IT IS easy for managers, in the effort to regain the public’s trust in journalism, to recite a litany of woes of a modern newsroom. What is hard is to take a step back and devise solutions to them.
A first step is to identify which of our difficulties are an effect of national or global shifts in technology, economy or policy, which are an extension of systemic issues of the industry or profession, and which are local to the news organization.
This article discusses only three main issues, falling under each of the categories mentioned, and how we can possibly address them. My perspectives arise from reflection on those challenges as well as experience in setting up an editorial team and production drill for a mainstream digital news outlet in the past three years. Our team had to rebuild almost from scratch, right before the campaign season for the 2016 national elections.
The digital revolution triggered shifting business models and dwindling sources of revenue of legacy news outfits. This spurred media owners to heavily invest in digital platforms. News companies are now looking at two sets of numerical trends over the past decade — a slow decline in one and a swift growth in another.
The growth in digital revenues, however, does not offset the losses of legacy arms. Neither does it translate to newsroom resources at par with those of their legacy counterparts. Consequently, corporate expectations from the business and editorial branches are heavier than ever, with evolving metrics set for both sides.
Numerical targets weighing down on digital newsrooms also prompt a tendency toward “churnalism” — that is to churn one story after the next. Journalistic quality takes a back seat with a focus on quantity, unencumbered by print space or air time.
Accessible data at any given moment informs newsroom managers on reader demand. On the one hand, data empowers senior journalists in making daily editorial agenda relevant to the audience. On the other, what readers want may not be the most pivotal to the common good. Still, news resources are skewed to meet the demand of the moment, making other areas of the coverage suffer.
Bare bones resources, diminishing teams and additional platforms to manage do not a quality newsroom make. The challenge here is how to make space and time for journalism that matters — and make it central to the daily grind.
One thing appears to be certain though: That the traditional newsroom setup, processes and even hierarchies could no longer sustain the production of journalism of note, especially in the digital space.
The production and distribution of news in the digital landscape can depend on quickly evolving variables such as Facebook’s tweaks in its algorithm or readers’ decisions and interactions with their devices. The techniques we learned two years ago may no longer apply today, and the tools we used yesterday may now be incompatible after a system update.
Unfortunately, only a small fraction of the talent pool are chameleons, who can adapt their reporting style on multiple platforms and exhibit deftness in digital processing while producing compelling, principled content.
The usual sources of talent — universities and the tri-media — have yet to treat digital as a main medium. Many newsroom managers, moreover, have adapted in so far as required to meet business goals, but not to report to an audience as effectively in the online space.
The resulting inertia can partly be blamed for the success of fake news. We find the audience we seek to serve more engaged with unscrupulous sources of information while distancing themselves from professional news brands.
Training and retooling must be a constant. To do so, organizations cannot simply depend on hiring to inject fresh talent into newsrooms. The building of skills and personal initiatives can be incentivized and journalists’ KPIs revisited with the mantra of “adapt or die.”
THE CONVENTIONAL PLAYBOOK
Broader issues tackled so far have specific manifestations in each newsroom. But digital news platforms and the teams that run them have a fresh opportunity to seek alternatives to existing methods that feed audience’s lack of confidence in “normal” journalism.
After all, purveyors of fake news including government officials have taken advantage of cracks in our own reporting. They hijack the narrative as they paint the news media as the enemy.
It is then a necessary inconvenience for newsrooms to keep questioning our own practices: How do we report about the weather better than bots ever will? Are our go-to sources as independent as they were once? How do we put context to President Duterte’s wayward speeches as he’s delivering them?
THE DANGER OF 2D REPORTING
Political reporting is foremost on the list needing an urgent reboot.
A tendency in this area is “two side-ism,”a practice we disguise as either of two very familiar principles — objectivity and fairness. With the assumption that the better argument in policymaking, if not the facts, would prevail, political journalists can tend to report on both sides of an issue as if they carry the same weight.
But wouldn’t this exercise underscore existing contrasts in public opinion even when a debate is unwarranted? It’s as if human rights and justice are merely one side of a coin and executions without trial on the other. And because we fail to see what is wrong in our political reporting, powers that be are given platform for their own stories. Propaganda instead of common sense, in this two-side system, is too often what prevails.
Political reporters need to take a moment to explain and make connections. Explanatory reporting and fact-checking should be interwoven into “regular,” bread-and-butter reports that would otherwise be paraphrases of official releases.
WHEN THE BEAT ISN’T THE BEST
Another area to be revisited is the beat system in its current form. Newsrooms have long held beats as main and steady sources of information. Indeed, they are venues of import to a democracy, where the media could question and confront and put the news agenda on the table.
While aware of the value of beats, it is high time to poke into the existing system to see what hinders the crafting of critical reporting.
Too many times, newsrooms’ expectation of beats is a number — four, six, eight stories daily. A beat can suffer from ADHD, fluttering from issue to issue, sound bite to sound bite. It is inclined to a kind of inward, insider coverage already detached from its readers’ concerns.
As a result, political actors exploit competition among journalists through tips, premature releases and so-called exclusives. In the process, journalists they do not favor are disempowered. The country recently saw this in the coverage of the Supreme Court’s internal turmoil that led to the ouster of an unpopular chief justice. The constitutional process of impeachment through Congress was skirted. Only a few raised questions.
Moreover, are beats able to listen to the public? Do they sufficiently explain and critique policies? Media critic Jay Rosen cited sociologist C. Wright Mills’ distinction between troubles and issues. The news media disconnects from its audience when it fails to match problems that concern people with problems that are a public matter.
Drugs have been a very real trouble in many urban communities but were mostly sidelined by public institutions including the news media before Duterte as presidential candidate made noise and wild claims about them. He won the elections on the back of a problematic anti-narcotics narrative.
When drug-related killings spiked in 2016, news teams — including Philstar.com’s NewsLab — made needed but admittedly belated efforts to question drug policy myths and present humane alternatives. To date, the war on drugs as banner policy remains popular in the Philippines despite the alarming body count and international condemnation.
While collaborative efforts across newsrooms, institutions and disciplines to undermine digital propaganda are commendable, these can only do so much if editorial teams skip the introspection. Often the fractures are internal, even personal,but also more realistic to mend if we can only put a finger on them.