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ISBA members listened to a passion-filled treatise on the value of properly resourced and researched journalism in a connected world at this year’s annual lunch.
A record-breaking audience attended ISBA's lunch and listened to guest speaker Katherine Viner, editor-in-chief, of The Guardian, outline the interdependency between the publishing and creative advertising industry in a thought-provoking speech.
The timing was particularly apt as we all look to ‘traditional’ media for more information and detail about the impact of the EU Referendum vote – and as Katherine pointed out print circulation and online traffic for The Guardian and The Observer spiked in the days after the referendum.
ISBA is no stranger to hosting the ‘fourth estate’ at the annual lunch, only five years ago James Harding, then editor of The Times, delivered the keynote. But so much has happened in the world of tech, platforms and communication in the intervening five years that Katherine’s overview provided a valuable reality check and an opportunity for reflection on how we access and process information and opinion.
She highlighted some of the important cases where journalism held power to account, with particular reference to Guardian writer David Conn’s success in uncovering the truth about the Hillsborough tragedy cover-up. There is no doubting her claim “Traditional news values are important – they matter and they are worth defending.”
Those who follow the fortunes of publishers will know there has been tension for some time between established news brands and the tech giants and that traditional publishers worry their lunch is being stolen (The Dorchester served up a very nice lunch sponsored by Moat, by the way, that we are sure Katherine enjoyed).
She was careful not to blame the internet in its entirety for the problems but did say the web “has given birth to an industry of professional manipulators of the media” whose sourcing is “less rigorous”.
As advertisers we know how useful the internet and its powerful platforms are for distributing sharable and engaging content, reaching niche audiences and delivering more targeted messages and Katherine acknowledged that “products that maximise the amount of time you spend with them … may be great news for advertisers.”
But she criticised the ‘walled garden’ strategy that tech and social media platforms pursue as dangerous because they keep users from accessing other news sources and platforms and she zoomed in on the ease with which the web allows rumour and speculation to spread and be taken as fact.
She pointed out how personalised feeds dependent on algorithms create a shared, self-reinforcing, worldview, traps people in a ‘filter bubble’ and “as a result the internet which, in so many ways, is a creator of communities, is in danger of polarising societies.”
And she called out a problem that most marketers are well aware of – that ads served by algorithm may appear alongside poor quality or brand-damaging content, or “fake journalism” from her perspective.
Katherine said: “The ways in which our sectors distribute content and direct spending are fundamental to the growth and financial success of these networked platforms” but both journalists and advertisers “risk creating an environment where the fight to be seen becomes overwhelming”.
She drew parallels between journalism challenged by ever-changing news feed algorithms and advertising challenged by the “a fight with other advertisers to pay for the most effective slot to make people buy what you’re selling.”
We don’t think anyone would disagree with her assertion “honest reporting and trusted journalism have never been more important or more valued” and it was reassuring to hear Katherine is no Luddite, saying the shift to digital publishing can be “thrilling” for journalism. But as, she herself pointed out, as in many other sectors, innovation has been lacking in the business model.
Whether The Guardian’s direct plea for a contribution to fund its journalism is the right way forward remains to be seen. We didn’t hold a whip-round for the publisher after lunch but after such an involving speech, we suspect a lot of members would have put their hands in their pockets if we had.
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