can now be referred to as a journalist has continued unabated. A decade ago, there was clarity on that. Those who were trained in journalism school and/or have has experience working full-time or part-time for newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio stations were the journalist without argument.

The modern-day confusion stems from the fact that thousands, or perhaps millions of ‘untrained’ folk are providing the public with news. ‘Untrained’ merely because they went to no journalism school and have no experience working for structured media organisations, which at least gives a hoot about the ethics of the profession.

However, trained journalist or not, recent content consumption patterns have shown that good quality content resonant better with the target audience than its inferior versions. This is particularly true with news, and the so-called traditional media hold the advantage on this. Specialist audiences such as investors, the academia, corporations and government officials would rather wait to get their news from reliable news sources. But studies have shown that most people seldom read beyond the headline and the first paragraph of news reports and other types of content. This is in part due to the fact that an average person is inundated with content online and offline and therefore has very little time to spend on any particular content. Though the quality of the content and how relevant it seems from the headline, determine the share of time it gets, the speed with which readers race from one content to another leads to little consideration for quality. This is the basis for the growth of social media journalism.

I believe that if the ‘traditional journalists’ get their acts right in terms of the speed of their news delivery, utilising all available channels and technology, they can run their social media counterparts out of business. Hence bloggers (social media journalists) need to deliberately raise the bar in terms of fact-checking, use of language, thoroughness, as well as covering all angle of a story and avoiding libel.

If the legislators eventually make laws regulating online publishing and the social media, so-called social media journalists may no longer be smiling to the bank with ease; a fate that has the hit the traditional journalists.

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