The Bits of paper

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
24 July, 2018
Editorial: 221
Fecha de publicación original: 27 junio, 2000

And the donkey goes back to the wheat

The 53rd World Newspaper Congress, held a couple of weeks ago in Rio de Janeiro, was an excellent showcase for viewing the effects the irruption of the Internet has had on the media, dubbed “traditional” ever since. In the almost five years that the Web has been fully operational, media companies have been forced to redefine their business areas, the way they operate, the type of product they are putting onto the market and who they do business with. The Rio Congress made it clear that there are now new political alliances that transcend well established boundaries, both in terms of companies and operational areas. The star of the show was the “multimedia reporter”. At last, the debate was no longer centred on the sterile argument over whether bits would beat the printed press in battle or not. In fact, what was missing was analysis of the impact of the opposite tendency: the “transformation” of Internet content into material for future newspapers.

As we have pointed out in several editorials over the years, the proliferation of new media on the Net has basically meant that traditional media companies have had to adapt to new conditions. While protracted and pointless arguments have continued to rage (Will the printed press disappear? Will the Internet absorb all the other media, radio, TV and printed press? etc.), in just a few years, the situation has done an interesting about turn. While not abandoning some of their best-known characteristics –in my opinion, those that are most problematic, such as clinging to news as the defining feature of their activity–, the traditional media, particularly those in the industrialised world, have taken up the challenge of turning themselves into Internet companies.

How they plan to do this and where their strategies will lead, is quite another matter. However, as the slogan of the Congress indicated, there is no doubt that we are in the midst of an interesting process oriented towards “Reinventing the Newspaper Company”. The sub-heading “Strategies and Achievements” hints at the complexity of the situation.

For example, the “Orlando Sentinel”, which belongs to the Chicago Tribune group, presented what it called the “reporter of the future”. During the presentation, this individual was confronted with an everyday situation: news of a murder case hits the newsroom (how, where and sent by whom? This was not made clear…. but it arrived). The news is immediately sent out on the Internet (the journalist has still not seen anything, although the source was apparently reliable, hmmmmmm). Armed with a laptop, mobile phone, mini-video camera and a notebook (what about the umbrella?) he/she hits the streets. The scene of the crime is visited and further news is sent out to all those connected to the Net as well as a report via mobile phone to the radio and the first images for TV. And that is just the start.

Returning to the newsroom, the reporter then sifts through all the other articles on the subject and spices them up with a few of their own ingredients for the article that will appear in the newspaper the following day. All the while, updating the news on radio, TV and the Internet. This is what they call the multimedia reporter. According to Keith Wheeler, editor of the Orlando Sentinel, thanks to this specimen his newspaper has undergone a 15% increase in circulation. But he doesn’t say whether this is due to an improvement in the quality of the content or the compassion of the public for the efforts of the journalist who has suddenly been turned into an urban war correspondent. And on the same salary too.

The hardest thing for the media companies is still their relationship with their readers. “Fulfilling the needs of the new generation of readers” was the new war cry in Rio and one that we will, undoubtedly, hear again and again over the years to come. However, the problem here is structural and has to do with the way that the media perceive their role as vehicles of information. As far as they are concerned, content is the result of the specialised work of journalists serving a more or less homogeneous audience. This type of product, undoubtedly successful in an industrial society, is what is called into question in the Information Society. Nowadays we are drenched in information from a multitude of sources, some of which are, in fact, the media themselves. But, the vast majority of these sources are new, no more than five or six years old, created and forged within electronic networks where, by definition, a high degree of user participation and interaction exists.

This has generated a colossal amount of content –although just a drop in the ocean compared to what we are going to see over the next few years– all of incredibly varied origin, topics, and areas of interest. Some of it has the “genuine aroma of the Internet”, in other words, it couldn’t have been manufactured any other way. So, we find ourselves at the most fascinating of crossroads. On the one hand, the traditional media, assuring everyone in Rio de Janeiro, with hurried glee, that they are handling the assault of the Internet quite well and adapting to the new circumstances so as not to lose readers to the digital media. On the other, in the latter, new ways of generating content have arisen which are simply not available in the traditional media. Content created by thousands of hands, in thousands of different places. Content which expresses a new kind of collective intelligence stimulated directly by the interests of the protagonists themselves.

Just a glance at some sites (Brint,Everything, en.medi@) is enough proof of the quality and interest of this content. And, it appears on the Net without having to load up with cameras, mobile phones, recorders, notebooks or umbrellas. So, this is the new onslaught the traditional media will have to handle in the immediate future: the migration of this content to the printed press, the radio and even the TV. No crystal ball is needed to understand that the Internet is incubating what will make up the substance of next generation media in “traditional” forms. It is intelligent content, expressing a broad range of interests of great public impact, it is produced by the audience themselves and, for the moment anyway, only accessible to the connected. This a ridiculous limitation which the new communications industry will have to resolve.

The millions of people who are not connected, or will connect fundamentally via mobile phones, will not have access to this new content to be found, in general, in new media born on the Internet. As the degree of intelligence of the Web spreads and increases, so too will the need to export this digital content into the world of atoms. The question that we will have to ask soon (in other words, the day after tomorrow) is whether this will happen via the journalistic means we have known up to now or, alternatively, whether new forms, also directly imported from the Internet, will emerge. For example, free newspapers that are already reaching a significant audience in some big cities.

Translation: Bridget King