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TECHNOLOGY IMPACT OP-ED

Can journalism and the media as we know it survive the ‘attack’ of big tech?

Can journalism and the media as we know it survive the ‘attack’ of big tech?

The relationship between big tech and traditional news media is already complex enough. But the impact of big tech on the media as we know it is just beginning. The Reuters Institute has already predicted this year to be the breakthrough year for artificial intelligence and its application for journalism.

This is an edited version of an address to a conference of Nigerian editors on 15 November 2023.

‘Every morning a lion wakes up, it knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death… It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle, you better be running” — First used by Dan Montano in The Economist, but popularised by Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat.

 

If, 20 years ago, you asked me whether big technology (big tech) companies were a threat to journalism, my answer would have been an emphatic yes. After all, these companies do our job without our job description. They also disrupt the media space while taking little responsibility for content.

Perhaps I should explain that there is a slight difference in form, but not always in substance, between big tech and big search engines.

While big tech could sometimes be a dominant player in information technology hardware, like Samsung, or in e-commerce, like Amazon, search engines are software monsters, although both core hardware and software providers in this field have the capacity, as we have seen, for forward or backward linkages. I will focus more on search engines, at least a few in the big league that have significantly disrupted our work, for good or ill.

I’m sure you know them – Google, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Yahoo, YouTube, Baidu and so on. Please don’t add MySpace to this list; it died before they could write our obituaries.

The buzzword these days is “sustainability”. What does it mean? One of the most practical definitions I have seen is “sustainability consists of fulfilling the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations.”

As to whether big tech poses an existential threat to the survival of the Nigerian media – and the way out, if indeed such a threat exists – we shall see soon enough.

How media earns

Traditional media’s two basic sources of revenue are advertising and circulation or subscription sales. On the face of it, the fear of a journalistic doomsday appears justified in light of catastrophic declines in revenues from these two major sources of media income.

The relationship between big tech and traditional news media is already complex enough. But I can assure you that the impact of big tech on the media as we know it is just beginning. The Reuters Institute has already predicted this year to be the breakthrough year for artificial intelligence and its application for journalism.

The institute rightly said the arrival of ChatGPT has transformed the debate over whether AI is here to stay or not. In its journal, Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2023, the institute said of ChatGPT that “its speed and capabilities are awe-inspiring and frightening at the same time. While the underlying models have been around for some time, ChatGPT has turned these into an accessible prototype that gives a real sense of where AI may be heading. It can tell jokes (but has been trained not to tell racist or sexist ones), come up with plots for a film or book, write computer code.”

In case you missed it, AI even mocked our industry in the report by summarising the challenges facing local news media in 50 words!  Here’s the Q&A:

“Q: Can you summarise the challenges facing local media in 50 words?

ChatGPT: The challenges facing local media include the decline of print media and advertising revenues, competition from online news sources, and the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on local businesses, which are the major sources of advertising revenue. These challenges have made it difficult for local news outlets to sustain their operations and continue to provide important coverage and information to their communities.”

More news outlets, including News24 of South Africa, are training their systems with the voices of their popular anchors with astonishing accuracy.

Big tech: Archenemy, frenemy, or friend?

Big tech may be playing more actively in our industry than us, taking an increasing share of our money and maybe our jobs without being responsible – both in proprietorship and accountability – for the information it disseminates. It has exploited its unmatched reach, ability to use algorithms to tailor content to suit consumers, and real-time engagement advantage to retain consumers. But as they say, there are two sides to a coin.

Positive impact:

  • Increased Exposure: Big tech platforms provide news media companies with a vast audience. Articles and videos can be shared and spread rapidly on these platforms, leading to increased visibility and traffic for news outlets.
  • New Revenue Streams: Some tech platforms have revenue-sharing agreements with news media companies. For example, YouTube shares ad revenue with news organisations that post videos on its platform, once you reach a certain threshold.
  • Better Analytics: Tech platforms provide news media companies with sophisticated analytic tools that allow them to better understand their audiences and tailor content to user preferences.
  • Engagement Opportunities: Social media platforms allow news outlets to interact with their audience in a way that wasn’t possible before. They can receive immediate feedback, address concerns, and build communities around their content.

Negative impact:

1 Ad revenue competition: Big tech companies have diverted advertising revenues away from traditional media outlets. They offer targeted advertising based on vast amounts of data, which is often more appealing to advertisers.

