Newsrooms try to adapt as Facebook, Google take on role of spreading the news
On the 20th anniversary of CBCNews.ca, some media thinkers ponder what comes next
The CBC News website has been running for 20 years now — it's come a long way from what it was in 1996, but the news industry has undergone even more monumental change over the years.
Advertising revenues, which traditionally supported journalism, have moved away from news gathering organizations and are more likely to go elsewhere in the digital realm. And massive companies like Facebook and Google dominate the information industry.
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"We're still only at the early stages of what digital is going to mean," said Dan Dunsky, who runs Dunsky Insight, a strategic communications consultancy. He also created and was the executive producer of TVO's The Agenda for almost 10 years. "People are throwing a lot of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, but what sticks today might not be what sticks tomorrow. The truth is, absolutely nobody knows."
On top of ad revenues diminishing, social media have exploded, and people are getting their news from a variety of sources and devices, instead of from just one or two traditional media platforms.
Here, some journalism thinkers weigh in on what the future of news might look like.
Today's printing press
The change in news organizations' revenue streams, brought on by digital technology, has created a massive hole.
"The advertising revenues have gone to Google and Facebook — they have figured out how to take advantage of advertising and the news business hasn't," said Mary McGuire, who teaches both digital and broadcast reporting at Carleton University.
Since news organizations haven't been able to keep up with the pace, the industry has been suffering for years from cutbacks and layoffs. McGuire said it's a challenge to teach students how to adapt to the ever-changing, and ever-shrinking, industry.
Dunsky likens the change brought on by digital media to the advent of the printing press around the 1400s. Back then, only monks controlled the flow of information. The printing press blew that wide open.
Digital technology is having a similar impact today.
"It's a revolution in information and communication technologies. It's one of these hinge moments," he said.
CBC's general manager and editor in chief, Jennifer McGuire, says that as the public broadcaster, it's impossible to ignore the impact of Facebook.
"We have an obligation to ensure that we can distribute our content — which Canadians pay for — as widely as possible and connect it to wherever people are consuming things. The idea is to be responsive to new places and technologies," she said.
With digital technology, Dunsky said audiences no longer need to rely on just one or two sources for their information when the entire internet is at their fingertips — just type a word into Google, and you have thousands of answers.
This is affecting the traditional role of media as the arbiters, or authority, of what's important and what's not, said Dunsky.
"The media was very good at convincing itself that we were all anybody needed, and the truth is that for a very long time, we were all anybody could get," said Dunsky.
Matt Carroll, who runs the Future of News Initiative at MIT and was a reporter with the Boston Globe for close to 30 years, agrees.
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"Newsrooms have kind of lost control of distribution of news, and so increasingly have to think of other ways to reach their readers," he said.
Since all you need is a smartphone and an internet connection, people are sharing their stories themselves.
"We get to see inside underreported areas and conflicts — this is really important and really valuable," said Ramona Pringle, a technology writer and assistant professor at Ryerson University's Transmedia Zone.
'See a lot of untruths that spread virally'
But this unprecedented ability to tell stories is also a challenge when it comes to editorial direction, said Pringle. There is no editor when individuals publish stories about themselves.
"We also see a lot of untruths that spread virally before there is time for them to be fact-checked. Finding the balance between the wisdom of the crowd, the empowerment of the individual, and the rigour and ethical responsibility of the journalist is one of the big challenges ahead."
Washington Post experiment
But this massive change does create an opportunity to try something new, "instead of a bunch of people fighting over the scraps [left over from Facebook and Google]," said Carroll.
One newspaper that has been able to both grow its readership and experiment is the Washington Post.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, bought the paper in 2013 and has led a massive change there. According to Business Insider, the readership and traffic have exploded, along with a revamp of the website and the paper's mobile applications.
"I think a lot of eyes these days are on the Washington Post and it's being creative and thinking out of the box," said McGuire. "Somebody with very deep pockets who is willing to experiment is now in the news business, so they're trying things, they're in that experimental phase."
She said the industry will be watching to see what works and what doesn't for the paper.
Along with interactives, newspapers are investing more in data journalism, too. Data journalism is the increasingly popular practice of using and analyzing the massive amounts of information about the world around us for reporting purposes.
Carroll said there's much more data available, and the tools are getting cheaper and better.
"You can do so many different kinds of data visualizations online that were either impossible or incredibly difficult to do 10 years ago."
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Pringle said she expects the industry to continue going through a period of trial and error for a while.
"The consideration we need to make, collectively, is: what is the value of this information in our lives, economy, and greater social ecosystem?" she asked. "It has very real implications on human aspects of our lives: how we connect, how our society functions, how we get along."