Disruptive Technology Series: Creating the future of news

Disruptive Technology Series Creating the future of news

Over half a century ago on July 20, history was made with “one giant leap for mankind” – Man had landed on the moon. Enthusiasts might have noticed that Google commemorated the Apollo 11 event via a Google Doodle dedication to renown astrophysicist, Dilhan Eryurt, but what many did not know is that MIT commemorated the event in a rather grim way – by releasing a deepfake film of President Nixon giving a national address announcing the disastrous failure of the Apollo 11 mission instead.

Titled “In Event of Moon Disaster”, the film was released to showcase and educate viewers on the current state of deepfake technology. Though the speech and space footage was real (the former having been pre-written in case of an emergency), Nixon’s face and voice were fabricated using artificial intelligence. The timely reminder of how technology has rapidly advanced comes amidst growing incidences of fake and often inciteful news spreading through the digital sphere with consequential outcomes – most notably manifested in the Cambridge Analytica fiasco.

History of disruption in the news industry 

Characteristically marked by a myriad of technological inventions, the 21st Century has seen many instances of disruption across various industries. The news industry is not spared as we observe a fundamental change in the consumption and creation of news (and content in general) brought about by skyrocketing rates of internet and mobile penetration across the globe. Although this poses a challenge for the news industry, the advent of the internet is hardly the first disruptive technology that the news industry has had to contend with.

Exploring the history of disruption in the news industry, a brief yet informative original podcast by Dell Technologies revealed that it was the invention of the telegraph in the mid-1800s which represented the first major disruption to the newspaper industry.

Disruptive Technology Series History of disruption

Regarded as the father of modern-day journalism, James Gordon Bennett Sr. (founder of the New York Herald) quickly took notice of the telegraph and steam engine’s capabilities to revolutionize communications in the 19th century. Back then, newspapers’ coverage was limited to local areas. As the telegraph allowed messages and news to be transmitted via electricity, it posed an obvious challenge for print news – it was not only the fastest way to send messages, but it could travel further as well.

Turning a threat into an opportunity, Bennett was the first publisher to use the telegraph to obtain the text from political speeches and news from the battlefront. This was among many firsts that Bennett introduced in his time – accompanying news with illustrations, reporting sensationalizing news, prioritizing timely newsgathering, hiring foreign correspondents, providing commentary and opinion pieces – and it was these innovations that put the New York Herald in the lead as it provided the readers with newsworthy content during the American Civil war.

Competition within the newspaper industry became highly competitive in the 20th century as literacy rates increased, and the industry faced yet another disruptive technology – the television (TV). The first network TV newscast aired in 1948 and it was the tragic event of Kathy Fiscus’s accident and eventual death a year later that became a watershed moment for live TV coverage and fundamentally changed how people consumed news. Just ten years later, a shift in news consumption was apparent as polls showed that people obtained their news from television rather than newspapers.

The newspaper industry adapted once again and diversified its content to include other sections – food, entertainment, lifestyle, home & living. City-papers like The Washington Post became more popular as they had better content that was salient to the readers’ daily lives. Profit margins also improved as advances in print technology led to lower print-staff costs. 

The efficiencies in print technology did not last long however, and publishers started to lay-off journalists to keep up with their profit margins. This led to the diminishing quality of news content which paved the way for the news industry to relinquish its dominance as the internet took the mainstream world by storm in the mid-1990s.

The list that broke the camel’s back

The news industry has seen its fair share of disruptions that were initially predicted to cause its downfall, but it has endured thus far. As we would later explore, the internet would eventually bring about a plethora of new entrants into the news business. Although the sharing of readership with other news sources in the digital space would contribute to the financial losses faced by traditional media brands, it was not the straw that broke the camel’s back – it was a list, Craigslist.

Craig Newmark did not set out to undermine the news industry. Driven by the open-source movement back then, the former IBM system engineer created an email list in 1995 consisting of job opportunities and accommodations for rent. The list which started with approximately 12 recipients started to grow steadily and Newmark had to create a LISTSERV (automated email list) which he aptly named after himself as Craigslist. 

Craigslist eventually made classified ads redundant and this was a significant blow to the revenue of newspaper organizations as classified ads constitute up to 50% of their revenue, peaking at US$16 billion in 2005, and bringing in less than a third of that in 2009. It is reported that Craiglist cost the newspaper industry about US$5 billion in revenue between 2000 to 2007.

Paradigm shifts in content curation, distribution, and consumption

One of the greatest paradigm shifts that the advent of the internet brought to the traditional news media industry is how content is published and distributed.

Traditionally, news content and channels were controlled by media organizations and readers had to rely on specific publishers to obtain the kind of news that appealed to them. With improved digital literacy and the increased ease of accessing content online via platform channels (ie news aggregators, social media, search engines), it paved the way for new entrants to disrupt the industry.

