THE CHALLENGES


The challenges

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism talks about payed and second rank news, platforms and the crucial importance of media literacy.

NEW TRENDS

We're living in a period, right now, of tremendous change in how people use the media, where what we see is a generational divide between several generations of people who, fundamentally, have grown up in a pre-digital environment or, like myself, have grown up with personal computers but where the internet is something we encountered in our teens or late teens, early twenties, really. Then a younger generation, who have grown up with digital media and who use it in a very different way from most of the rest of us. So, for older generations digital media are still primarily a supplement to forms of media use that they have been familiar with, for most of their adult life. People still watch television in large numbers, some people still read print newspapers and digital is a supplement, they use the smartphone in the computer as a supplement to ways of using media that they've been accustomed to for a long time. For younger generations, this is very different. Television is quite peripheral, print is entirely marginal and almost all their media use is centered on digital media in particular mobile media and platform-enabled media search, social media, private messaging application, and the like. This is a fundamentally different media environment, where the content may still come from professionally produced news, from established news organizations, at least, some of it whereas, much of the rest of this is communication with people that individuals trust: their friends, their family, their colleagues, and the like. The ways of discovery are much more shaped by algorithms than what we've seen in traditional media, so search engine rankings, social media rankings and the like. But, it is also clear, that even the younger generation that's most familiar with these technologies, for whom this seem most natural, are thinking about the portfolio, the mix of media that they want to use. Where there are some environments in which we are entirely comfortable relying on professional journalists, to make the judgment for us, and then we’ll consume an information that is presented to us. There some situations in which people are entirely comfortable saying “I will rely on a search engine, or social media platform to rank the content that I see, either rank it actively, if I enter a search query, or rank it passively when I open the social media app and just see what's there.” But also, in particularl in context where people don't really trust the media, and may live in political environments that are very polarized, where discussions could be quite intense and people disagree, may not really trust the information that their friends and family share social media. That younger people too, are becoming very savvy and making decisions about when they actively seek out more controlled environments, where they can have more private conversations, with select groups of friends that they have more confidence in and more confidence in the platform itself, in the way in which it enables unfiltered communication, rather than ranked communication, the way that search and social does, or edited conversation the way the news media do. So, we see people move into these more private environments that are enabled by messaging applications, like for example WhatsApp, and have some of the conversation that matters the most to them there, even as, of course, they continue to also use websites and apps for news, and to rely on search engines and social media. What we see with younger people is a model where people have grown up relying on digital media, and are entirely comfortable leaving some decisions to be taken by editors and they'll go to websites and apps for news and information, that is selected by editors, reported by journalists, they will rely on ranking algorithms to make other decisions for them, whether they are typing in a search query to get a result or opening a social media app and looking at the things that are ranked by the social media platform, but also complementing these decisions with more curated and private conversations with select groups of people, environments where content is not ranked and filtered, and where you can more closely to control who you talk to and what you talk to them about, and you can select the groups with which you want to have a private conversation. In particular, in countries where people may not trust the news media, or where political discussion is such that people may not want to rely on social media, where people will often disagree or share things that some people may not find trustworthy, or credible, or appealing, in particular in those countries we do see especially younger people put more emphasis on these more private conversations that are enabled by messaging applications such as WhatsApp.

 

PAID AND FREE NEWS

News has always been a mix of things that were free at the point of consumption and then things that we pay for- If you think back to a pre-digital media environment, if you turned on the radio, or if you turned on the television, almost everything you see was free at the point of consumption and then subsidized, either by advertising or, in the case of public service media, by collectively buying decisions, where we will pay for it. Then there are other things you paid for, you pay for newspapers with the exception of free sheet you would pay their subscription or single copy sales. We've always lived in a world in which there was a mix of free news and paid news. For the first 20 years, or so, of digital media, almost all the news that we came across online was free at the point of consumption, there was very little appetite to pay, many news organizations were seeking to build a large audience and hoping they could monetize this through advertising, to fund their news production. It’s only really in recent years, that news organizations have begun to realize that because they have a relatively small share of people's attention online and because they compete with large technology companies, like Google and Facebook who provide very cheap, precisely targeted, large scale digital advertising to advertisers, their ability to generate advertising revenues are probably not as high as they had hoped to be, and are increasingly looking to see if they can convince people to pay for news. Now, this leads to this question of whether we're going to move towards a world in which will see a polarization between those who are willing to pay, who might get quality content and then the rest of us, who may not be wanting to pay and then will be reduced to sort of a second-rate information, if you will. This is a real concern, we should remember again that there are many people who still make quality news available for free online, both commercial broadcasters and public service broadcasters tend to make their news available for free, so it's not entirely a question of either you pay and get a good quality or you don't pay and then you get second-rank information of poor quality, you can still get quality information for free online. But, it is a real concern, we are going to see this kind of polarization. I think the real question is asked for journalists essentially, is that since we know that people are still willing to spend on media and spend on digital media, people in fact are often spending more money in media now than they did in the past, they pay for their smartphone, they pay for their data subscription, they pay for their broadband at home. The question, I think for journalists, is not only is it going to be information with quality we move towards pay, that's an important question for all society, but also for journalists specifically, why is it, that many people not willing to pay for journalism? Why is it that a lot of people do not feel that paying €5 or ten Euro a month is worth it, for the work of journalist do? I think that's a question for the journalistic profession, about what is the problem the journalists solve? One of the ways in which journalism create value for society and for individuals, how is it that I make people's lives better? I think we're seeing many really ambitious and exciting answers to that question, from both the legacy organizations and from startups of various sorts, who are trying to start membership schemes or introduce paywalls for people to pay for the news in different ways. But, it is a fairly fundamental question for journals, to think about not only will people pay for the things we did yesterday, when we put them online, but to ask the question: what are the things that people might pay for tomorrow, so that we can continue to do journalism and to hold power to account and from the public?

