We need journalism to survive in the exploding era of news
“The media landscape of the present day is a map in search of a territory. A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment…..?”
This, written by the author J G Ballard in 1970, is a reminder that the contemporary media landscape has always been something of a scary place. It is little exaggeration, however, to say that the proliferation of digital platforms has been as cataclysmic an event as Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press. Like the printing press, the advent of data-driven analytics has fundamentally changed the world, and how we consume media.
In few places is this change as apparent as in the world of advertising. The printing press is now close to useless. Advertisers can understand what people are consuming, and why, and for how long, and how they can use that data to sell more things, and predict or influence behaviour. You can’t do that with the one way communication of a printing press. The media has always sold ads; this is what largely funded them. Newspapers, for example, had the main printing presses and were widely read and available. They sold these “eyeballs” to advertisers on a grand scale. Nowadays, ad volume is driven by data, and whomever gets the most data wins.
Facebook and Google have built hugely successful business empires based on a clever mixture of technology, user engagement and intense data gathering. Their current share prices reflect a little of their current market position, but they also incorporate a huge margin for projected growth. ACCC calculations suggest that approximately 65-80 percent of Facebook’s current share price can be attributed to future growth, in Google’s case, 40-60 percent. That is, if their profits were simply expected to stay at current levels their share prices would plummet. Businesses reliant on such growth need a continued increase in user engagement and ever growing data gathering and use – one explanation for the emergence of AI assistants, such as Google Home and Alexa.
The digital platforms are clear competitors to media companies in the case of attracting advertising spend. The relationship on the content side raises a number of questions:
- Are the platforms subject to defamation law or journalism’s codes of conduct? Should they be, and how practical is this?
- How does copyright law apply to the digital platforms? How should it apply and how practical is this?
I see professional journalists continually investigating stories to unearth the truth and provide analysis. I receive calls from journalists who have heard something exciting, but will not print it without confirmation.
News can be anything, contributed by journalists or the person next door. It exploded in breadth from the 1830s with the invention of the telegraph. It is exploding again with digital platforms.
Journalism is a highly valued profession, and crucial to our lives. Just as we are well advised not to rely on amateur doctors, perhaps we should not rely on amateur journalists. Digital Platforms mean that journalists now struggle to make money from news. The question is can they still make money from journalism?
The Digital Platform Inquiry currently being conducted by the ACCC aims to review thoroughly the impact of technology and Digital Platforms on the production of quality news and journalistic content, including the effect of algorithms in the curation of news content.
The question of how we approach the proliferation of digital platforms, and how they collect and manage our data, is one of the defining questions of our age. It is important that we take the time to get the answers right.
Rod Sims is Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. This article is extracted from a speech given to the IIC’s Telecommunications & Media Forum on 3rd July, 2018. A transcript of the full speech is available here