CAN TRADITIONAL MEDIA AND JOURNALISM SURVIVE DIGITAL?

Updated: Aug 27, 2019



A couple of weeks back, the media world was shocked with the sudden news that Utusan Malaysia, one of Malaysia’s oldest and most prestigious publications, was going to cease publication. Another tabloid in the media giant’s stable, Kosmo!, was facing a similar fate. The media group was deep in the red and had not even been able pay its staff for several months.


Like all other traditional media in Malaysia, the venerable Utusan had been experiencing a steady decline in readership and ad revenue over the past years because of the market’s exponential shift towards digital.


Although Utusan had often been criticized for its hard-line nationalist tone, there was a collective gasp of disbelief across the nation when the news broke, followed by an outpouring of support with offers of jobs, re-skilling training and even prayers for the unfortunate staff. I read several nostalgia pieces on social media and letters-to-the-editor sections of other media too.


Sucking the media juice box dry

This situation demonstrates the paradox that journalism is caught in today. While the general public grows more and more apathetic towards the media in the digital age, they do want to consume and share the content they provide. And while the public are reluctant to pay for media content, they do appreciate the role that media plays in providing verified stories. It strikes me that this consumption behavior is a bit like sucking a juice box dry – you want all the content, but you don’t really think about or even care about the box carrying it.


Is there a way out of this downward spiral?


Media houses are rethinking their business and distribution, and experimenting with different models and approaches. I do hope everyone finds their solution, and soon. But I wonder if just adopting new business and distribution models would be enough. Because from a marketing communications point of view, if the consumer is still only thinking about the juice, shouldn’t the solution be focused on making the consumer care about the juice box too?


On that note, from a non-journalist’s view, it seems to me that publications are also going to have to take on a more marketing-driven worldview to the industry. The first thing to recognise is that the market itself has evolved. The average person doesn't "read news" anymore. They "consume content". Media organizations need to review their relationships with their audiences. News sites who have found success in this new environment are learning that what works is winning audience support for their role as a relevant content provider.


Is there still a market for media and journalism?

It’s in no one’s interest for traditional media houses to go the way of an empty juice box. The fact is that news media still carry the tradition of trust and credibility in journalism. In this age of instant outrage, #fakenews and deepfake videos, we need reliable sources of verified information more than ever! Besides, without media houses, how are netizens going to share and be outraged about current affairs?


In my experience, netizens do appreciate good journalism – well-researched and verified stories and opinion pieces. But partly because of conditioning from social media, and partly because of consumer culture, audiences expect to relate to media just like any other product or brand. People choose to consume what they like. They expect to enjoy immediate, relevant information, and authentic, consumer-driven conversations.


As such, media need to behave more like a marketable brand, with clearly identified audiences and brand positioning. Following that, they will need to find their branding niche and create a voice for themselves. Journalism has to evolve to adapt to this reality as well. It will need to find the point of convergence between reporting and copywriting for target audiences to produce content that is relevant and compelling for them.


The more things change...

One thing that needs to be remembered is that content is king - as it has always been. Back when there were just a few media titles available serving a geographically-confined community, titles competed on content and content producers (otherwise known as journalists and editors). People bought those titles because (1) the tone and content resonated with them, and (2) they had built up brand loyalty.


In one sense, nothing much has changed. Human motivations remain the same as it has always been. But the way content is tailored and delivered to audiences, and how that is monetized, needs to change to fit into societal realities today.


I was given a dirty look by a true-blooded journalist when I dared to suggest that this is what the industry has to do to survive. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not any authority to comment about journalism or the media industry, having never spent time in the field. But from my experience in writing digital content, I am convinced this is how journalism is going to have to evolve in order to support the media’s efforts to stay relevant and profitable to survive.

 

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