How to stick to the fundamental values of journalism, while adapting to the demands of a digital future? What is the role of renowned media institutions in an increasingly freelance-oriented profession? Should reporters stick to neutrality at a time when public personas are constantly taking sides on controversial topics? These, among many other issues, became the center of discussions during the first day of the “New Horizons in Journalism” Conference organized by the World Press Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria on 24-25 September.
The event, sponsored by America for Bulgaria Foundation and in partnership with the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, had as its keynote speaker John Harris, the cofounder of online portal dedicated to politics and public policy Politico. Launched in 2007 in Virginia, USA, the site decided to focus on one theme rather than on a broad area of topics like the traditional newspaper Harris worked for at the time – Washington Post (WP). “I caught the bug called journalism in college, I was always interested in politics and working for WP merged those two passions,” Harris says. Just when he grew to the top ranks of the newspaper at the height of his career, however, the economic crisis of 2007-8 and the advent of the internet challenged the very foundations of traditional media. “I wanted to be on the offensive and embrace future-oriented journalism. I asked – what’s next?”
To him, it appeared that the future of media rests on two main pillars: publications that have a narrow lens, allowing their journalists to specialize in a single topic – like politics, in Politico’s case, and that they manage to command a premium from their dedicated users. “Our general content is absolutely free for readers, but we have a whole suite of content and products aimed at public policy professionals – data, analysis of public policy etc. You pay a lot for that.”
Harris went on to outline three fundamental questions for the media today. The first one is how do journalists defend the values of their craft and profession at a moment of so much fluidity and economic challenges. He said that it is important for reporters to differentiate between values and conventions and stick to the former while changing their habits to adapt to the new environment. “There are a lot of things that I grew up with, believing that this is how things are done. An example of a habit is that when the president makes a speech, you make a hard news story and an analysis on the side – we don’t have to do it like that.”
The second key question for today’s media professionals dominated by individual reporters is about the role of established media brands. “I am a believer in institutions; they are the vehicle for passing values between generations of journalists. I don’t believe that one can acquire them by themselves. When journalists are thrown into jail or harassed, it’s institutions who can stand up and say “no” better than any single individual.”
Lastly, to Harris a reporter ought to always remain true to facts and not take sides as an activist would do, because this could undermine the media’s real strength as an independent arbiter. “I recognize one thing – the primacy of facts and detachment. Many young journalists don’t believe in that. I believe that there is an enormous power in journalists focusing on facts and not engaging in the battle of power. This is not because we don’t care, but because we care and want to preserve our greatest power.”
What is Harris’ advice for his colleagues in Bulgaria which lack the institutional foundations of the strong American press and the giant market of the USA? “Part of the challenge is to build institutions, to build homes for those values. Until then, all is in the hands of brave people who try to tell good stories despite all the threats and challenges.”
In the first panel of the conference called “Economic Sustainability: New Business Models and Alternative Revenue Streams for Journalism,” moderator Michael Montgomery (Center for Investigative Reporting) talked to Paul Steiger, Founder and former Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica, South African journalist and media consultant Camilla Bath and the Managing Director of Bulgarian publisher Economedia Galya Prokopieva.
Prokopieva spoke of two main periods of the almost 30-year long history of Economedia, the publisher of Capital weekly – the closest to a newspaper of record that Bulgaria has. “We joined the glorious years for the media quite late, but still caught some of them. This went for about 15 years, and then Titanic hit the iceberg,” she says, referring to the economic crisis of the mid-2000s. “In the next 15 years we had to sustain what we had achieved previously, because we couldn’t just abandon it. It was difficult – the digital transition, the move from broadsheet to online are not easy tasks, especially when you introduce it at a time when less and less resources were available,” she said.
This transition from print to online has just started in Africa, Camilla Bath said, and is facing very similar challenges. “South Africa’s media industry has always been severely underfunded and has shrunk even more in recent years. Our traditional media platforms have been protected until now because 60% of Africans don’t have internet access. But the enormous digital revolution is sweeping through Africa 10-15 years later than the rest of the world and the traditional ad-based model is now starting to fail.” Currently, she sees a push to innovate, go multi-platform and search for multiple revenue streams as the way forward for the media on the continent. “It’s a battle for survival,” she added.
So, how do you diversify the funding streams? Prokopieva listed Economedia’s successful establishment of b2b events and conferences for its business readers, as well as America for Bulgaria’s grant support as crucial to the survival of the 150-strong staff of the publishing house. “You [in the West] may choose one model of funding, but we are a small market and have to tap into all three sources of revenue,” she said.
“We try to find how we innovate in ways that cost us little or no money at all. Branded content is one source, a “necessary evil” you may say,” Bath added, saying that establishing strong partnerships with authoritative brands to make semi-advertised content helps her newsroom fund its investigations, for example.
Paul Steiger from ProPublica noted that one of the keys to the success of the non-profit outlet he helped launch was successful partnerships with larger media outlets, collaborations and pulling of resources that they have engaged in throughout the years. “There are now 21 news organizations ProPublica interacts with, we fundraise together and collaborate on stories,” he said.