Narrowing the gap between old and new media is the future

 

THIS WAS ANOTHER week in which a representative of the “old media” stormed outside his house to take on the “new media” kids squatting on his wall. There he shouted about the danger they were putting everyone in, only for his righteous indignation to be met with sneers, jeers and tweets, calling on others to come and pile in.

On Monday, Alan Crosbie, chairman of Thomas Crosbie Holdings which owns the Irish Examinerand the Sunday Business Post,spoke at a Media Diversity conference in Dublin. Crosbie’s was not the only contribution, but it was the most reported after he declaimed the unregulated internet’s “threat to humanity” and its “capacity to destroy civil society and cause unimaginable suffering”.

He went on to argue for State funding for newspapers, as sources of information that has “provenance”.

“In Ireland, the major newspaper institutions need to start to imagine a radically different future. If the public-service contribution of the Irish Examiner, Irish Times, Irish Independentwas to be recognised in financial terms, readers would be served as they are now, but none of the three major newspapers would walk into the wall posed by debt and advertising erosion caused by recession.”

The problem here is that it isn’t a radically different future at all. It is instead sounded like a cry for tradition to be preserved (in the process omitting other papers, such as The Star,from the notion of public-service journalism).

There is a good discussion to be had on how newspapers and journalists will fund themselves in future – whether through innovations, collaborations, and even a variety direct or indirect state support – but this narrow response was, as the Financial Times’s John Lloyd observed, born of “the passion of desperation”. In the process it also fixated on a gap between a supposed old and new media that is not as wide Crosbie suggested and that will continue to narrow if both are to thrive.

It is worth looking at the approach of another media executive, John Paton, chief executive of Digital First Media, whose turnaround of a stable of US local papers has made him the media messiah of the moment.

When he took over the Journal Register Company, in 2010, it was coming out of bankruptcy protection. Under Paton, the emphasis has been on taking the established brands and platforms offered by these newspapers but opening them up to communities, citizens and other start-ups.

He has since developed a reputation as a good man for a quip. When one veteran columnist told him he was ruining journalism, he is reported to have responded: “I read your column. Youare ruining journalism.”

In December, Paton spoke at a conference in San Francisco ( iti.ms/ABl2qP), and it’s interesting to see how much of that address acts as a counterpoint to Crosbie’s approach (which you can read in full at iti.ms/yKOJQC).

Here, for instance, is Crosbie speaking on Monday: “I dont want to be the one that’s shouting in support of newspapers, because newspapers are just one way of getting information across, but newspaper organisations are still the news agenda-setters. There is a responsibility that comes with setting a news agenda.”

Here is how Paton approaches that theme: “To be clear, we no longer see our job as the old-fashioned agenda-setter or gatekeepers of information for our communities. Clearly communities know what they want and can organise themselves around issues and activities. You have heard of a little thing called Facebook.

“What we can do, however, under the power of our brands, which are still trusted, is help organise relevant information out of the river of content now available in each community.”

Here is how Crosbie described the “chaos” of online information: “We need to address the threat to humanity posed by the tsunami of unverifiable data, opinion, libel and vulgar abuse in new media. I know all the stuff about it being a tool of freedom and democracy, and I also know it has the capacity to destroy civil society and cause unimaginable suffering.”

And here’s Paton talking of the cacophony of voices, and the challenges that face newspapers: “What does it mean to be the Messenger in today’s new news ecology where the people we used to call the Audience are now equally participants, competitors, colleagues, arbiters and sources?”

Under Paton, newspapers have looked for ways to channel the “tsunami” Crosbie talked of, opening up newsrooms and editorial meetings to the community (“using the newsroom itself as a platform“); facilitating online fact-checking of stories and, recently, beginning a new venture to fund and partner with tech start-ups. It is about innovation rather than retrenchment; collaboration rather than the “Them vs Us” attitude that is prevalent across the media spectrum and which coarsens much of the discussion.

This is not to declare that Paton’s approach is the right one, or that it is the right one for Irish newspapers, but it’s clear that Irish media – of whatever vintage – can find opportunities for collaboration that bridges the chasm feared by Crosbie and others.

Ireland has a relatively small but engaged market, with strong media brands, a solid sense of community, innovative researchers, start-ups and a vibrant online discourse. Before looking for rescue from above, newspapers can instead build support from the ground up.