NOVEMBER 29, 2021

Making the Media S2E01: What’s Next?

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Broadcasters globally are challenged on many fronts—finding new audiences, utilizing social media platforms, hiring and retaining talent, keeping up with rapidly changing technology. How are some of the world’s largest news organizations coping with change? In this episode, we focus on the European Broadcasting Union’s News report and ask: What can broadcasters do to stay relevant as their traditional audience ages? How has funding for public service broadcasting been impacted by the pandemic? How are newsrooms protecting staff from attacks on social media and making journalism an attractive career path to follow?

Listen to Hear:

  • Why newsrooms need to adapt to reach new audiences
  • The importance of experimenting
  • The reality of the hybrid newsroom and why it is not going away

Our Guests This Episode

Alexandra Borchardt is a senior journalist, book author, lecturer, and media adviser. She works as a consultant and coach for the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) in their Table Stakes Europe Programme on the digital transformation of newsrooms and for Hamburg Media School, where she heads the Journalism Innovators Program. She is the lead author of the 2021/22 EBU News Report of the European Broadcasting Union and is affiliated with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford as a Senior Research Associate after having served as Director of Leadership Programmes until 2019. Prior to this she was managing editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), Germany’s leading quality daily.

There are still groups in society that haven't been reached by traditional journalism at all, and this is also a big, big task for modern journalism, future oriented journalism. To reach many more people where they are on the platforms they consume and with content that also reflects their daily life experiences..

Alexandra Borchardt, Lead Author, EBU News Report

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, it’s Craig Wilson here, and welcome to season two of the Making the Media Podcast. We are excited to be back, and we have a great lineup of guests planned for you. We are continuing to focus on the challenges facing the news and media production business, building on the success of season one, and covering the topics which matter to you, regardless of where in the world you are. Remember, you can always get in touch with us. I am on social; my username is @CraigAW1969 or email us at [email protected]. But let’s get down to the business at hand, and who do we have as our first new guest. This time I am joined by Alexandra Borchardt, who is the lead author of the News Report of the European Broadcasting Union, or the EBU, called, “What’s Next? Public Service Journalism in the Age of Distraction, Opinion & Information Abundance”. As their own website says, the EBU has 115 member organizations in 56 countries and have an additional 31 associates in Asia, Africa, Australasia, and the Americas. Their members operate nearly 2,000 television, radio, and online channels and services, reaching an audience of more than one billion people around the world, broadcasting in more than 160 languages. The report is extremely wide-ranging, focusing on competition, connecting audiences, leadership, use of technology, and much more. I began by asking Alexandra, with such a large group of organizations involved, if they faced unique or universal challenges.

Alexandra Borchardt: Actually, I've always been amazed about this, how universal challenges are actually all across the globe. Obviously, there are differences, and every organization has to tackle their own problems and itself, but media leaders can learn a whole lot by just talking to each other about their success stories, their failures, their experiences, and it's amazing how much is in there and how the challenges are. Everyone, everyone, really has the challenge to get through to an audience in this world of increasing distraction and opinion and information abundance, which in fact, became the title of our report. So, everyone needs to reach the audience, connect with the audience, have the audience engaging. So that's one thing. Technology is another big thing. The dominance of Silicon Valley, mostly Silicon Valley driven platform companies how to deal with that. So, there are huge challenges that are pretty much across the globe, really.

CW: So, you've raised a number of different subtopics there, and I think we’ll unpack these in turn, as we as we go through things. One of the things that, of course, public service broadcasters tend to face is around challenges around funding because of the way that they are funded, and also our challenges of audience. And it's about audience reach as much as anything else as opposed to you know, specifically audience figures. So, when you discuss this with, you know, those people that are involved with the EBU, what have they said about funding? Because obviously a lot of governments have come under a lot of financial pressure because of what's happened through COVID. Is that impacting the funding that's going to public service broadcasters as well?

AB: Oh sure, I mean funding is critical. The critical thing about funding is to really establish a strong connection with the audience because in the end the public has to pay for journalism. In fact, private publishers are facing the same dilemma ever since the advertising driven model broke down. So you really have to establish a strong connection with audiences and that is a challenge in a political environment that is getting fragmented. You have political voices from various sites that really are very skeptical and critical about public service journalism because they feel there's no legitimacy any longer. I mean, obviously you have these voices from political sites where they feel journalism itself—independent journalism, itself—is a threat to their influence and power, so they try to really talk down the importance of journalism. Then you have other actors and that, I think, is a tough thing that public service journalism faces critics from the private media who feel that public service broadcasts as published in the digital sphere, they publish so much content so they're in direct competition with private media that want to sell their content, that want to sell subscriptions to the public. So instead of just, you know, cooperating because they're all hanging in there together, they’re fighting public service media, which is obviously, you know, the laughing few will be the big monopolies, the platform monopolies that then will have a much easier time to reach audiences with all their usually user-friendly services. So that is really a struggle on many sides.