 

PLATFORMS

Digital media on the one hand empowers us, as individuals, to do more things, more easily, more conveniently, in more compelling ways that we couldn’t in past, including politics. If you want to engage in public discussion, or in political affairs, digital media offer a whole slew of new and convenient ways of doing this, that can then take us up a ladder of engagement to more substantial, hands on forms of engagement then just liking something on Facebook, or sharing it on Twitter, and the like. At the same time, however, it's also important to keep in mind that digital media are disrupting many of the institutions, that historically enabled us to take part in the political process. They are disrupting the structure of member-based political parties, they are disrupting the nature of member-based interest organizations, they are disrupting the business model of journalism. So, digital media empower us, as individuals, even as they destruct many of institutions we have inherited from the twentieth century, and of course have led to the formation of whole new entities, these private companies that operate much of the infrastructure of free expression, in ways that are clearly very empowering for many of us as individuals, even as we also increasingly growing depending on them, as they organize more of our life, as we will rely on them for more and more of the different things we do with media. Of course, they do it in ways that are not only empowering for us, but also hugely lucrative for them and their shareholders.

 

MEDIA LITERACY

It's clear that the question of media literacy and digital information literacy, is a question for every generation, not only for young people. In many ways, many of the issues we face in Europe today around the way in which people use digital media are often more pronounced among older people than among younger people. For example, the dissemination of fake news. We have many reasons to believe that older people are in fact more vulnerable to disinformation, than younger people are. Media literacy is not a question of young people only, it's a question every generation. Every generation needs to be equipped to make the best possible use of the media and the technologies that are at their disposal. I think there are sort of 3 key parts to this of how we ensure that the European citizenship is equipped to make the best use of the technology is at hand. The first one, is that we have to insist that we must live in an intelligible society, in which every citizen has, at least, the potential opportunity to understand the basic operating principles of those technologies and tools, that she relies on. This is a question of how ranking algorithms work, it's a question of what kind of data is collected and what use it’s being put to. It's a question of what the business interests and others are, that organize the news that she would will rely on. This is a question of intelligibility. The second thing, I think is a question of the general implications of the rise of technology, where I think it's important to keep in mind, even as there is a lot of skepticism, rightly often, about the potential risks of technologies, that brought the development of technology and we know this well in Europe, we have much to be proud of this area, is a story of progress. Not a uniform progress, not progress without downsides and risks, absolutely not, but a story of progress where it is not the case that we see new technologies replacing old technologies, or workers being replaced by machines. No, it's a question of whether people with machines are better at doing what they're trying to do than people without and broadly there the answer is clearly, yes. We, as European citizens, could do more with digital technology than we could without and we need to see that potential, that optimism and that opportunity as central to the way in which we educate ourselves and we educate coming generations. Then, finally, I think there is a dimension of this that is not really specific to digital technology, but as a part of the broader issues we face in Europe today, as societies, in particular probably in our political life, which is whether we in our legitimate and right focus on making sure that everyone was a critical and skeptical citizen. Perhaps of lost sight of the question of whether we also need to be affirmative, and that we need to keep in mind that it is probably as important that we help every generation, but of course particularly future generations, to ask all the hard questions: can I trust this person? Can I rely on this company? Will this platform treat my data with the with the protection and privacy that I have ever reason and right to expect? But also, to affirm and make choices, not only about what we don't trust, but equally important about who do we trust? Given all the imperfect opportunities available, who are the ones who are the least imperfect for us? Who are the ones who while not perfect, have our best interests at heart? Who enable us to be who we want, to be and form the kinds of society that we want to form together in Europe and elsewhere? So that we are not only taught to be critical citizens but also to say yes and to engage in public life, and affirm what we want. Not only what we are afraid of, but also what we are for.