By Mohammed Haruna
Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen. Permit me to begin this keynote speech by thanking the publishers of Sundiata Post for giving me this opportunity to articulate and share my thoughts with the public on the important topic of the prospects of professional journalism in this age of the internet. This age has witnessed the explosion of what is variously referred to as the New Media or Social Media, thanks to the invention of the internet at the beginning of the current 21st century.
Forty years ago when I started my journalism career as a reporter with the now rested New Nigerian in Kaduna, the journalism landscape was different from what it is today. The basic technology for the gathering, publishing and distribution of news – and views – then may not have been a lot different from what it is today; news, the staple diet of journalism, was gathered by reporters using various types of recorders, cameras and notebooks, and was written, edited, published and distributed through basically three types of mass media, namely, print, radio and television.
There were, of course, technological changes through the years in these tools and machines of the trade which made it possible for journalists to do their jobs more efficiently and at a faster and faster speed.
However, the invention of the internet at the turn of this century has since transformed journalism itself into a truly all-comers’ trade. In addition it has also lead to the convergence of print, radio and television which were the predominant mass media of the 19th and 20th centuries.
To use the words of The Economist in a Special Report it published on the News Industry in its edition of July 9, 2011 entitled ‘Bulletins from the future,’ “The internet has turned the news industry upside down, making it more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, as it used to be before the arrival of the mass media.”
The mass media, as the newsmagazine pointed out, arrived in the 19th century with the invention of the steam engine when this invention combined with the printing press that had been in existence since the 15th century to make books and journals affordable for ordinary folk. For the first time, however, said the newsmagazine, “the vertical distribution of news from a specialist elite to a general audience, had a decisive advantage over horizontal distribution among citizens.”
Thus, what the internet has done is to reverse this old order and make anyone with a computer, a tablet or a smart phone and who is so inclined, a journalist or even a publisher. The technology, in other words, has made the gathering, publishing and distribution of news – and views – no longer the preserve of a few specialists called reporters and editors, or the preserve of a few barons to own, by connecting people directly to each other and lowering the cost of doing so to almost next to nothing.
The New Media – Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, etc – according to The Economist, is simply like people chatting in yesterday’s market places and village squares or exchanging letters, the big difference, of course, being the personal computer and its global connectivity as the contemporary tool of communication.
However, even though the disruption of the old model of mass media by the internet is universal, the impact of the disruption has not been globally uniform. For, whereas in some of the mature economies of the world like those of America and much of Europe, the disruption has led to a sharp decline in the size and profitability of the Old Media, especially the print media, in the developing economies of China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, and even in rich-world Japan, the Old Media have continued to thrive in spite of the exponential growth of the New Media in those countries.
As with all new ways of doing things, the internet presents the world today with both opportunities and challenges. The New Media, as Howard Rosenberg and Charles S. Feldman, two leading American journalists, say in the Prologue to their 2008 book, NO TIME TO THINK: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle, a book which, as you can guess, is highly critical of the New Media even from its title alone, the internet presents the world with two realities; the same technology which makes it possible to gather, publish and distribute news with in real time and at little or next to no cost, also makes news prone to inaccuracies and bias and even to outright fabrication. This is simply because speed, which is the essence of the New Media, is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.
The question I am supposed to address as we witness the launching of Sundiata Post this morning as yet another product of the internet is, how has Nigerian online journalism coped with the conflict that the internet seems to have generated between speed as the essence of New Media and accuracy as the core value of journalism?
The exact wording of the question I am supposed to address is, “Has online journalism come of age?” The question assumes that the apparent conflict between New Media’s imperative of speed and Old Media’s core value of accuracy is something new and something that the New Media should overcome in time. This assumption is largely false. Depending on how much in a rush one is, there has always been conflict between accuracy and speed since the emergence of the mass media in the 19th century. The difference is that the New Media, in its rush to be in real time with the news, seems more wired to sacrifice accuracy on the alter speed than the Old Media.