CW: So, what are public service broadcasters doing to try to combat that kind of background noise that there is about almost like their duty and their role?

AB: Yeah, first of all, they have to establish their legitimacy by stating a clear case, why they are necessary, and many of them mentioned obviously this age of disinformation and opinion and that the mission is really to provide the facts and that is, in fact, vital and essential for democracy that people get the facts first. On the web, in all these channels and every block post, there is so much opinion. There are so many voices about everything and the business model around these voices is really that the loudest, the noisiest, get rewarded for this. So public service media's role—or journalism's role, in general—is really to establish a common ground, the basis with facts that people can rely on. And in fact, the COVID pandemic has shown that people still know what independent journalism is worth, because where did they turn to when they were looking for information? They were in large numbers really that they turned to traditional media brands and in particular public service journalism to find out actually what to do about this pandemic, how to behave, and you know, how to navigate this uncertain environment. So there was a huge, the huge beacon of trust really for the public in these times where there was so much insecurity.

CW: You mentioned earlier the challenges that social media platforms provide to public service broadcasters. And I think part of that is also about how people are consuming news now that they perhaps view something, you know, say in a particular social media site, and don't necessarily link it perhaps to the originating source of where it's come from. Did you find that the public service broadcasters are having to change their approach to how they deliver news to try to attract that audience and establish that sort of trusted relationship that you refer to?

AB: Oh sure, I mean they're constantly changing, luckily. I mean, I think both of them have woken up in the past so many years and realize that their audience is really aging on average, so they really have to approach younger audiences to establish their legitimacy with younger audiences. And it's really hard in many cases to get younger audiences to the platforms like the traditional linear TV or even radio. While you know both are still doing well, it's really hard to attract younger people, so they also have to meet younger people where they are all day long. And these are platforms like Instagram, TikTok, to a lesser extent that the original Facebook platform, Twitter, where young people consume news or get in touch with news and obviously public service broadcasters really have to up their game and develop formats for these platforms which are very often much shorter formats, but also not only shorter formats but really high quality formats, also formats in a different tone of voice, different kind of journalism, or constructive journalism formats.

They had to broaden really their approach to journalism to attract new audiences and while doing research for this report, I found out that most of them really have very smart ideas and approach projects how to reach different audiences. Also, journalism has to become so much more inclusive, and while public service broadcasting has always been a lot more inclusive and reflecting a lot more than the whole of society, there were still groups in society that haven't been reached by traditional journalism at all. And this is also, a big, big task for modern journalism, future-oriented journalism to reach many more people where they are on the platforms they consume, and with content that also reflects their daily life experiences.

CW: Is it also the case—'cause we have actually done an episode of the podcast about diversity and is it also the case that that diversity has to be reflected within the newsroom itself? Because you then have a broader spectrum of views to then actually decide what the news agenda is?

AW: Oh, definitely, I mean, that's a huge challenge many newsrooms have been struggling with for quite some time. I spent almost 30 years in newsrooms, and I know what it feels like. It's a very homogeneous crowd. It's gotten to be a lot more female. When I grew up in journalism, it was very male, people who grew up in in urban areas, people who went to university and got college degrees. In fact, journalism in newsrooms have gotten much less diverse. When I started in journalism in the 80s, there were still lots of people who didn't have a college degree or didn't go to university, but just started to be journalists by, you know, many any of them reported from sports competitions or start out police reporting. You don't need a degree for that. In today's news, particularly with the major brands, there's huge homogeneity in terms of, you know, outlook on life. And many newsrooms are struggling with this. And unfortunately, even though many of them have been aware of this problem for quite some time, there hasn't been that much progress, particularly with recruiting ethnic minorities. In many different countries, this is a problem. With women, it's gotten better, but women in leadership roles you still have to look for them in many countries. It's a little bit different in the UK where you have quite a few female editors in chief, but it's very different and in many other countries. But and even recruiting people with different political views is kind of a challenge for many newsrooms, so there is a lot to be done, and that doesn't just happen by deciding that this needs to happen. You really have to structurally approach the change here.

