My very first memory of wanting to tell the news is from 1996. I had watched television news reports about the Oklahoma City bombings and had read about it in our local newspaper. I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to compile all the disparate reports to better understand what had happened. I don’t know what exactly I wrote or what became of my scribblings, but I do remember feeling dissatisfied with myself for not being able to write more than a couple of sentences. I was 12 years old.
Several years later, I’m yet to be completely satisfied with things I have written. But in the process of writing the news, of doing journalism, I have found a unique sense of contentment.
In the moments that the strands of a story come together, opening your own eyes to a reality you may have overlooked, journalism is wondrous. And when those stories create meaning for people far beyond you, when they embolden people to make decisions about their future prosperity, when they force the powerful to humble themselves before the vulnerable, it affirms the interconnectedness of us all. When journalism is done well it should assert the fact that we are not alone, or helpless, the actions of one impact others. We are able to see ourselves and the stories of who we are reflected back to us. And that’s why the stories that allow us to just delight in each other and in the world we live in, are especially important. They allow us a sense of the complexity of this maddening world.
But those moments of absolute joy with the work of journalism are becoming more rare.
Journalists the world over are complaining about extreme cases of burnout. It’s not just that they are overworked – journalists, irascible creatures that we are, are never likely to confess to having too little to do. Rather, journalists are expected to do their work as individuals while also wrestling with questions that require an elusive social consensus. Why do we do this work? What even is journalism? What is the point of it? Truth? What is the value of truth anyway? What is the point of finding the truth when we are competing with unrelenting waves of untruth? Whose fault is it? How do we stop the bad faith actors from outmanoeuvring us? Are we acting in good faith? Who are the good guys anyway? Are we actually reaching the people we are meant to? Why do some people hate us? And besides, are we even going to still get paid for doing this? Seriously, what is the point of it all?
It is, I believe, a kind of existential dread.
And it’s not just about the news media or journalism. But rather this indicates a thorough scrutiny of the values of a free and open society. It points too to a reckoning with how power has been wielded within and through the news media. To resolve this impasse, because it is essential that we do, we need to take stock of where we are, how we got there and where we are going from here. The consequences however of just continuing as we are, are serious. And they reach further than the fact that my job may soon be done by a bot manufactured to manipulate public opinion. Journalism and the industry developed around it, the news media, are a product of who we are. To better secure it, we need to think deeply about the society that should emerge from the current morass.
We must however be clear.
The problems we currently face, whether it is the erosion of trust in news through the deliberate proliferation of fake news, or the obliteration of the business model of news media, are not sudden aberrations. They did not suddenly arrive with the proliferation of technology conglomerates like Google and Facebook. Technology has certainly sharply exacerbated our challenges. But in placing the blame entirely on technology, we fail as well to reflect on how we, as journalists and the greater news media industry, have also contributed to our own malaise.
It is best summed up by a new report by the Forum on Information & Democracy: “The challenges journalism is facing in many societies are the result of the failures, notably by the news industry itself, in which many have failed to serve significant parts of the public, to truly reckon with why many people do not trust the journalism they see, and to adapt to the realities of the new environment.”
I have been a manager in a newsroom where the cycle of loss appeared unrelenting. Loss of print circulation. Loss of revenue. Loss of skills. Loss of staff. Loss of morale. Loss of trust. Loss. It was dispiriting. It almost completely drained me of the joy I find in journalism.
I have also led press freedom missions to countries where journalists are arbitrarily detained, where publications are shut down for months at the whim of a government technocrat who has effectively anointed himself the editor of editors. It reminded me that a world without a free media would be intolerable. It reminded me as well to look beyond individual struggle and think instead of collective effort.
And so I have learnt to draw courage from journalists who continue to do the vital work of unpacking the world in all its complexities, despite the threat of arrest, harassment and in extreme cases, assasination. They bolster my conviction that the news media is a public good.
It is why I am now trying to work on strategies about how we ensure a better news media emerges from the crisis in which we currently find ourselves.
This week I begin a new chapter as the Head of Programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. It is a new organisation that seeks to create the step change needed to enable the development, sustainability and independence of public interest media in places like South Africa, Tanzania, the Philippines, Lebanon, Brazil – the places whose media need urgent assistance are too numerous to list here.
It is essential that we continue to reflect deeply about the challenges we face, but we must also be alive to the opportunities for change. This new organisation is one such opportunity. As an idea, gathering at least $100-million per year to fund the future of the media, it is audacious. But we cannot be coy. Just as we continue to reckon with how a lack of diversity in newsrooms impacts the way that newsrooms see the world, it is imperative that we conceive of media development differently. The need for change is growing ever more urgent. And we will not lose hope.
My mother tells me that my grandfather read the newspaper aloud to me when I was just a few days old. That compulsion towards the news may well have originated there. He’s now 88 and divides much of his days between reading the newspapers and watching satellite news channels. When I have additional sources of information to supplement the paucity of good-quality news in some sections of the traditional media in South Africa, I remember him. And I am resolved to ensure that everyone has access to independent public interest journalism wherever they live, and however they access it. DM