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Writing and Publishing In a Changing Climate

by Angelique van Engelen   


A few years ago, I worked for a specialist Africa news publishing house and encountered for the first time in my journalistic career the phenomenon of publishing expert articles written by non-journalists. The idea of making a publication the centerpiece of a number of a number of readers that had an interest in knowing what their competitors were thinking, doing and who they were talking to was quite new to me. But it was an interesting experience, which set the scene for developments I later witnessed in an online environment.

For once, I was not trying my hardest at finding stories, angles and wrangling myself in godknows what positions to get to the hot stuff . here were people offering news that was by dint of them volunteering it in the knowledge that their competitors were doing the same, way hotter than anything I as an outsider could have begun to report.

Creating this platform and taking a step back by more or less editing only, changed the idea of journalism from being objective news reporting, to letting everyone run as much riot as they liked, in fact encouraging the weirdest of views to be published uneditorialised.

The publication was more in need of streamlining editorially than of active reporting as a result of this formula. And the readers tended to read everything a-z because they got what they wanted; sensitive competitive information.

Today's debate about the validity of journalism, now that news intake is perceptibly more dominated by pieces written by non-journalists, reminds me of the deliberations I pondered at the time.

Are people right to say that journalists have less of a role now and should just forget about their pretenses and claims to a largely people dominated Fourth Pillar when it comes to news these days? Any good human interest feature is basically revealing people's emotions and thought patterns. Read a blog and it's thrown at you by the shovel load. That's not to speak of the way more valuable insights on politics, arts and life in general that you find in the blogosphere.

What's become of a journalist's task to report on what's alive in the wider society? Is it really simply being overtaken by the masses themselves? Could you argue that the task of a journalist to inform, comment and divert has now become somewhat defunct?

Let's examine just how true this is by subjecting the media industry and the blogosphere to a few number crunching exercises. I will then tell you how my adventure with the African news organisation ended. If you can't wait, jump to the conclusion.

First, let's see if journalistic articles are really losing ground to the 'free sector' articles.

Second, let's see if newspapers have less impact on the public debate.

Third, let's see how journalists respond and if they stand a chance of coming out on top in the competition for information provision.

First- It's not all bad news for the publishing industry. Apparently, in the US, there are scores of newspapers that manage to actually increase their readership.The Newspaper Association of America says that 3 in 10 papers have increased their circulation. The percentage of the population that actually reads a news paper on a weekday has shown a decline, from 58.6 in 1998 to 52.8 percent in 2004, yet this is offset by the fact that more people share newspapers and this highlights that it is likely that not only is the decline due to economics, the fact that people actually make an effort to grab their copy shows they're truly into their papers.

The numbers by themselves however don't really mean anything, unless you put them in context and compare them with what's been happening in other industries, age group by age group. According other figures by the NAA, (which researches the $55 billion newspaper industry and more than 2,000 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, just a nice market to prove the point), among 18- to 34-year-olds in the top 50 markets, 68.8 percent or 31 million are reading the newspaper over the course of the week, compared to 70.5 in spring 2004. Only 36.7 percent of all adults in those same markets watch an average half hour of prime-time television in a given day, compared to 38.2 in spring 2004. This is a bigger decline. A total of 21. 4 percent of adults listen to radio morning drive in an average quarter hour, compared to 21.7 percent last spring. Also worse.

This tells us more or less that the newspaper industry isn't easily defeated. Circulation might go down, but at the same time, newspapers are the only industry that can get away with charging for content online and it's very likely that the decline in numbers is going to be made up from revenues made through clever online deals.

Second- Numerous online polls show that people do read blogs and alternative media outlets, but that they still more or less will return to their standard newspaper for guidance on issues. Journalists that have reached celebrity status continue to arise.

That's another indicator that this industry is down but by no means out. In terms of sheer money, newspapers and established media it is evident that the established media do still have a profound impact. They are about the only industry that can charge for paid content without people objecting, an enviable position that apparently newcomers have a hard time mimicking.

Jupiter Research quotes prevailing consumer resistance.over two-thirds of online adults remain unwilling to pay for additional content or services (65 percent and 75 percent, respectively).as the main problem for content providers to make handsome profits.

These are advised to execute strategic and cost-efficient marketing plans in stead of charging for their service. If people are willing to pay for newspaper articles whilst they refuse to pay for content from other providers, this means that the newspaper industry is believed to add some kind of value that people do not think others do. If that isn't impact, I don't know what is.

Third- The response by those news organisations that are 'making' it has been to professionalise, outcompete.

The media industry has for decades been under fire from all sides, because information provision has long been a capital intensive exercise that is not necessarily very lucrative. Many ventures are either sponsored by governments that value a pluralistic press or have had to adopt tough business structures to survive.

Reuters, one of the eldest news wires in the world, has always been at the forefront of new technology and was among the first agency to realise that devoting funds to business reporting would salvage the rest of it operations, a model swiftly followed by other outlets and which also led to imitations all over the globe.

If its current stategy is anything near as savvy, it means that getting the news first is still a simple but elementary guideline to success. During the latest US elections, Reuters during the last US elections showed an old leopard don't lose its spots, when it teamed up with Zogby Internaitonal, the agency which during the preceding elections won itself good fame and a handsome fortune in being on the money through some real good polling. It even assigned 50 journalists to work with the company to get to the grassroots.

Undoubtedly this will have made them so much more informed than their competitors and certainly than any old blogger. There is a myriad of examples here. Ground rule is that market principles don't necessarily create destruction, but when exploited right, will create interesting sub markets.

Conclusion: Reality is multi layered. It always has been but we now have way better means to see it. And by witnessing the layers in their context, our response, just like it always been, is to inflate our part in them. By doing so, we create a new layer. Darwin would turn in his grave if he knew.

The publishing profession is not exempt from having to undergo change. In order to actually get through to your target market you need to get clout and clout only materialises when other people agree that your content is worth reading and linking to. By the time that any given outlet reaches a critical mass and has created vibrant hubs, it will be hard not to become more 'publishing oriented' . so much street cred, fame and love- even if only for the advertisement revenues.

Perhaps an organisation that's gone through this process will understand better why writers and journalists defend their self appropriated (journalism is a free profession) turf and assign themselves Fourth Pillar powers that they don't want others to infringe on, but which give them the prerogative to subject their surroundings to critical assessment continuously. In this, they simply continue to reflect the wider society. The publishing trade has changed perhaps over the last years, but that's simply integrated into better and more evolved structures. Now it's all about labeling things right and being a tad less confused than others.

I still owe you the ending of the African venture. After two blissful years, it was snapped up by a consultancy, which employed a sizeable staff of international analysts who used to read Reuters reports all day long and subjected the news topics to more analysis, combined them with their own insights, and then happily sold the edified product on to specialist groups for huge sums of money. Layer creation of the first order. I don't know what happened to them, but I bet you, they have been snapped up since.

Angelique van Engelen is a writer at www.contentClix.com. She creates tailormade content, articles and sales copy. Contentclix also creates highly specialised ready made copy from RSS feeds.