CW: So you mentioned about recruitment there, and I think one of the other challenges that we see not just in journalism, but I think in the wider industry, you know, some people have described it as the great resignation. You know, people have looked at what's happened over the course of the last 18 months, perhaps reassessed their life choices and want different work-life balances. So are things like staff retention and also staff enablement a big challenge for public service broadcasters as well?

AB: Oh, definitely, and I mean not only public service broadcasters, but in the whole journalism industry, because talent is not moving in as it used to, because journalism has gotten much less attractive as a professional. There's still a lot to do in convenient hours, it's getting very complicated in terms of what you need to do, working on different channels, whatever. But also people are really not attracted to a profession where there is hostility in the environment. Attacks are increasing on journalists and it's only a small minority that really runs these attacks, but it can feel pretty awful when you were attacked on social media, for example. In particular, women are really approached by this. Then also there's the struggle for tech talent. Unique tech talent in newsrooms these days or in media organizations, but obviously other organizations can not only pay a whole lot more money, they also provide a better work life balance because they don't have to be, you know, on for 24 hours, seven days a week. So it's really been a struggle to recruit talent. And once you have talent, you have to really work hard retaining the talent, motivating them, but also pay attention that they don't burn out. This all requires really good leadership qualities. And particularly in newsrooms, leaders used to be recruited from the editorial and reporting staff and they don't have any training in leadership, so leaders are immediately really needing to up their game in terms of leadership qualities in terms of setting up career path for all kinds of different roles. Really making people happy in the places and retaining people to do their best work.

CW: You mentioned there that at times, journalists have come under attack. Whether that's physical attack or whether it's attacked through things like social media, what did you find when you spoke to members within the EU about the scale of that and also what they're trying to do to help their staff?

AB: Yeah, everyone says that attacks have increased tremendously, so there are even some broadcasters who even removed logos from their broadcasting trucks or from their microphones or whatever, so that journalists are not identified as easily, which is really sad. And particularly with the COVID pandemic and, you know, public protests against certain government policies, journalists tend to be sort of lumped in this big thing, like, you know, you are the elite, and we don't want you here and so really, attacks have increased. And social media attacks, it’s a huge problem, as I already said, particularly with women. So, actually, newsrooms need to do a lot more to help their staff protect their stuff because it's really a psychological thing, also. This climate of fear, really, it's impacting the work people are doing, so you know they need additional support, they need certain strategies, how to navigate social media. They really need protection of their brands and it's even worse for independent journalists, by the way, who can't do this.

So, actually, there needs to be also national efforts to protect journalists. But the best protection for journalists is actually when politicians, governments, whatever society groups make a strong case for independent journalism and don't really feel that polarization or division where certain, as I said, minorities in society get very aggressive against the media and really that the whole fake news media rhetoric didn't really help. So if that would really subside actually, then it would be a lot done for the safety of journalists.

CW: Yeah, I mean, one of the sort of founding principles of public service journalism is about being impartial. You know, one of the key things of it is that they don't take views from one side to the other. But they are seen in certain places as political organizations. You've kind of highlighted that that yourself. So what are members trying to do to reinforce that view that they are an impartial voice and in essence they are there to serve the audience as opposed to the politicians that exist in the individual countries?

AB: Yeah, I mean, first of all, most people really value impartial news, and it's actually a misconception that people really want opinion and activist journalists. Close to 80% in the Reuters digital news report said that really impartiality and the attempt to be neutral on certain issues and to provide a variety of voices so that people can make up their own minds—close to 80% said that this is really important, and even the young generation, because very often it's said that young people feel that there is no such thing as impartiality. People really, really value this highly. This attempt to actually provide a variety of views, but also from a little bit of a distant position and not taking sides. So that is one thing. What public service broadcasters are doing and what many other media organizations do is really monitoring the way their journalists use social media, which is a big dilemma really, because obviously, everyone and every single journalist is protected by their right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. But still, once a journalist is sort of identified with a big brand and they post stuff on social media, then obviously, that reflects on the brand. So that is a really challenging topic to tackle and no one has really found the answer yet, but we have an interesting case study in the report on the BBC social media rules and what they have been trying to do to really help their colleagues navigate this environment, but this is an issue that we'll hear a lot more from in the coming years because journalists are walking a fine line on that.

CW: So, we're obviously talking now perhaps 18 months or so, or slightly longer than that, now into the pandemic. Certainly here in Europe, maybe slightly longer, now approaching 2 years. So I think there's a number of different aspects that to ask around this. One is obviously the impact that the pandemic has had on public service broadcasters, and then the second side is looking at assessing what has happened and then what's here to stay. So maybe well into two things. So first of all, what's the general view from public service broadcast about how the pandemic has impacted their ability to deliver the news?

