US Media and the Digital Challenge

The mainstream media must embrace the digital world if they want to stay relevant and competitive before it “squeezes them out of business.”

This was the observation of Ann Olson, an entrepreneurial and creative media trainer from the United States, in her public lecture on “U.S. Media and the Digital Challenge: How technology is changing media and US journalism” recently. The event was hosted by WOU in collaboration with the US Embassy in Malaysia to look at the changing media landscape due to the widespread invasion of the Internet into the everyday lives of people.

Olson making a point.

Olson making a point.

Olson is a media training and journalism specialist with 34 years of experience in journalism in Southeast Asia, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the United States. Her first career – as a newspaper journalist in America – spanned 24 years at newspapers large and small.

In her lecture, she said that the various tools of information and Internet alternatives to mainstream media are competing for and winning readers. She said many printed newspapers as well as radio and television stories are therefore being offered online now. The mainstream media is searching for new answers and approaches, like whether they should opt for being non-profit or be limited to providing the news to just online.

“The Internet is the driving innovation that has pushed the mainstream media towards adapting in a number of ways to the new challenges that they now face,” quipped Olson. As a result, major dailies are now trying to attract niche audiences, moving faster than ever before, using every platform for delivery, relying on new voices, and re-thinking the nature of information.

Part of the crowd at the talk.

Part of the crowd at the talk.

“Crowdsourcing, a new form of volunteer journalism with information sent put together by professionals, is emerging in popularity. For example, on OhmyNews, citizen journalists write about things happening in their area and forward to editors or professional news people who then edit and post it,” said Olson.

Some major dailies in US, like the Washington Post, have formed partnerships with various parties, whereby the “parties represent the niche markets they are going after.” She added, “This way the Washington Post builds profitability and audience to bring different audience to its newspaper through different products it brings together.”

Another challenge for journalists is timeliness where the immediacy of the Internet is changing how quickly people seek information and how they judge its value, with journalists forced to post news online very fast to keep up with the changing speed and angle of the story. Online mainstream media have to also compete with specialised sites that provide information on a personal level, such as road traffic, crime occurrences in their area, etc, which all “re-defines what people expect from mainstream media.”

To the question from a participant on whether the digital revolution creates a more marginalised community, Olson said up-to-date news is not just delivered through the Internet but wireless technology. She noted that in countries like Africa, Korea and China, people get the latest news, reduced to briefs, delivered on their mobile phones, therefore levelling the information people receive.

Prof Wong chairs the Q&A session.

Prof Wong chairs the Q&A session.

On the factual integrity of news posted on the Internet, Olson said readers have to decide on what information to trust. Newspaper organisations therefore try to provide the latest information online to readers knowing that they have a trusted brand on their side.

To another query, she said advertisers do not want to pay money that they used to pay for print advertisements and so “newspapers are losing money faster than they can go online.” She said presently there are no newspaper models in US that are making money and the future direction is maybe “subscription media” where people pay for the specific, detailed information, such as politics.

WOU deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) Prof Wong Tat Meng acted as the moderator for the talk.