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Harvard expert talks journalism's future at OU event

Olivier Rey / Red Dirt Report
Harvard journalism expert Joshua Benton speaks at the University of Oklahoma this past week.
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NORMAN, Okla. – Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, recently delivered a public lecture about the future of journalism at the Gaylord College of Journalism of the University of Oklahoma.

Benton described the evolution of journalism economic situation since the Internet came up to change the game 20 years ago.

Benton said contrary to what newspapers first though the arriving of the Internet was not a good news for the profession. According to the Newspaper Association of America, the advertising revenues for newspapers has dropped from $67 billion a year at its peak in 2000 to about $20 billion in 2016, including digital ads.

“Advertising is getting worse than it does right now that it used to be,” he said, adding the consequences were disastrous including newspaper closure, fusion, payroll cut and financialization of the press.

“No newspaper in America makes money on Monday,” Benton said.

The causes of such misfortune are well known, Facebook and Google due to their powerful presence on the Internet. This situation of duopoly by these two Internet companies enabled them to collect a lot of data about their customers that are much appreciated by the companies. Today Facebook and Google focus 99 percent of the digital advertisement.

Benton added the Internet also changed the way people were used to consuming news, breaking the daily ritual of watching news or reading newspaper at a certain time of the day.

“To know that corporations have the control of the flow of the information worldwide do more than frightened me,” he confided.

Harvard fellow Benton believes newspapers have still some assets such as integrity. And one of the ways to bypass the duopoly is to re-use two old technologies, email newsletters and podcasts.

“I think email newsletters can be powerful and make a lot of money,” Benton said adding subscription may also be an alternative to the loss of advertising revenue.

Then Benton said today news content become more and more consumed via mobile devices, 28 percent of the time spent on media. At the opposite only four percent from print, radio nine percent, Internet 20 percent and TV 38 percent.

“Mobile has still a long way to go up and print still have a long way to go down,” he said, adding mobile generated $37 billion of advertising revenue in 2016, representing half of the total Internet ads. But as the opposite of a regular computer, people go to the Internet almost exclusively through applications such as Facebook.

However, as pointed by Benton not all newspapers are equals in this stampede, local newspapers are the one who suffers the most. The Internet revolution has led to a concentration of the digital journalism jobs in New York and Washington D.C., concentering 40 percent of the workforce.

“There is this incredible sucking out of journalistic resources in the middle of the country,” he added.

Benton continued with a note of optimism as there is still over 14,000 local newspapers in the USA, saying, “nothing will replace them not even digital news.”

Given the success of the YouTube and Facebook videos, Benton warned that newspapers who tried to implement news video besides their traditional stories had only little success. The data shows that the Internet generation is more used to read news content online than to watch news video such as their parents.

“When you have a video on a page it makes people run away,” he warned, noting the most successful online videos involve animals.

He added that news televisions even if shrinking is not dead and making a remarked coming out thanks to the digital outlets.

“There still have a huge amount of money in television,” Benton thought.

Finally, Benton believes the worst maybe not the Internet itself but the fake news movement launched by Donald trumps during the last US presidential elections. The polarization of politics and the mistrust in the institutions have helped the spread of fake news via social media.

“If you want to make money on the news right now you have to target a high-value audience for a high-value product,” Benton concluded.

This lecture was part of the Presidential Dream Course program Journalism Under Siege organized by two OU’s professor, Mike Boettcher and John Schmeltzer.

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Olivier Rey

Olivier has traveled in 20 countries on six continents before landing in Norman. Native French...

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