As a result of this wiring, online journalism tends to be less reliable than offline journalism or what we call mainstream journalism. To that extent it can be argued that online journalism is less mature than the mainstream journalism.
This, however, is not to say that online journalism in Nigeria is an infant. It is not. First, the ubiquity of the internet has forced virtually all offline media to create their online adjuncts. Meaning you can read newspapers or listen to a radio and television programme both on- and off- line, anytime, anywhere.
Second, most online newspapers and magazines published in Nigeria are staffed and edited mainly by mainstream journalists who have merely crossed over to the other side of the digital divide. Today there are no less than 20 active online newspapers and magazines published inside the country, the most prominent of which include Premium Times, Newsdiaryonline, The Cable and RealNews. If you include those like Saharareporters and African Examiner published abroad by Nigerians in diaspora, the numbers are probably more than double. The numbers of online publications become uncountable if you include those like Gamji.com that are not in themselves newspapers or magazines but that provide online platforms for bloggers and offline media.
The New Media is bound to benefit, and, I believe, have benefitted, from the experience, longevity and maturity of the Old Media.
No doubt, the dichotomy between professional journalism of the Old Media and the predominantly amateur journalism of the New Media is real. The first has the skill and discipline to cross-check stories for accuracy and to make the stories meaningful and informative. The second is mostly interested mainly in the facts and is hardly concerned with their context, whereas context is key to making sense of any story or news.
Professional journalists of the Old Media tend to deride the amateur journalists of the New Media, the so-called citizen journalists, for their lack of training, among their other perceived vices. A classic example of this contempt of professional journalists for amateur journalists was the response of Don Hewitt, the creator of the famous American CBS’s 60 Minutes to a question he was once asked about what he thought of citizen journalism. “Yeah,” he said, “I am for that; and I am for citizen brain surgery too.”
What he meant was obvious; the same reason you cannot trust anyone to be a surgeon without training is also why you shouldn’t trust just anyone to be a journalist. Unfortunately for the Hewitt’s of this world, however, information, as the commodity journalists trade in, is not the same as the head of a patient; whereas there’s only one way to operate on the head successfully, anyone with a way with words can sell a story.
Then there is, of course, more than one way to sell a story. Yesterday it was through newspapers, radio and television. These still matter today. However, since the advent of the internet, they have increasingly been overtaken by news formatted for the New Media, for access through the laptop, the tablet and even the mobile phone.
Like it or not, there are simply too many amateur journalists out there downloading interesting stuff on the internet in real time to be ignored. Professional journalists simply have no choice but to come to terms with this fact and, instead of looking down their nose on their amateur counterparts, find ways to engage and harness their power so that news can, in the end, still be told as it should always be if it is to form a basis for sound decision making for leaders and the led alike – accurately, fairly and as objectively as possible.
In an exchange of emails with Mr Max Amuchie, the publisher of the online newspaper we are about to launch – and himself a good example of a mainstream journalist crossing over to the other side of the digital divide, having worked for over ten years with Champion, Thisday and Leadership – he said he went into the business on the assumption that online publishing will take over from print in the near future. I believe the widespread expectations that the print media haven’t got long to live are mistaken. They may have shrunk in circulation and profitability in some sections of the world but, as I’ve pointed out at the beginning of this paper, elsewhere they are still thriving in spite of the internet.
With so many online newspapers and magazines in the country already, to which one more will be added shortly, no one can say online journalism in Nigeria is an infant. But, as in the rest of the world, it has got a long way to go before it can catch up with its offline counterpart as a source of accurate, reliable and meaningful source of news and views.
The future of journalism may belong to the New Media. However, that future is still far, far away, especially as no one as yet has found the sure-fire formula that would make online journalism as profitable as the old version used to be once upon not so long a time ago.
Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening.
July 7, 2015.
Text of the Keynote Address on “Has online journalism come of age?”, by Mohammed Haruna on the occasion of the formal launch of Sundiata Post on July 7,2015 at Bayelsa Hall, Bayelsa State Guest House, Abuja, Nigeria.
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