In a world dominated by social media, is there any role left for broadcast news? Alfred Hermida, UBC’s new director of the Graduate School of Journalism and author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, says journalists need an entirely new approach to delivering the news if their role is to continue.
How are people getting their news now compared to a decade or two ago?
We’ve seen a big shift from very fixed times and types of media. In the past, you’d get the news at certain times of the day in certain ways, and your choices were very limited. You were essentially working your schedule around the schedule of news.
What we have now is almost completely the reverse, where media consumption is driven by context: by where you are, the device you have, the time you have available, and your preferences. The biggest player in the news game today is the smartphone you carry around with you.
For news websites, increasing numbers of visits are coming through mobile devices. In the U.S., something like 39 out of the top 50 news sites get more visitors via mobile devices than desktop computers. The BBC found that at the weekend, it was getting more traffic through mobile phones than through desktop computers.
Essentially what’s happening is that people are fitting news in around their very busy lives. If you’re at the weekend at your kid’s softball game and you have five minutes to spare, you just can tune in then and catch up with the news then.
Has that changed the way news is presented?
The problem is that at the moment, by and large, news isn’t being produced with mobile devices in mind. Instead, it’s companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that understand how people consume digital media. They’re emerging as the key gateways to news now.
Three-quarters of Canadians are on Facebook. They don’t go to Facebook to read the news, but they stumble across it like they do everything else. At Facebook, the focus is very much on making your mobile experience as what they call “frictionless”—in other words, everything you do just happens.
What does that mean for the future of news broadcasters?
They need to think beyond being a broadcaster in the traditional sense, where they provide the news at 6 p.m. in one package. They need to ask themselves, “What is it that we do?” The answer is, “Well, basically we’re knowledge workers. We try and make sense of the world and we give you news and information that helps you make decisions.”
So if the public is not tuning into your show at 6 p.m., then you have to stop doing that. If your audience is on mobile, you make that switch. For an organization like the CBC, that’s a paradigm shift. It’s saying, “The way we’ve thought about our business for the last century has changed.”
To be a journalist today, you don’t just need to be able to work across platforms and understand how to produce news and information using words, sound, video and data. You also need to understand analytics. You need to understand audience habits. You need to understand technology trends. If the public has moved from the evening newscast to the mobile device, you need to move with them to remain relevant.
Are job losses inevitable?
Whenever there are big changes there are going to be both winners and losers. It’s always a terrible situation when people lose their jobs, but I think part of it is asking, “Do we really have the right people with the right skills doing the right things to ensure something like CBC has a future?”
At the CBC, they need to invest in the right kind of jobs and in training, to equip the journalists there who have years of journalism experience to be able to produce material in a way that connects with audiences where they are now, not where they were 30 years ago.
At the moment, most providers just shovel what’s on their website onto the mobile phone. It’s not a great experience. With each platform there’s a different set of rules. In the past, if you were writing for a newspaper that was different from producing a piece of radio or TV. Now you need to understand how to produce on Twitter, how to produce on Facebook, how to produce on Tumblr, how to produce on a website, how to think on a mobile screen and how to think on a tablet screen. Those are the skills that journalists need now.