I was scandalised during the recent general elections in Nigeria that folks who had built their careers in the mainstream media and who we were banking on left us high and dry, with the excuse that their principals wanted minimum use of legacy media platforms! But I understood, even if I did so with a heavy heart! Why?

As a BBC online report said, “politicians are investing heavily in the use of websites, blogs, podcasts and social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter as a way of reaching voters.

“During the 2019 election campaign,” the BBC report continued, “the Conservatives spent one million pounds on Facebook alone, at a point running 2,500 adverts.”

Let’s look at some more numbers: Google earned about $3-billion from sales to China-based advertisers in 2018; Google UK earned £3.34-billion in 18 months ending December 2021 as total revenue in the UK market; in 2022 Google’s share of UK digital advert market was 38% of all adverts valued at £5.72-billion.

If the UK media is complaining, what should we do?  I’m sure you already know that on revenue from traffic, for example, while you can get as much as $2 in CPM (cost per thousand) from traffic from the UK or the US, the best you can hope to get from local traffic, that is, traffic from Nigeria, for example, regardless of the size, is probably 80 cents per thousand! Sure, this example is related to revenue from traffic; but the ratio, even for advertising, is not significantly different.

2 Spread of misinformation:

The ease of sharing on social media platforms can contribute to the spread of misinformation. This not only misleads the public but also undermines trust in news media.

3 Algorithmic control:

The algorithms used by tech platforms control what content is seen and what is buried. This can lead to a loss of control for news media over how and to whom their content is distributed.

4 Dependency:

News media companies may become dependent on these platforms for traffic and revenue, which can be risky given the changing algorithms and policies.

5 Potential for censorship:

Big tech companies have the power to censor or prioritise certain types of news content based on their own policies or external pressures, which can impact the democratic discourse.

6 Data privacy concerns:

There are concerns about how big tech companies handle user data, and these concerns extend to the partnerships between tech platforms and news media companies.

7 Dilution of brand identity:

Being lumped together with a multitude of other content producers on a single platform can dilute a news outlet’s brand identity.

8 Room for redress:

Complaints about discriminatory business or editorial practices from Nigeria and a number of other developing countries are hardly treated with seriousness

All about algorithms, the Devil?

Not all the challenges summarised by AI were brought upon the traditional media by big tech. Nor are we here solely because of Google’s malicious fiddling with its algo. We in the traditional media space share in the blame for what took our industry from distress to life support.

I will tweak the late Harvard Business School’s Prof Clayton Christensen a bit by saying that for a long time, we were innovating our products in response to technological shifts, with very little attention to our business models. Or what E Jerome McCarthy described in his book, Basic Marketing: A Managerial Approach, as the 7Ps of marketing – Product, Promotion, Price, Place, People, Process and Physical Evidence.

Nothing depicts this more tellingly than media organisations’ need to reconsider obsolete editorial culture and imbibe new ones, especially in the areas of collaboration, audience-centred production, and creating an audience community.

To be able to compete favourably, media houses may have to take another look at the redundancy levels in-house. The Reuters Institute predicts that more newspapers would stop daily print production due to rising print costs and the weakening of distribution networks. It also predicts a further spate of venerable titles switching to an online-only model. This is happening before our own eyes.

Let me be local. At LEADERSHIP, the average production costs of our major consumables – newsprint, plates, ink, energy – have risen, with the most significant rise being in energy cost, which increased by 40% in one year, while our advert rates have remained largely constant.

Survival in the media industry used to depend on rivalry in the media; now it depends on collaboration. Recent collaborative works on the Pandora Papers, BureauLocal, and the #CoronaVirusFacts have shown that media organisations can work with colleagues across boundaries to share resources for the common good.

In 2020, Aliaa El-Shabassy of  Cairo University listed six reader needs outlined by the BBC for media organisations that want to stay ahead and compete with tech platforms. Why should other media companies listen to the BBC’s advice? Well, its global reach in 2020 was 468.2 million people a week!

El-Shabassy wrote, “During corona’s peak when audiences needed a trustworthy source to rely on, BBC News scored the highest reach among other international media organisations. Moreover, according to the annual Global Audience Measure, a total of 151 million users per week are accessing BBC’s news and entertainment content digitally.”