AB: Well, pretty much everyone we talked to, and we talked to more than 40 people in leadership roles and experts or whatever, everyone who's everyone said that the pandemic has been a huge accelerator of change. Suddenly things were possible that had not been possible before and this was not just about working remotely and running programs from the living room from one day to the next, but also about developing new formats. About figuring out what people really need, the integration of TV, radio, digital. There's been so much innovation in this, so this is really a big thing, and obviously, most newsrooms won't return to the state they were in before hybrid working, having people back in the office for just a few days a week. This will be the new normal for news environments and hopefully also the spirit of, you know, just doing things without having to plan them for like 10 years before they happen. I'm exaggerating here, but you know what I'm talking about—just really trying out things. This whole spirit of running small experiments, trying out things, and if they don't work, stop doing them, doing something else. I think the pandemic has really demonstrated this, that this approach works much better which has also been a huge accelerator of all change projects. So the pandemic has had really good effects in that sense. But also, when I talk to people, they say like “Oh really, you know, we miss people sort of hanging out together in the kitchen over a cup of coffee or tea and discussing the next innovative idea.”

So these kind of formats have to be established in this new world. But it's always good to sort of change theory. You say you unfreeze something which the pandemic apparently did, and then you sort of freeze the new habits? Well, let's hope that not everything is frozen in new ways, but that everything stays to be really dynamic and innovative.

CW: Is it the case though that at this point people are so very much assessing what has worked and what do we want to continue? And perhaps some things that you do that they attempted, they've actually gone “Actually, that didn't work. Let's leave that aside.” But people are still very much assessing, and it's not really clear exactly how things are going to be in, say, six months or a year's time?

AB: Yeah, to disappoint you, I think it will never be entirely clear, so really this approach of running experiments and then implementing things and also stopping to do things… this will really stay with us. Change will be the new normal. To actually stop doing is kind of one of the hardest disciplines which I also realize all the time, and in my consulting activities, people tend to have tons of ideas. But really, first of all, the first challenge is really to get it done and really implement the ideas to decide among the many ideas that people have, which ones really are worth pursuing and also you to really set clear goals and really monitor the data, you know, is it really working out? And then, you know, the hardest part is really if something doesn't quite work out as well as it was envisioned to stop doing this again. So actually, really, the spirit to stop doing things would really free up so many resources and space for innovation for new ideas. Really, organizations have to change their approach to this and to be much faster and adapting to what works, what doesn't work, and that is a huge challenge for all organization—not just in the media industry.

CW: When you look at the report overall is there one key thing that maybe sticks out for you?

AW: This is a really difficult question. I think the biggest thing is obviously establishing and maintaining legitimacy also with younger generations because they are the future. But also about how can organizations become imagination machines? And I'm stealing that that expression from a book, The Imagination Machine. I also interviewed this awesome author Martin Reeves, who wrote this book and who really said like, you know, the old-style organization that is just tuned to be efficient, these days are gone. Organizations need to become imagination machines and I think this is so important to really have people practicing counterfactual thinking, testing, and learning and really trying to drive change in their organizations and that is really something that I feel is something the whole media industry needs to do much better than they're doing it now.

CW: That's a really interesting idea, Alexandra, and my final question, which I ask everyone in the podcast: What is it, when you look at the landscape of things at the moment, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?

AB: Well, I said in the very beginning that really improving journalism, so it really matches the needs of its audiences is really something where all my professional activities revolve around. And yeah, for the rest of the night, I won't answer this at this podcast. So, really making journalism better, establishing the legitimacy of quality journalism, and really valuing the trust that people actually have in journalism, really many, many people trust journalism and to give them this feeling that you know, they are rightly so—they're trusting journalism rightly so, because journalism does everything to help them improve their lives. This is really something that keeps me awake and working.

CW: Many thanks to Alexandra for providing some great insights there into the concerns and challenges facing the EBU members. And I think it is clear that many of the challenges which they face equally apply to the commercial players as well. What do you think? Let us know online, at @CraigAW1969 or email [email protected]. We have spoken to quite a few guests from EBU members on the podcast, so check out the show notes and get details of an episode with Philip Bromwell from RTE in Ireland talking about the rise of mobile journalism. And for a perspective from the United States, get details of a recent webinar where I spoke with news leaders about the way they are deploying their staff to maximize local news coverage. That’s all from episode one of season two of the podcast, thanks to our producer Matt Diggs, thanks to you, as always, for listening, and join me next time for more insights into the business of Making the Media.

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