How Media Practitioners Have Lost To The Audience

Industry Slipped into the Doldrums

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” – TS Eliot, The Rock, 1934

It’s no longer a matter of debate that the mainstream media has lost its steam. Ordinary newspaper readers and television viewers – as well as those who make and break the news – understand the power of the media has been reduced to an anarchy of information. Professionals regret that the media industry, in its age-old shape, is on the wane.

What may be blamed, at least partly, for the declining circulation of printed newspapers and viewership of television, is ‘journalism’ – its style, reach, angles of reporting and analysis, selection of issues, storytelling method and coverage as a whole. Angry losers in the changing media landscape may curse smartphones with internet connection, which kill and accommodate in itself newspapers, radio, television, photo albums and cinema.

This industry has been further plagued by the pandemic in terms of falling circulation and revenue. Furloughs, layoffs and closures have been common practices everywhere. In the underdeveloped countries in particular, most media house leaders are apparently resigned to the situation as if the game is over for professional journalism.

Casualty of the new century

In Dhaka city’s Mohammadur area, sixteen of 25 families living in a six-storey building subscribed to newspapers a decade ago and the number of subscriptions came down to four by 2019. Informal estimates (there is no official data) suggest the second half of the past decade saw a fall in newspaper circulation in Bangladesh by more than 50,000 a year. The aggregate nationwide circulation was believed to be in a range of two million.

Twenty-five out of 30 media consumers outside Dhaka, interviewed last year, said that they did not watch television but read news clips from social media feeds. Most of them observed that the local media outlets did exercise self-censorship. The Bangladesh media, once involved in the process of protests against autocracy and flourishing in a democratic atmosphere in the 1990s, faltered in the second decade of the 21st century.

Pew Research reported a loss of 56 per cent of newspaper jobs in America in the past decade and its assessment shows the US newspaper circulation reached its lowest point since 1940 in 2018. The trend is similar all over the world.

Banking on wrong economics

Ordinary newspaper readers and television viewers – as well as those who make and break the news – understand the power of the media has been reduced to an anarchy of information.

Old media investors needn’t have asked themselves why they opened the bakery-like shops that would sell a “perishable” product like daily newspapers at a price lower than the cost of production. They fixed their eyes on easy money.

“By the mid-20th century, advertisements brought in about 80% of newspaper revenue,” reads a Nieman- Lab article titled “Why the ‘golden age’ of newspapers was the exception, not the rule,” written by Heidi Tworek and John Maxwell Hamilton. Newspaper revenues had been then such a consensus that entrepreneurs could not anticipate that advertising revenue would ever fall.

It’s puzzling how they assumed economies would continue to generate ad revenue. The saturation point of economic development and frequent advertising was deemed an unlikely phenomenon.

Readers would have paid fully for “commercial” operation of newspapers, had it been the rule of the game. However, the media managers lacked the courage to entirely monetise journalistic services. Already seeking salvation from being hostage to ego or lethargy of and propaganda by a section of journalists, the masses largely withdrew themselves once they’ve been endowed with the capacity to express and reach their audience without the help of the “old media”.

Miscarriage of the new media

When readers and viewers turned to networking sites for news and entertainment, the conventional media outlets opened shops there to reach the ‘customers’. Globally renowned newspapers had started broadcasting video clips and television channels, publishing a lot of text-heavy stories online in a bid to engage with the audience.

As social media networks offered a certain scope for pursuing journalism by any citizen, individuals were promised a higher level of freedom and better governance. ‘Every citizen is a reporter’ was the assumption of an editor of Oh my News, a South Korean liberal online newspaper, which runs with an army of up to 50,000 citizen journalists.

The amateur journalists have mostly taken refuge on the giant platforms operated with unknown algorithms, distortion of the name of the Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi. Citizen journalism has effectively ‘killed’ a major portion of the mainstream media and chosen the path of its ‘silent genocide’ committed by varieties of bugs that eat up liberty. Thus, citizens lose privacy and the new media fails to deliver authentic information, unlike honest professionals.

Opinion leaders may be happy, often busy sharing grievances and valuable suggestions that resonate across online platforms. But revelations no longer prove be a powerful weapon for bringing about changes. Such disclosures may invite litigation under Digital Security Act in Bangladesh.

