Sunday, December 11, 2022

Content was and will remain the king

 The Nepali media outlets haven’t been able to effectively monetise their content.

By Dharma Adhikari
Content is king. In journalism, this aphorism suggests that the public is best served with quality content because it sells. But the perceived reality may look different. The Nepali media ecology today has expanded in size, scope, and influence. But journalists suffer, just as politicians do, in their image and credibility.

Both sides bear the brunt of public criticism about their lack of accountability. While politicians often earn outrage for corruption and power abuse, journalists or media managers gain rebuke, not less frequently, for their partisanship, shoddy business practices, or deteriorating content quality. And the media haven’t been able to make enough money on their sizable content.

To be sure, the media sector is not without serious professional lapses. But it is also true that the volume of quality journalism in Nepal has also grown over the years, although not proportionate to the overall expansion in the field. A new breed of professionals—with their capacity for creativity and change, and a passion for flexibility and innovation—are quickly adapting to the frenzied digital environment.

The legacy outlets, despite their shrinking revenue sources, continue to strive for reporting and interpretation, offering the much-needed context and understanding of the day’s events and issues. Social media may now be able to dish out the first draft of history, but it’s invariably the traditional journalists who write a more accurate and coherent second draft.

Even so, the admirable journalistic works by genuine news professionals or content platforms often get buried in the undifferentiated digital deluge, thanks to the relentless posts and shares, much in the form of non-journalistic content enabled by the big tech nouveau gatekeepers—the likes of Facebook or YouTube. Discerning audiences know journalism is only a small fraction of the content on such platforms. But for most consumers, it is more like if you have seen a slum, you have seen them all. Content everywhere degenerates into simulacrum.

The blurring of journalistic boundaries is seen in the loss of professional territories and autonomy, working to the advantage of other media users or producers across platforms, including TV anchors, YouTubers or TikTokers and even their adopted commentators. The popular perceptions are dictated by the likes of Rishi Dhamalas, Punya Gautams or Tara Barals. Rabi Lamichhane, a content maker, potentially turning into a kingmaker, has now redrawn his boundaries, except that it is not in his hands to maintain them.

A sizable number of individual journalists and publishers from the traditional structures help accentuate the blurred effect in their embrace of hybrid structures or new forms like tweeting or blogging as acceptable varieties of journalism. They are integrating. But few realise that they may be doing so while ardently retaining their core professional values such as informing with accuracy, fairness, independence and truth-telling, values that embody their identity and credibility.

Whereas the real journalists would rather stand apart, not out, the tried and tested communicative goal of media actors such as entertainers, influencers, advertisers, PR agents or propagandists is manifestly amusement, sales, self-promotion and manipulation or power.

While making up stuff, with some exceptions, is perfectly normal for a comedian on a show, it takes just one instance of fabrication or manipulation by another journalist to bring disgrace to the entire tribe. Increasingly, their reputation is also at risk from deviant acts of non-journalistic media actors like YouTubers or social media influencers, whom the public may consider not particularly different from journalists. If you regularly bleat on screen, you lead, as a sanchar karmi, a dumbed down catch-all phrase for media workers. Integrated journalists may acquiesce to it, for expediency, but ask an overspecialised beat reporter.

This begins to look as if the communicator is king. The new media environment, characterised by speed, integration, innovations, and opportunities but at the same time also tensions, superficiality, shrinking newsrooms and dwindling revenue sources, does test the limits of any communicator. The passionate, enterprising types are always on to something new, renegotiating borders and values, and innovating and developing ideas and products.

In Nepali journalism, this is apparent in the massive growth this decade in the number of news sites, which include new standard bearers amidst the much maligned and less trusted “online” outlets. But few have reached breakeven by selling their content. None has so far put up a paywall, already ineffective elsewhere, in many cases.

Market versus talent

For journalists, content is the king is merely to say that message is the message: Write a neat, clear, accurate and concise copy—if not for anything—for your byline. Journalism textbooks mentioned the adage for the first time in the 1970s. Their emphasis was on making the meaning come out in text over technical considerations or layout.

But content means different things to different people. The media guru Marshall McLuhan surmised that “the content of any medium is always another medium.” The meaning is secondary to the sensory effects of the medium. The video medium currently is the most prized content, giving out the message across the platforms.

Bill Gates identified software, games, ads, sports programming, and on-line communities, among others, as the main content on the internet. He had appropriated the adage into his famous January 1996 article entitled “Content is king” in which he envisioned the internet as the future “marketplace of content.”

During the early years of the internet, when the buzz over “information society” was at its peak, paradoxically, many websites remained without content or updates for months and even years. Gates was also possibly encouraging users to populate the sites with content to boost internet traffic. Technology journalist Glenn Fleishman wrote in InfoWorld a year earlier that “the more frequently content on a website is uploaded, the more often the users return.”

“Having a container, any container is not a big deal. Having something to put into those containers was a hard job,” observed media writer Richard Turner, in a New York Magazine article. He described “content is king” as “the glib, incessant, simplistic refrain in the media and entertainment worlds.”

The online content market did flourish eventually across sectors and just as Gates had predicted, much of the real money was made on content. Numbers mattered more than even quality during the early phase. By the first decade of the century, as Web 2.0 began to emerge and platforms like Google, Facebook and YouTube gained unmatched reach and access to individual audiences. They benefit immensely by sharing news content from others and dominate digital advertising.

So, then, distribution is king.

Unlike e-commerce companies or other providers, news publishers rarely sell any products or services on their sites. Content is free. They depend heavily on tech giants for the traffic and ad revenue. And, with competition within the field, audiences continue to be further segmented. Hence, “engagement is king” or “context is king” are the latest mantras.

These require more work, resources and, above all, talent. As Christopher Gasson wrote long ago in his book Media Equities, talent is the input, not the content. Efforts made in branding, participatory and interactive journalism, live streaming, greater use of social media or animation speak of the needs of competencies or talents in engagement.

Similarly, calls for or attempts at explanatory, in-depth reportage and analysis as well as fact-checking, or link journalism underline the growing realisation of the importance of context. These efforts can go only so far in regaining the audience, the real king. Contented, the audience hopefully sticks around for a while longer.

Ultimately, all these dislocations pivot on the question of subsistence or financial viability. Yet, many news sites push on, relentless in their updates. Are we simply contented with what we got? Or, has our “marketplace of ideas” got anything to do with our notions of “marketplace of content”?

Published in the Kathmandu Post, 11 December 2022