With self-publication being the crux of widely popular social media platforms (eg. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat), users have varied their sharings from pictures, daily routines, opinions, and even news about local/world events. Consequentially, communication increasingly takes place in the digital space and away from traditional media channels. This marked the impetus for publishing houses to shift their news onto the social web where the readership now lies. 

In a World Economic Forum article exploring the future of journalism, one of the main observations was that the presence of platform channels have diluted the gatekeeping monopoly that media organizations once held. While media organizations still control the news agenda to a large extent, access to news is no longer restricted to specific news channels.

News aggregators – like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post – collect data (ie news) from various digital sources and compile them in one location and organise them into tags/categories for ease of perusal and consumption. This removes the hassle of readers having to access different official websites to get their news fix as 72% of digital news readers across all ages consume content mainly via “distributed discovery.

Apart from how news is consumed, digital media has also changed the kind of news that readers consume. The serendipitous nature of search engine results more often than not leads to internet users being incidentally exposed to news sources that lie outside their staple searches, resulting in readers acquiring a more diverse palate for news sources.

Citizen journalism and how the news industry is fighting back

Although the news agenda is still mostly curated by media organizations, the free and uninhibited ways that content is created and published in the digital space by anyone who has internet access has catalysed citizen journalism. With virality being the main driving force of reader- and viewership, citizen journalism has occasionally led the news agenda in current times, bringing salient themes – especially those related to social justice – to the fore. This is recently exemplified in the case of George Floyd whose wrongful death under police custody was caught in video and circulated worldwide, triggering an international protest against police brutality and rallying support for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Though it is apparent that the internet has disrupted the monopoly that traditional media organizations once had over the curation and distribution of news, the latter has attempted to roll with the punches by introducing subscription-based models for their online news content, enticing potential subscribers with freemium articles before they get struck with a paywall. Digital payments by readers is a common go-to solution for the narrowing margins that traditional media organizations now face but research seems to show that the benefit is likely reserved for a select few of highly trusted media brands.

Mobile consumption of news and the sweet spot between technology and content

Although new payment models are being adopted to keep traditional media brands afloat, the industry did not pre-empt the major shift in news consumption via mobile devices. In the US, 66% of people access their news via their mobile devices while the percentages in South East Asian markets are higher due to the increasing rates of mobile penetration – mobile consumption of news in Singapore leads at 72%.

Efforts to capitalize on these statistics has been lacklustre as most leading news organizations have poor sight on how their online website translate on the mobile interface – ie slow loading speeds, dense content. With on-demand access and live updates being a key motivator in news consumption, users have turned to mobile-friendly platforms such as Facebook and Twitter which also facilitated more engagement and discourse via the reposting/retweeting of news.

As users spend more and more time online, a “digital profile” of their common searches, most-liked news, follows, interactions and plenty more indices are being recorded and studied by an algorithm which in turn churns out future content and ads that matches the user’s digital profile.

Disruptive Technology Series Mobile consumption

Despite not having experience in the news industry, Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, recognized how the proper incorporation of technology can drive content and in 2013, he acquired the Washington Post with the intention to reinvent the company into a media and technology organisation.

To achieve this, the newsroom team and the engineering team work in tandem to determine how, when, and what kind of news to feature in a user’s search. Algorithms and code are incorporated to determine the most engaging content personalised to each user. For example, the news content of a particular article(s) would remain the same, but the words used in the headlines and organisation of the content in the landing page would differ for each user. They even have an algorithm that can predict which content is likely to go viral and this would then be used to curate their landing pages to optimize searches once the virality peaks.

Viral content and its flipside

The low-barriers to entry of publishing content online may seem that it provides digital users with more benefits than disadvantages. However, more than anything, the internet is essentially a tool and the same role it plays in pushing for social justice has also been used to spread terror. White supremacist Brenton Tarrant was handed New Zealand’s first-ever terrorism conviction after he murdered 51 mosque attendees in March 2019 and live-streamed the massacre via Facebook Live.

Divisive content propagated by motivated individuals has also exploited emotionally charged themes, leaving less-discerning readers vulnerable to fake news content. Fairly recently this was exemplified by a case in Singapore where a man was charged in court for personifying a racist character online named Sharon Liew who posted racist remarks to exploit tensions among the country’s multiracial society.

Is this the beginning of the end for traditional news media?

Although it seems that traditional news media and journalistic endeavours are at a decline, to pass a verdict on whether the industry will survive the fourth industrial revolution would be naive and premature. Changes to the news industry brought about by the internet are not uniform across the globe as there are many factors that shape how people derive and consume their news. What is inevitable, however, is that technology will be a permanent and key aspect in determining how the news industry will adapt and reinvent itself. Amidst the clamour for dominance, we could only hope that responsible journalism and integrity in content curation would prevail regardless of its communication medium.

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