Six reader needs that any media practitioner must be aware of, according to the BBC are:

  1. Update mewhich means in the era of information overload, your audience should know in a new light what they already know about;
  2. Give me perspectiveit is a newsroom’s own goal to believe that perspective can only be shaped by the newsroom. Your audience can provide perspective;
  3. Educate me everyone wants to learn about an exciting new thing. Once you provide diverse content with curiosity value, your audience will be eager to find more from you;
  4. Keep me on trend audiences want to be kept trending. Perhaps that was why the BBC reached a record number of people during Covid-19;
  5. Amuse me one of the reasons tech platforms prioritise user-generated content (remember Facebook’s pivot to video) over professionally produced content is that they have better entertainment value to attract adverts. The simple truth is that if you make your audience smile, they will most likely come back. It doesn’t always have to be serious! The more entertaining yet informative your content is, the more your institution is likely to grow; and
  6. Inspire me inspiring stories attract younger audiences more than others and younger audiences source content through tech platforms more. Do the math!

Big stick for big tech

Yet, big tech can’t get off lightly. In 2021, and despite heavy criticism, the Australian government pioneered a new media bargaining code that compels tech platforms to negotiate payment to local news media outlets for using their content.

Initially criticised as a form of subsidy from big tech to big media, significantly because of the role played by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the law has been hugely successful. Both big and small media outlets have benefited from the law while the country’s journalism practice has also been revitalised, leading to the creation of new journalism jobs.

UCLA Fellow Dr Courtney Radsch writes that Australia’s big tech regulatory efforts were developed around three thrusts: taxation, competition/antitrust and intellectual property.

The bargaining code therefore allows publishers to collectively bargain without violating antitrust laws; requires tech platforms to negotiate with publishers for the use of news snippets; requires them to pay licensing fees to publishers; and taxes digital advertising and uses the revenue to subsidise news outlets.

The EU, US and India have since adopted their own media bargaining code and the idea of compelling big tech to pay for news they don’t produce but use and sell, is gaining momentum and has been gaining global support since Australia took the bull by the horns.

The Newspaper Proprietor’s Association of Nigeria (NPAN) set up a committee in July 2023 to examine the possibility of collective bargaining with big tech.

Staying in business

Understanding that consumers hold all – or most – of the aces is the first step towards sustainability. The reality of digital media is that evolution has brought about new competition and fresh opportunities. Solutions journalism, citizens’ journalism, and a deeper interface between journalism and technology are the order of the day. There was a time when we consumed music via turntables, stereos with records, and then cassettes and then compact discs. Album sales are no longer used to measure the success of a body of work.

Now it is streaming, the playground of big tech companies such as Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, TIDAL, Pandora, etc. If technology did not pose an existential threat to the music industry, I do not think big tech will end journalism.

The Reuters Institute says that “better data connections have opened up possibilities beyond just text and pictures and smartphone adoption has accelerated the use of visual journalism, vertical video, and podcasts.”

Good content should not be free. What technology is doing, therefore, is to offer traditional media the opportunity to reach more people and make a profit.

Through the use of content and tech-led innovation, a growing list of brands are expanding into broadcast and streaming TV to grow and engage their audiences and bring in new revenue streams. This involves the use of new formats, new technology, and new products to broaden and retain the audience base. In addition, feedback tools, such as engagement matrices, are being used to “galvanise the industry on loyalty” according to the Financial Times.

Traditional media organisations also need to rethink their business models, from content to distribution and personnel costs. One of the ways some media organisations are going about change in business models is by targeting niche markets, while others invest in research, education and learning.

Keep running!

Let me return to the first sentence of this presentation. Yes, big tech poses a threat because of the opaque relationship it has with traditional media. However, is this threat going to pull the plug on journalism? I’ll say no. I’ll be the first to admit that the prevailing mood in the media industry is one of uncertainty.

To be certain, nothing will bring back the days when advertising and circulation were enough to successfully run a media organisation. Also, because the media is a kind of cultural sector that does not necessarily respond to the principles of demand and supply, media organisations that fail to swim with the tide will continue to struggle or pack up altogether.

If we invest in what feels relevant and useful to consumers, then we have nothing to worry about, because technology will help us know exactly how to adapt and reach our target audience.

What we should worry about instead is how to retain the ethics of our practice in the face of robotic and artificial media, which might just overpower the audiences we share.

Remember: whether you’re a lion or a gazelle, you better be running! DM

Azubuike Ishiekwene is the Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP.

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