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The Press in Distress: Alexandra Borchardt Discusses Digitalization in The Media

In the midst of a traditional media shift marked by digitalization, skepticism, and the decline of local news channels, the future of journalism remains relatively uncertain. In an LPD last Monday evening, Alexandra Borchardt, the current Director of Leadership Programs at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, addressed these concerns and more, using media statistics to supplement her presentation.

Borchardt, a German citizen and former Managing Editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), discussed issues plaguing the media, news consumption analytics, why digitalization is both detrimental and beneficial to the media and her advice to news organizations and future journalists.

Borchardt attributed many of the current issues affecting media to drastic changes that have been occurring in the news field. She discussed how news publications and news consumption have both moved from bundled to distributed work, from broadcast to participatory (a change that she said many newsrooms have found difficult to get accustomed to), and from “anchored” reading to reading anywhere.

“Now people can access news everywhere,” Borchardt said. “Basically you can access it twenty-four hours a day.”

She went on to lament that journalism has gone from, “Must have to nice to have.” Many people are less inclined to follow the news because of increasing prices and the flow of “distracting” content via social media. News is more and more becoming a “consumer product,” she explained.

In a similar vein, Borchardt drew from various statistics gathered by the Reuters Institute on global news consumption. In particular, she cited a survey given to readers across the world, the results of which showed that only one-third of readers accessed news directly (meaning straight from the source). This meant that two-thirds of readers accessed their news through other means such as social media or internet searches.

She also debated the trend of relying on closed networks such as Whatsapp to spread the news more discreetly. Borchardt elaborated on how this pattern correlates with censorship by political regimes such as those in Turkey and Malaysia. In addition, this creates difficulty for journalists who cannot necessarily access these private channels nor monitor hidden hate speech or political content. Newsrooms are also not necessarily representative of the world population on the basis of gender or sex. They are generally staffed with Caucasian, upper-middle-class, middle-aged males, Borchardt said. She referenced the film His Girl Friday and said that while the rowdy “boys club” environment of the film is light-hearted, it reflects a dire reality that is still prevalent.

“It affects the content, you get different kinds of audiences,” Borchardt said.

It is some of these issues that drive members of our generation towards a more skeptical stance towards the media. Borchardt shared that only 44% of the public trusts the news and 29% of the public avoid the news as a whole. However, Borchardt was relatively optimistic about these seemingly grim percentages. She argued that 100% approval of the media was not something to strive for, as it could potentially indicate the presence of an authoritarian governmental regime. She also opposed the use of the term “fake news” which has circulated frequently during the Trump administration.

“We call it misinformation,” Borchardt said. “(It’s) just poor journalism. But you can do a lot to debunk misinformation.”

She also mentioned ways that digitalization has negatively affected the media, such as complicating business models by creating new market competition, affecting news production algorithms, and creating issues in management (more specifically, poor worker’s rights and maintaining a talent standard). Conversely, she said that digitalization boosts the media by increasing distribution and accessibility, changing the way stories are told in the news, and more efficiently analyzing demographics to see which audiences journalism and advertising should be geared towards.

Despite all odds, Borchardt remains positive about the media’s prognosis. She eloquently laid out the tasks ahead for news organizations: investing in quality, aiming for sustainability, using technology to “fight back,” and attracting talent. The talent, she argued, is the most important component in this recipe. She said that this would most likely come from young journalists. And her message to any young people pursuing careers in the field of journalism:

“You have to really want it.”