Robotic challenge to creativity

A perception that artificial intelligence (AI) would take away jobs has made newsmen scared of the future. A stark reminder of such a cooked up reality is The Guardian’s op-ed “Are you scared yet, human?”, an output of a joint venture with a San Francisco-based AI company. It writes, “I am a robot. A thinking robot”, before admitting, “I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”.

Whose brain is it, by which the robot thinks? A stupid machine is used to use inputs of data generated by human efforts of thousands of years through application of creative minds!

Robots can’t write the next creative headlines, let alone explain why, for example, the world witnesses shrinking space for the media. Analytics can help track the trends of users’ engagement with the reports and articles online but cannot suggest what readers and viewers of tomorrow would love to consume. Thinking journalists have no reason to undermine human beings’ distinct knowledge, unimaginable imagination, and unending potential that would challenge or/and support them.

Time to justify professional duty

Journalism is a profession that is not very different across nations; it doesn’t leave any room for deviation from integrity of journalistic ethics rooted in a lifelong dedication to righteous causes. Unfortunately, truth, the newsmen’s business, is not always accepted as a collective defence against crime, corruption and injustice.

The media practitioners have to deal with a lot of questions from an hostile audience to rebound and set in motion a new revenue model compatible with professional journalism in the next 5-10 years.

It’s not the social media alone that can be put on trial for spreading fake news and calling authentic information misinformation. Lies are manufactured elsewhere, not by robots, but on purpose. In such a situation, platforms that are supposed to keep people informed have become the biggest casualty. The media obviously is in crisis, worldwide, but more so in countries like Bangladesh, for reasons which were not discussed publicly until the new media had threatened the old one.

“At a moment when journalism’s credibility remains low and sustainable sources of revenue remain frustratingly out of reach, regaining public trust in, and loyalty to, journalism is among the most significant challenges facing the profession, “Jacob L Nelson of Arizona State University, US, noted in an article on ‘The Case for Journalistic Humility’ published by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Now, it’s up to the industry leaders as to how they would win the hearts of the new generation of readers. The media practitioners have to deal with a lot of questions from an hostile audience to rebound and set in motion a new revenue model compatible with professional journalism in the next 5-10 years.

The media the under-developed world needs

Journalism’s crisis is not limited to its challenges within the territory where a media company operates. A ‘virtual’ organisation which does not produce news content is making more money by selling it when the dedicated media organisations are struggling with revenue.

Media houses in Asia, as elsewhere in the world, are emphasising the development of unique content, creating a base of organic visitors, and proper branding of themselves to survive and thrive on the Internet.

However, how the media’s freedom from dependency on the giants could be made possible is yet to be defined. Where such platforms determine people’s needs, choices, tastes, and culture, especially presenting items selectively to them, the scope of an independent media is limited. Readers and viewers, being offered a range of information from both old and new media, have been more bewildered than they have ever been before.

The media in the emerging markets therefore need to dissociate themselves from the failures of the old media, create their own influence outside of the platforms and compete with each other.

Relevance of new narratives

The state of journalism may be summed up metaphorically by three lines of The Rock by TS Eliot: “Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word./ All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,/ All our ignorance brings us nearer to death.”

Some inquisitive minds may yet harbour hopes of a solution to the issues that pose difficulties to their lives. It’s the job of the media professionals to dig out social issues and reflect on people’s aspirations.

However, socio-political and cultural narratives and jargons that have already been exhausted for various purposes and reasons can hardly be useful for regaining public trust in the media now. Unless the issues appeal to people, it’s unlikely that they would wake up to rhetoric that has no meanings to their lives.

If messaging is a journalistic act, its carriers and operational modalities have undergone transformation from time to time – from messengers to social reformers, from historians to students, from letters to books and newspapers, from radio to television, from cinema to video footage and so on. Journalism is in a transitional phase today and the world awaits a new trend of it.

The author has revisited some ideas and issues raised in several of his articles published in Bangladeshi newspapers while writing this essay

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Khawaza Main Uddin

Alumni, Master of Journalism, Ateneo De Manila University

An award-winning journalist, Khawaza Main Uddin has been working in Bangladesh for 28 years. He has served newspapers, agencies and online media, as a reporter, copy editor, editorial writer, and team leader. His interests include development, governance, and sociopolitical issues.

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