News

[SPEECH] Jonathan Heawood at Ulster University, 4 October 2018

'Can we believe the media? The role of journalism in the digital age'. Jonathan Heawood's speech at the event held at Ulster University on 4 October 2018.

This event was co-organised by IMPRESS, the Centre for Media Research in the School of Communication and Media of Ulster University, and the MeCCSA policy network.

 

INTRODUCTION

It’s great to be back in Belfast. I was last here in 2014, when I shared a platform with John Horgan, the previous Press Ombudsman of Ireland. I’m delighted to be here tonight with Peter Feeney, who is doing such a terrific job in that role.

2014. What a different world we lived in then! The United Kingdom was a settled part of the European Union and Northern Ireland was a settled part of the United Kingdom.

How quickly things have changed.

A few years ago, people complained that politics was too consensual, too ‘middle-of-the-road’.

Now, by contrast, we live in an era of highly polarised political discourse – what has been called ‘the age of outrage’.

In this age of outrage, professional news sources have been replaced for many people by ‘alternative facts’, ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’.

More of us turn for information and entertainment to social media rather than news media.

The President of the United States routinely attacks journalists and journalism.

The President of Russia uses social media to sow disinformation and discord.

In the digital economy, clicks count. The sites with the most clicks can generate the most advertising revenue. But clicks don’t guarantee quality.

I could set up a news site tomorrow morning and generate serious traffic – so long as I was happy to rip off cheap celebrity copy from other websites. If I slapped on a few attention-grabbing but entirely false headlines, I’d be doing even better. Maybe I could stir some social media content into the mix.

I could be making serious money by tomorrow evening.

Alternatively, I could set up a news site to be staffed by professional journalists. I could provide training and mentoring. I could direct my team towards the most challenging and important issues in contemporary politics. I could wait for months until they started filing the best copy the world has ever seen.

I’d be waiting for years to make any money out of that.

Clicks don’t guarantee quality. They simply guarantee attention.

 

JOURNALISM AT THE CROSSROADS

So, what is the place of journalism in the digital age?

The Chairman of Newsbrand Ireland, Vincent Crowley, recently said that ‘the future of journalism is at a crossroads’.

I agree.

What are the choices on offer at this crossroads? Well, we could leave it to the market to decide what happens to journalism. We could sit back and watch as the corporate owners of the British and Irish media continue to close and consolidate newspapers, until only a few giants are left.

There is no guarantee that this would help journalism. Some news publishers seem to have a fairly tenuous grasp of the principles of journalism, even at the best of times. When they are forced to compete with an endless diet of click bait, can we expect that their standards will go up?

No. It is much more likely that, if we see further concentration of the news market, we will see a further decline of journalism standards. In fact, we might not see journalism at all. Why employ human beings to copy stories from the internet when you can get robots to do it so much cheaper, and faster?

Alternatively, we could trust the social media platforms to sort things out. They have the power, by tweaking their algorithms, to decide whether certain news publications succeed or fail. They can raise a news story to the top of your feed, or they can sink it to the bottom. They can throw news sources off their platforms altogether. They can choose whether to divert some of their enormous advertising revenue to news publishers – or not.

We could let the platforms decide which news sources to prioritise.

And then what? The world’s information would be controlled by a few billionaires from the West Coast of America, or China. Is this really what we want, or need?

I don’t think that either of these options is very attractive.

And I also agree with Vincent Crowley that ‘government inaction now is simply not an option.’

So I believe that we have to explore a third option. We have to look for government help, to stimulate the supply of high-quality journalism in these challenging times.

 

THE WAY FORWARD

We can’t leave the market to decide what journalism does and doesn’t get published.

We need public support for journalism, so that every kind of journalism can thrive: right-wing, left-wing, impartial, partisan, republican, unionist, local, regional, national and international from community stories to hard-hitting investigations.

It’s time to accept that journalism is a profession.

More than that, it’s time to celebrate the fact that journalism is a profession. We should be proud of our professional standards.

We should also accept that professional journalism may need a helping hand from society.

At IMPRESS, we have recommended the creation of a News Funding Council, something like the Arts Councils of Northern Ireland and England, to distribute public funding to news publications where they are compensating for a market failure.

Of course, this Council would need to be entirely independent of politicians. Ideally, it would have a financial endowment, so that it didn’t need to go cap-in-hand to Stormont or Westminster each year. Ideally, that endowment might come from a windfall tax on the profits made by social media platforms.

How would a News Funding Council decide which news publications to support? How could it make sure that the money didn’t flow to sources of misinformation or disinformation?

That’s what we asked our members at IMPRESS. They told us that they didn’t trust either the government or the industry to define ‘high-quality journalism’. They would rather see an independent regulator take responsibility for this.

REGULATION

That’s why I believe that regulation is part of the future of journalism.

Accountability is one of the key values of journalism. As journalists, we hold others accountable. So we should be held accountable ourselves.

I know that regulation isn’t a nice word. I know it conjures up memories of the Spanish Inquisition.

But if you strip down regulation you find that it consists of some quite straightforward and even friendly elements.

  • It means upholding the professional standards that distinguish journalism from other kinds of content.
  • It means listening carefully when people complain about something you publish.
  • And it means getting an independent ruling on issues that you can’t resolve yourselves.

In essence, regulation means showing that you take your work seriously, and that you take the public seriously.

Regulation isn’t a threat to journalism. It’s not a bolt-on or an afterthought to the business of journalism. Regulation is at the heart of journalism. It helps to give journalism its edge. It helps journalists to do a great job on behalf of the public; and in turn, it can help the public to support journalism, through subsidies, tax breaks and legal protections.

Because there’s no point in subsidising low-quality journalism. Sites that sign up for external accountability are giving something to the public. In return, they should be eligible for public support.

 

THE FUTURE

For those of you who are students, I think this is an exciting time to be going into the news industry. Once upon a time, you might have entered a profession that was very sure of itself – even, to be honest, rather pleased with itself. You might have learned your trade at the knee of an old hack who’d been around the block a few times and thought he knew everything there was to know.

Now, it’s down to you to rebuild this profession. You need to rethink what journalism is. You need to decide what sets journalism apart. What makes journalism special? What will you bring to the table, not only in terms of great content, but also new business models, new relationships with your audiences, new ways of sharing stories with the world.

You could see the challenges journalism as a terrible threat. Or you could see them as an opportunity. Readers today are sceptical of all institutions – and rightly so. Among other institutions, they’re sceptical of the media. They don’t take your word for it. So you need to win their trust. You need to show them why you deserve to be trusted. And you need to keep winning their trust, day after day, story by story.

If you can get this right, then journalism will have an exciting future.

At IMPRESS, we would be delighted to work with you on this challenge.

Good luck!