Wednesday 7 December 2016

So much for digital disruption and the broken media model

Gareth O'Connor

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

'We live in the age of the micro-news cycle where news comes in waves online. Often stories appear in a flash of outrage on Twitter and disappear in the space of 20 minutes'.Stock photo: Getty
'We live in the age of the micro-news cycle where news comes in waves online. Often stories appear in a flash of outrage on Twitter and disappear in the space of 20 minutes'.Stock photo: Getty

Reeling in the Years is still one of the best things ever made by RTE, a resonant, nuanced and atmospheric mix of news and memories - and every August the series reappears for a repeat run, an annual reminder that the so-called 'silly season' is back.

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Major news networks still shorten their bulletins as politicians, lawmakers and journalists take holidays. However it's a media construct - there really is no silly season.

In fact we've just come through another explosive news week, revolving around dramatic developments at the Olympics. When the time comes to make Reeling in the Years for 2016 there will be a lot of stories left on the (digital) cutting room floor. Only eight months in and 2016 already feels like an exceptional news year.

But is that just because we live now in a world of constant news alerts? Watching Reeling in the Years from 1983 this week reminds me of growing up in an equally eventful era: Thatcher, Northern Ireland, Poland, the Cold War. Major geo-political events, all epoch-defining moments in time.

The difference between news gathering and distribution then and now is technology. I learned journalism in the pre-internet age, before mobile phones and social media changed the news business forever. When I started in the Eighties, journalists still filed copy from public phoneboxes and a pocketful of change was a reporter's best friend.

News then had fixed point deadlines. Now news is constant, instant, disposable - both new and old in an instant.

We live in the age of the micro-news cycle where news comes in waves online. Often stories appear in a flash of outrage on Twitter and disappear in the space of 20 minutes.

A new cycle can often consist of several layers: event, unconfirmed reports, confusion, outrage, blame, denials and often clarifications. Part of this cycle is a free flow of information and social media gossip.

Media, they say, has become democratised, non-linear, more open and transparent.

However, while anybody can now report on events from their phone, not everybody is a journalist. Journalism provides context and interpretation. The social media-fuelled news cycle often leads to misinformation and bias becoming parts of narratives which require more considered attention.

News in 2016 is suffering from a number of major problems. Digital disruption has broken the media business model. Experienced news journalists are drifting away from a profession where standards and conditions are falling.

Mass consolidation of media organisations causes a lack of diversity in editorial, and online advertorial competes with editorial.

In an always-on world, the media has to be faster, and first.

However, it is still better to be right than first. Two dominant trends have emerged.

Firstly, news as small, digestible, atoms of content. This idea of a 'news snack' is the approach of many emerging media groups. Secondly, there is the battle by struggling legacy media to drive traffic. All this results in an increasingly shorter news cycle. Clickbait drives traffic and revenue. The quest for more eyeballs leads to a diluting of editorial standards. So every day is a silly season.

Journalism in 2016 appears to be in a crisis. In reality it's evolving. The idea of a mediated message is resisted by the digitally native generation, who have grown up with constant access to self-publishing tools. This development leads to a more questioning culture, where the media-managed message of official Ireland is subject to better scrutiny.

However the emergence of a more democratic media culture does not make the journalist redundant. Perhaps more than ever what we need is just that: a detached, critical, objective voice.

Watching Reeling in the Years is a timely reminder that news is cyclical. The generations of 1983 faced many of the same issues as we do today. Economic crisis, fear of global nuclear war, political scandals, struggles with social issues. Now we have the technology to cover every minute development constantly.

The stories of today will someday be seen through the prism of history (and of Reeling in the Years). Every age feels its own self-importance. This summer as we contemplate the geopolitical shock of Brexit, the potential consequences of the coming US election and global terrorism the so-called silly season again seems a misnomer.

There is no silly season. News never sleeps. It never did. It's just another cruel summer.

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