Why the internet doesn't spell the end of news journalism

Illustration by Angela Keoghan
Algorithms won't replace journalists while there are still people willing to pay to get information

There’s been a lot of hokum talked in the last wee while about the demise of news.

The demise of newspapers? Yes, although perhaps not extinction. Print remains a powerful medium.

The rise of click-bait over traditional issues coverage in popular media?  Yes.

The death of news? No.

News-gathering will survive, but it risks becoming the preserve mainly of those who either need to or can afford to buy it.  

If it weren’t for the fact that news consumers have always had to fork out a couple of bucks for a newspapers, this could be described as a growing privatisation of news.

The difference between this privatised news and the old kind is that the old kind tended to be very affordable. When advertising revenue held news enterprises together, subscriptions and cover prices were low enough for newspapers, at their best, to be a democratising force in society.

Government-funded broadcasting has also long provided a counterweight to privately funded print and electronic news media.  Yet that is far less the case these days.  There are pockets of serious journalism in public broadcasting, but increasingly that role is falling to Radio New Zealand while free-to-air public broadcasting struggles to find a profitable business model.

Meanwhile, those who seek to know what is “really going on” are increasingly not only forced, but willing, to pay for high quality news and intelligence.

“Every industry thrives on intelligence about competitors, colleagues and the next big thing, and journalists’ roles have always been, at some level, to organise that information in a compelling way.”

Perhaps the best example of this in New Zealand is the Energy News subsciption-based news business, which charges players in the energy sector like a wounded bull for a service notable not only for its capacity to capture the sector's minutiae, but for the quality of its analysis.

Yet virtually no one outside the energy sector is aware of Energy News or what it does.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s mainstream publishers continue to grapple with the transition to a world in which news consumers have become accustomed to receiving their news for free on the internet.  

Some are committing to a new type of digital story-telling, betting they will be able to drive traffic social media-style, and support their news-gathering with advertising.  

Others will try to make paywalls work, offering a bare bones service outside the paywall and a paid subscription service that will try to replicate the affordable and therefore democratised news of old.

Both will struggle.  A clear winner may take years to emerge.  Execution as much as strategy will determine success.  It’s possible that both business models will work.

However, the likelihood is also that specialised news, written by the kinds of experienced correspondents with a few years on the clock who used to be the bedrock of traditional news organs, will increasingly go behind paywalls of their own making.

Specialised sector-specific news has always had an audience. However it is the capacity to produce it at low cost while charging for the experience that underpins the quality of the content, and this will be increasingly attractive both for individual journalists and groups of like-minded entrepreneurs.

A laptop, a cellphone and a decent internet connection are all a journalist needs today to make a living.  Thirty years ago, when my career started, you had to work for someone who had enough money to own printing presses and a fleet of trucks to get the news to market.

These days owning – even understanding – the technology is secondary to the skill of understanding what news is, how to write it, and now, how to charge for it. 

Journalists need not fear that algorithms can replace the judgment required to write a news story.  Algorithms will improve data collection, but they don’t think for themselves. 

In other words, the existence of a role for people who create news as a product is assured.  What’s not clear is who will be able to afford to read the information they produce.

However,  every industry thrives on intelligence about competitors, colleagues and the next big thing, and journalists’ roles have always been, at some level, to organise that information in a compelling way.

Louisville Courier Journal. Photograph: Margaret Bourke-White/Getty

Call it curation as much as the discovery and broadcasting of newsworthy facts. A vast market still exists for people who need or want to know things about their areas of interest and are willing to pay a trusted source to produce that information.

That takes skills and experience to deliver well.  

If news starts to take on the character of paid intelligence, available only to those who both need and are able to pay for it, where will that leave the person in the street who cares, can’t afford the ‘real oil’, and is left in a sea of free online propaganda from any number of interested parties?

The best hope remains low-cost paywalls for general news sites, which must succeed if the promise of journalism as a vocation, let alone a purely commercial activity, is to survive. 

Pattrick Smellie is a founder of the BusinessDesk news service. He puts “human cannonball” as his occupation on immigration forms. @pjsmellie