The evolution of news for a new generation

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Township folks in particular will remember the days when the first thing workers did before boarding a taxi or a train to work in the morning would be to buy a newspaper and tuck it under the arm. It was a status symbol.

But in the past decade, media rules have been rewritten and the way we receive and consume news is transforming. The way media companies package content and interact with their audiences is also changing. We are seeing innovations nearly every day.

The question is, what does this constant development of strategies to deliver news mean for journalism? Does it mean the end of the printed edition as we know it? Does it mean that journalists’ role as traditional information gatekeepers is disappearing and everybody is now a news gatherer and distributor? Is the internet the ultimate source of news and the future of communication?

These days, news reports and classified advertisements are, literally, old news by the time they are printed. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube deliver instant information. Many people get breaking news on their cell phones — and when they want to advertise a service or a product, most do so either cheaply or free on websites.

On mobi sites and entertainment portals, music lovers can listen to their favourite songs, or they download tracks from entertainment portals such as MTN Play. Mobile TV streaming services enable cellphone users to access live news broadcasts on their phones and other gadgets.

It seems anybody can be a journalist. For example, a website called organises links you share on Twitter and Facebook into an easy-to-read, newspaper-style format, with pictures, videos and even your own tweets.

Ours is a generation growing up with computers, the internet and the emergence of social media. We communicate differently than our forebears and have a shorter attention span. But whether the news is printed on paper or delivered electronically, it does not change the fact that the media, whether newspapers or television channels, must deliver timely facts about events and act as a guide to what is important in our society.

A free press is a constitutionally protected right. But as a business, the production of news depends on advertising and attracting subscribers. As a result, to survive and thrive, news organisations must constantly revisit their business models.

The solution may include subscription models, registration models, advertising models or other novel mechanisms to deliver the news in a way that generates cash.

Lots of newspapers, including the Sunday Times, magazines and even television organisations have jumped into the online market, offering stripped-down versions of themselves to computer users via the various commercial networks. Smartphone users can now download apps that bring them the news they want, their favourite team’s match scores or the closing prices of particular stocks.

Digital editions or e-editions allow subscribers to download software that lets them view an exact replica of an entire newspaper or magazine on their smartphones, tablets, desktop or laptop computers, or print it out.

But will those who like to read newspapers at the breakfast table or browse through magazines while relaxing on the porch give up printed copies for the digital ones?

No. The electronic editions and mobi sites won’t put printed publications out of business or force television sets to disappear. But they might attract new customers who welcome the digital benefits.

Newspapers, television channels and some news websites will continue to lose circulation, advertising and readers, but companies that embrace technological change will thrive. The message is clear: continuous innovation is the answer.

Newspapers being clutched under one’s arm and traditional news organisations are not going anywhere. But how we receive the news – via smartphones, tablets, laptops, digital billboards or the latest smart TV — has already changed and will continue to evolve at a dramatic pace. The challenge to journalists is to innovate in their reporting by taking advantage of the advent of technology.

Rich Mkhondo was a panellist at Highway Africa, the continent’s largest annual gathering of African journalists on the continent, recently held at Rhodes University.

This article was published on Business Day.