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Asian Editors Circle

Figuring out new ways to deliver good journalism

Quality news is a public good critical to democracies, which rely on voters being well informed

When Pope Francis met United States President Donald Trump last Wednesday at the Vatican, he urged him to be a man of peace.

True or false?

Did the Pope actually comment to Mrs Melania Trump on her husband's girth and wonder what she was feeding him?

Was Mr Trump there to thank the Pope for his endorsement during his election campaign?

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True, true and false; the pontiff never gave the former American tycoon his backing, contrary to what some websites had claimed.

Herein lies the most insidious form of fake news, the commingling of fact and fiction, truths and half-truths, rumours, speculation and plain lies, some of which get repeated so often that many find it hard to distinguish what is real from what might have been and what never happened.

This goes beyond other forms of fake news - stories made up and spread for mischief (like a hoax picture of a collapsed roof of a public housing block posted on the All Singapore Stuff site); or for profit (the anti-foreigner postings on the Real Singapore site) or political gain (anti-Hillary conspiracies during the US election) - all of which have been proliferating in recent times. Inevitably, these have raised concerns about the impact of fake news on voters and societies.

This has come about in the face of a perfect storm of unrelated technological, social and financial developments, which has unleashed a major disruption of the media industry all round the world.

First, recent years have seen a dramatic shift in the way all of us consume news and information, with the inexorable drift to digital content online.

ST ILLUSTRATION : ADAM LEE

More and more people are also communicating directly, creating and sharing content through social media. This has led to what has been called "disintermediation", meaning the undermining of the role of editors and gatekeepers to exercise judgment in shaping the news agenda.

Couple this with our growing addiction to our smartphones. One recent survey of Singaporean millennials aged 16 to 30 found that they spend an average of 3.4 hours a day - or about one day a week - glued to their gadgets.

The upshot of this, in a listicle, is:

  • shorter attention spans, as people flit from screen to screen, swopping depth of knowledge for breadth and speed;
  • snacking of content, consuming content on complex subjects in small bites digestible on the go;
  • a tendency to turn to sources which reinforce our own views, leaving us in "content bubbles", and making a social consensus all the more difficult to forge among an increasingly divided and distracted electorate.

Taken together, these trends are changing in significant ways how we inform ourselves about what's going on around us and make sense of it.

Now, anyone can create and spread information - and misinformation - freely, cheaply, quickly, virally, and with almost complete immunity.

In a sense, we have gone back to the future. As the Economist magazine noted in a survey on the industry, the media landscape today resembles that which prevailed at the turn of the 19th century, when a mix of information, rumours and gossip, and yes, fake news, was spread from person to person, or through a web of social networks.

News organisations as we know them today began to emerge in the mid-19th and early-20th century. The Straits Times hit the streets on July 15,1845, two years after the founding of the Economist in 1843, and ahead of the New York Times in 1851.

Around that time, news began to spread faster via the telegraph and wire agencies. New printing plants enabled mass printing, while railroads facilitated widespread deliveries. As newspaper circulations grew, they began to be staffed with growing numbers of professional journalists, committed to striving for accuracy, fairness and objectivity.

These news organisations were premised on the ability of newspapers to deliver a mass audience. Advertisers paid a premium to reach these audiences. The revenues generated enabled newsrooms to produce good-quality journalism. Readers could then be served at relatively low cover prices.

As Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash put it in a recent lecture at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland: "Very simply, the Internet is destroying the business model of newspapers. For at least two centuries, we have had a public good - news, the information we need for democracy - delivered by private means. A newspaper was a means of delivering the public good of news by private means. 

"Our good fortune was that, for nearly two centuries, that model worked because people would pay for a newspaper, which also had advertising revenue. The Internet has just knocked away both these pillars. So the newspapers produce the information. Facebook and Google get the profit.

"And this has a very negative effect on the newspapers on which we have relied for our news... The amount of serious news, investigative journalism and foreign reporting is going down because that's expensive. This is a real problem for the journalism we need for democracy. What we have here is potentially a market failure in the marketplace of ideas."

This is an issue that has been exercising minds in media circles for some time. But recent events, from the US presidential election and the Brexit vote to the proliferation of fake news, have made it clear that the challenge is one that societies as a whole will have to grapple with. 

To begin with, newspapers have been busy transforming into multi-media organisations. The aim is to produce content across platforms that our readers and viewers find relevant, credible and compelling, which they are prepared to pay for.

At the heart of all these efforts must remain a commitment to delivering quality journalism. Put simply, good journalism is the purposeful pursuit of information, well sourced and verified, interpreted professionally and objectively, with a mission to help people make sense of the world around them, which is especially vital in an age of major disruption and rapid change.

News groups will also have to work closely to respond to the challenge of fake news. Later this month, for example, The Straits Times will be hosting a meeting in Singapore, together with the World Association of Newspapers and our partners in the Asia News Network, to discuss how we are to respond collectively to the phenomenon of fake news.

Safeguarding the future of the media, however, cannot be left to journalists alone.

Business and community leaders, who wield the power of the purse, will have to ensure that their advertising and sponsorship budgets go towards supporting good content, rather than relying on cheap, programmatic online advertising, which might lead to their brands appearing alongside content promoting hate, intolerance or terrorism.

Parents and educators will have to think hard about how we are preparing our young to be more discerning about the content they choose to consume and share.

Societies will have to figure out how to ensure we are well served by providers of good-quality content.

Can this be left entirely to markets, with news organisations driven by the need to hold up margins, dividends and share prices? This is the approach now adopted by The Straits Times, and some members of the ANN. It is likely to be a viable option for a few established media brands.

Or do we leave the task to media moguls, like Mr Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post, or Mr Jack Ma at the South China Morning Post?

Or can we turn to mandates, with support for public service journalism coming from philanthropic foundations and trusts, as in the case of the Guardian, or the state, as in the BBC, in Britain?

As Professor Garton Ash noted: "Nobody has one single big answer, but I think public service media is part of the answer - foundations funding serious news, investigative reporting and foreign news is an important part of the answer."

All three approaches are playing out in a live experiment before our eyes, amid considerable flux in the media industry. It is not clear which of these will prevail; nor is it likely there will be one solution that fits all news organisations, and societies. The future of the media industry is likely to entail a hybrid of these approaches.

Ultimately, though, the need for reliable news and informed interpretation will prevail, regardless of how this is consumed. Societies will have to devise new ways to ensure that the public good of quality journalism is available to electorates, which rely on it to make sensible decisions to secure their future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 28, 2017, with the headline 'Figuring out new ways to deliver good journalism'. Print Edition | Subscribe