Fiction friction: Media owners have realigned their businesses at great expense and are getting very little in return. Picture: 123RF/MAVOIMAGE
Fiction friction: Media owners have realigned their businesses at great expense and are getting very little in return. Picture: 123RF/MAVOIMAGE

Since the advent of digital platforms, traditional print media has been on the back foot. Newspaper audiences have increasingly been going online to the titles’ websites or deserting them for social media.

The response by the media houses has been to go "digital first". There has been large-scale rationalisations, resulting in fewer people doing more, and younger multitasking staff have been brought in to shake up news organisations.

But while the companies have attracted audiences to online platforms, they have been struggling to attract revenue. Media owners have realigned their businesses at great expense and are getting very little in return.

Some traditional media houses have used an analogue business model to build their digital platforms. The media house creates content, the content attracts an audience, advertisers looking to access the audience pay for space between the content. But the dividend has been tiny — banner adverts are all but ignored by digital users.

Some companies have introduced a pay wall, asking readers to pay for their content. This has had limited global success, except at international papers of record such as the New York Times and Financial Times. Many South African publications will never match the legacy, reach and resources of these giants of journalism, yet attempt to persuade their audiences — readers and advertisers — that they can successfully adopt their business models.

The Content Trap, written by Harvard academic Anand Bharat, points out that taking one business model and transposing it into another context often ends in failure.

Bharat says the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah and Norwegian media house Schibsted built successful digital platforms because they developed business models for their specific contexts.

They put their users at the centre and built their models around their readers’ needs and wants. Both media houses allowed their models to evolve as they implemented them and survived as many of their competitors floundered, failed and closed down.

Like a camouflaged virus, social media platforms gobbled up the personal data of millions of users and the content of the traditional media houses. This parasitic behaviour is unhealthy for the host and the virus.

Data rights academic Prof Christian Fuchs, of the University of Westminster, says users uploading personal information are doing work for which they should be paid. The same can be said of media houses that post their content on social media platforms — they are giving away their audiences to organisations that profit off them.

Facebook, in particular, really understands how to use personal data for profit, while traditional media companies clearly do not. Facebook has undermined the relationship with its users by selling as much of their data as possible.

Traditional media houses often claim to be campaigning for the little person, which means that rather than using social media tactics, they should make their users conscious partners in connections with advertisers. Professor Leslie K John of the Harvard Business School conducted a recent study of personalised digital adverts and found that "relationships are stronger if they are honest".

Print and digital media are suffering a serious trust deficit in a world where misinformation has become a daily grind for the average user. Rumour, conjecture and fake news have confused readers who struggle to identify what is fact or fiction. Social media platforms can no longer claim they are merely blank tablets for others to populate with content.

Joseph Goebbels, head of propaganda in Nazi Germany, said: 'A lie told often enough becomes the truth.' This perversion of the truth has to be guarded against at all cost.

They have to play the role of editor and curator of content. Traditional media also have to earn their good relationships with consumers, and not only by providing good content — they have to learn how to commercialise trust.

News media have to return to their roots and become the verifiers and custodians of facts. They have to be the sane, credible voice in a world where those who shout the loudest get the most airtime.

Joseph Goebbels, head of propaganda in Nazi Germany, said: "A lie told often enough becomes the truth." This perversion of the truth has to be guarded against at all cost.

Instead of disinvesting from their production processes, traditional media companies have to invest in gathering the facts and explaining how news is put together. Successful news companies will build products based on credibility instead of speed to market.

One way they could do this is to show the public how news is created, letting users peep behind the veil. This will show how news is not based on gossip, and facts do not suddenly materialise.

News websites could have companion pages to their main stories with the documentation used to compile a narrative, the full voices of all sources and the different points of view. The Guardian has such a model, but it has to become standard practice across the industry.

Showing the mechanics of the news-gathering process makes the stories credible. Credibility creates trust. The users’ trust becomes the commodity. In the past the editorial teams and sales teams at media houses were kept apart to avoid the infringement of editorial independence, but financial pressures have forced a blurring of that once clear line.

In the digital space this has led to native content where advertisements are disguised as editorial. In the analogue space, there have been paid-for interviews by broadcasters. All documents, correspondence, disputes and interactions must be public. Nothing must dilute the credibility of verification.

If adopted, this model would change the way news is gathered and adverts are sold. Reputation and relationship management becomes the responsibility of everyone, not just the lawyers and public relations specialists.

In a world of uncertainty and doubt, the cost of bad decision-making is extremely high. This is why the media industry has to return to its core principles and values. Key to that is trust — what other option does the media have?

• Claasen is the founder of media company Untold Media.

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