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New media must pick fights they can win

Published:Saturday | September 13, 2014 | 9:00 AM
Gordon Swaby

Gordon Swaby, Guest Columnist

The Gleaner isn't the same company it was when brothers Joshua and Jacob deCordova started it back in 1834. And that's a good thing.

The company is celebrating its 180th birthday today, and that's not by chance. It's still alive and thriving because it has adapted with time to appeal to a different generation of readers. But this time is different - different because of the Internet.

Now more than ever, the modern press has to deal with increased competition. Who is this competition? I am. You are, too, if you're armed with a cell phone and an Internet connection. In fact, everybody who has a cell phone and access to the Internet is competition to the modern press. What's even more interesting, we are all 'journalists' that aren't in it to make money. With the rise of social networks, we have been conditioned to share a lot of our lives, from the very mundane to the very important.

It started in the early 2000s with camera phones. If something happened, your first instinct was to take your phone from your pocket and take a picture, but back then, sharing your photo online wasn't very easy or convenient. Fast-forward to 2014, where you have a smartphone with a great camera, Internet/data and the ability to share conveniently from said smartphone and an audience (social networks); the perfect press disruptor.

With all its resources, the press can't be everywhere all the time. It is impossible, for example, to compete with the person who is on the scene of an accident who decides to take a picture of said accident and share it with his/her friends on social media, who decide to in turn share it with their friends. In a matter of minutes, the news can literally be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. As smartphones rise in popularity, more breaking stories will come from non-news house sources both in Jamaica and around the world.

MIGHT NOT BE FIRST, BUT …

Media houses can't compete on being first anymore, but they can compete on being the best source for accurate, concise and detailed news stories, while also pushing more resources towards their web properties and having a stronger footprint on social media. You know, where their new audience mostly congregates.

For a very long time, the main way to digest news was mostly in long tabloid-like form, which was printed daily on paper and distributed to readers all across the country. The obvious decrease in newspaper sales means this isn't working anymore - and that's because the new generation and future generations of readers are consuming news differently.

Gen Y has often been called the 'instant gratification' generation, wanting it here and now, something that Twitter and Facebook do well. If something happens somewhere, chances are (if you're on social media), you'll read about it on Facebook and/or Twitter before you read about it in the newspaper.

So, the press can't beat us, their competition, on being first. But where I think they can also truly shine is in investigative reporting (something that their competition, us, won't do). There are a lot of valuable things that are currently in the dark that need to come to light. For example, police brutality, corrupt organisations, and so on. That's something that the competition will struggle with. Newspapers are not only companies that exist to make a profit; they also exist to hold institutions accountable.

It's a brave new world. The press has to almost operate like a start-up: experiment, tweak. Adapt what works quickly and drop what doesn't. Being nimble is crucial. Those who sit idly by and react instead of being proactive will die, that's the hard, cold truth.

In fact, as at the time of writing, long-time Apple magazine Macworld has closed its doors after more than 30 years in operation. It will, however, still operate its web property. This is now an all-too-familiar story.

Newspaper (and similar) companies all across the world are either struggling or have shut their doors permanently. I hope the Jamaican press is adapting to the changing times, because I truly do believe that our press needs to thrive if we are to continue to have a healthy democracy.

Gordon Swaby is an Internet entrepreneur. He is the founder and CEO of EduFocal Limited (http://www.edufocal.com), an online social-learning platform for GSAT and CSEC students. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and gordon@gordonswaby.com.