Imagine a crucial World Cup football match final where the centre referee and his assistants suddenly launched into a fight mid-way into the game and in the full glare
of billions of spectators following the match on field or via TV and radio broadcast!
Such a match will be brought to an abrupt end. The commentators can commentate all
they want, but neither they nor the fans, can replace the referee, who according to the
rule book, has the final say in a football game.

This scenario might look simplistic or dramatic, but it reflects the unfortunate fate of journalism today vis-à-vis the challenge or threat of the digital revolution. Thousands
of journalists have been thrown out of jobs and many more could join the labour market.
Not a few media organizations have closed shop, while others are in the intensive care unit struggling for survival.
 
Any lingering doubts over the severe impact of this digital revolution tsunami on the media were dispelled by the 6 August announcement by Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul indicating that his News Corporation is set to start charging online customers for news content across the website.

Like him or hate him, the Australian-born billionaire bestrides the media, entertainment and sports world like a colossus. Apart from publishing 175 newspapers worldwide including the New York Post and Times of London, in addition to owning the social network site Myspace, Murdoch’s satellites deliver TV programmes in five continents. His expanding media empire also includes a chain of sports channels, the famous
20th Century Fox Studio and Fox Network. On account of this alone, to say nothing about the economic and political influence that goes with it, Murdoch’s announcement cannot be discountenanced as an empty threat.

Until now, only a few publications notably the Wall Street Journal and the London Financial Times have dared to charge for their online content. For these two publications serving specialized interests or audience, this may be understandable. But can the same be said of websites providing a general news service in an age of information over-load facilitated by the so-called New Media, or what is the News Corp CEO up to?

In announcing a US$3.4 billion loss by his company in the financial year ended June 2009, which he described as “the most difficult in recent history,” Murdoch attributed the plan to charge for online news content to the impact of the digital revolution. According to him, while digitalization has opened many new and inexpensive methods of distribution, “it has not made content free.”  He promised “better” content by News Corp, but with a prediction that “if we are successful we will be followed by other media.”

For News Corp and its CEO, this could turn out to a worthwhile gamble or a master stroke by a big player in the media industry.  But the indisputable fact is that contemporary journalism is facing a critical challenge, even as the world battles multiple crises of economic meltdown, climate change and pandemic outbreaks. Without minimizing the potential catastrophic consequences of any of the other global crises, the main pre-occupation of the world today should be how to ensure that journalism survives the threat of digital revolution, so that it can save the world.

This is not only because the arrow-head of societal crisis management is journalism and especially when viewed within the context of the power of journalism as espoused by Professor Roger Silverstone, the pioneer of British media and communications studies, who died in 2006. According to him, “The media provides the resources we all need for the conduct of everyday life.”

Not even sworn enemies of journalists and journalism, (and they are many), will deny that the world requires an effectively functioning media, the brain-box of human activities, to fix problems, be they economic, environmental or health related.

But today, journalism is itself in serious crisis, partly from the economic recession, but largely from the challenge of the growth of the New Media and technologies. 
Apostles of the Old Media insist on the traditional news gathering and dissemination practices that lay great emphasis on ethics, truth and accuracy, if not morality. On the other hand, New Media exponents consider the old guards as sore losers, who should stop complaining, but pick up the gauntlet and rise up to the realties of modern technology.

The 6 August announcement by Murdoch may well represent a practical response to the raging debate by a key player. But it is also true that the media is about far more than profit and loss because it serves both customers and ordinary citizens. 

Charlie Beckett, a former BBC and Channel 4 News correspondent has in an evocative, opinionated but highly engaging 216-page “SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So it can Save the World,” laid out the pros and cons of this hot debate pitting the Old Media against the New Media. His take is that, rather than being seen as a threat, the growth of the New Media and technologies provides an opportunity for traditional journalism practices. The old journalism can and should reinvent itself, adapt and leverage the opportunities on offer. Beckett’s prescription is “Networked Journalism” anchored on collaboration among practitioners across the divide.

True, journalism has come a long way and technological advancements have no doubt helped to transform the practice globally. From the age of the type writer pamphleteers to the present day word processor, the profession has moved on. From Europe or America the epicentres of digital advancement to Africa, the centre of underdevelopment, the media landscape has been radically altered particularly with the introduction of the mobile phone and the Internet.

On that Christmas day of 1990, when Professor Timothy John Berners-Lee, the English engineer and computer scientist carried out the first successful communication via the World Wide Web (www), he probably never imagined what a profound invention he had unleashed. Since then, the world has never been the same. It now takes just a digital camera and a mobile phone to gather and distribute information across the proliferating blogoshere, with more than 75,000 new blogs created daily, at an average of one new one per second. Digital revolution has created Citizen Journalism and the all-encompassing participatory We Media – a double-edged sword in media diversity and democratization.

The protagonists in the fierce competition for media space are the traditionalists  challenged by a growing army of unorthodox new journalism practitioners – the tweeters, podcasters and bloggers, who use digital newswire products facilitated by the Internet, low news production and distribution costs and the push-button (RSS) Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary application feed, to great effect. 

This has altered the power structure of journalism. Viewers, readers and listeners are no longer mere consumers of news dished out by the mainstream media journalists with all their limitations of aging technology, restrictive newsroom setting and pre-occupation with deadline. News/information is now accessible real time 24/7. The public is no longer a passive consumer. People are finding ways to express themselves, to have their say, to take part in public debate, analyze and interpret their world.

Plurality is positive but also has its negatives. There are potential risks associated with the eagerness to make the journalist a mere facilitator rather than a gatekeeper of information or allowing a free reign to citizen journalism, with all the dangers of falsehood and propaganda spread through the blogosphere.
While in support of citizen journalism, a media-savvy black British MP David Lammy,
in a lecture at the London College of Communication in October 2006, warned that “...citizenship is not just about rights but also carries responsibilities.”  According to
the former Labour Minister of Culture, Media and Sport; “Freedom does not mean regard for others no longer matters. Having the right to be offensive does not mean that it is right to be offensive.”

The solution may not lie in charging for online content or leaving everything free.
The Old and New Media or even the We Media must forge a mutually reinforcing co-existence not only to save journalism but also to save the world, especially the
large segment of society, the youth, who care less about the media differentiation.
I am sure the thankless journalism profession of unelected advocates of the people’s right to know and defenders of the public good, the Fourth Estate of the Realm, can withstand the onslaught of the ongoing radical transformation unleashed by digital revolution.

So the centre referee and his assistants must save the crucial World Cup soccer match and allow both fee-paying and non-fee-paying fans to enjoy their game. Life must go on!
Coming from a journalist, this article might be interpreted as an exercise in enlightened self-interest or self-deprecation.  My fervent hope and prayer is that the strictures of the digital revolution will not severely limit its wide circulation whether in the Old, New, We or even the Next Media.

♣    Ejime is a Communications Consultant with the World Health Organization African Progreamme for Onchocerciasis (River blindness) Control (WHO/APOC).
 

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