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Opinion News
May 25,2016

Media in the age of disruption

Azhar Abbas

Over a billion people consume it on a monthly basis, averaging two hours of use a day. It has the largest advertising network. This largest media organisation in the world is not a media conglomerate, it’s Facebook. The consumption of information on this platform is 10 times more than TV.

Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm is frequently changed and has been optimised to make people spend more time on the platform by showing them what they may be interested in more.

In the olden days, as my son likes to call it, before the advent of TV, newspapers controlled the information in a linear fashion. Then TV channels came and content became slightly more diverse and engaging – yet remained a linear format. People didn’t mind waiting for it.

Today in this age of disruption caused by technology, individuals like Qandeel Baloch or Tahir Shah have become social media stars even before they appear on TV. Sensational stories are the junk food of our news diet, the high cholesterol nihari that we all gobble up. We all know that it’s bad for us – but it’s delicious.

If it’s raw or live – even better, feeds our voyeuristic tendencies! The more personal the story, the more drawn we are to it. That’s why the smallest of the things become the biggest on social media and TV tries to play catch up.

Take PTI chief Imran Khan for example. He has about 4 million (3.74 million) followers on Twitter [that is, more than the circulation of probably all of Pakistan’s leading newspapers combined].

When he posts, his followers share and endorse it in thousands.But what happens when it’s something like fabricated? The mis-information is spread in thousands.

Today’s news is broken instantaneously on Twitter. This kind of content receives likes, shares, views and comments. We may despise it but we still devour it. A story on tax reforms, which may help the common Pakistani, can never even imagine to receive much popularity – on air or online.

But you know what really gets massive eyeballs on TV? Reenacments – of crime, rape, abuse, domestic violence, black magic… that’s what the audience is watching most in April & May 2016.

So while we can sit at big conferences and discuss issues of national importance, this is really what we are watching on TV. That too at the height of a raging political crisis in the country. Unlike social media, the traditional media provide information after vetting and verifying facts. After all, that is their duty to their audience.

Today, anyone with access to information also has the ability to spread the information; because on social media you can be anyone you like. There are about 21 million people with smart phones in Pakistan, 25 million with Whatsapp installed on their phones, about 3 million Pakistanis on Twitter – they all want to break the story. They all want to be First – in sharing information.

No verification, no credibility checks – retweet, let’s share. This puts pressure on broadcast media and news websites. They cannot lag behind, especially when the public has the power to share information.

News headlines are flashing on the screen 24 times in a day, while bulletins occupy roughly a quarter of the 24-hour cycle. There are about 34 news channels in Pakistan. These news channels don’t operate the way social media does. We don’t have a 24 hours cycle… social media does.

Newsrooms have to learn to manage and match the speed of social media. In the process of doing so, journalists and traditional news falter; we become careless and irresponsible.

There is no denying that news channels are engaged in a constant rat race of their own – desire/demand to break the story first, procure the best exclusive shot, the first interview with the victim if injured or with his family if he didn’t make it, the most sensational story, the biggest scandal.

However, we are all too quick to pass judgement against the media alone for this sensationalism. Are we not sharing unverified information on social media ourselves? The appetite for sensationalism is higher than I’ve ever known. It’s really a catch 22 scenario here.

The audience doesn’t want sensationalism 24/7. The media too wants to tell not-so-sensational stories, but the advertiser doesn’t want to advertise on channels that are not getting the required ratings.

How many follow-ups do you see of a regular news story on TV? Every big breaking story is replaced by another bigger breaking story and that is how the cycle has run for so long. Some call it the vicious cycle of breaking news.

You cannot conform your audience to scheduled programming on TV anymore. We have to adapt to their demands. We have to train our reporters to be faster – without jeopardising their integrity or credibility.

To cope with this technological evolution, journalists will need to unlearn old ways and simultaneously be trained to verify content in super tight timelines. It is painstakingly tough, but that is what traditional media does, what our core responsibilities are – to inform the audience with authentic, reliable, actionable information.

Yes we are geared to improve, to embrace the future, but it will make no difference if we are busy feeding the good wolf and the audience continues to feed the bad wolf. The bad wolf today is the unregulated, unfiltered and irresponsible social media. Most of the content that is posted on social media is unverifiable. Many of the posts you have probably shared over the last week would fall into that category.

Unlike newspapers, televised news is not at risk of extinction due to digital disruption, not yet at least. For TV to remain relevant, the content will have to change. The format will need to get creative. And if you are unable to match the speed, you’re gone.

There are noticeable changes happening around us. TV may remain an important source of getting news and information, but it will no longer be the dominant force.

With the changing dynamics of reporting and accessing news in the digital age, we have to be careful about which of the two wolves we feed. Because tomorrow if the bad wolf comes to bite you… it will be because you fed it and made it stronger.

In less than a decade, linear programming will be replaced with streaming and on-demand services. The young generation will not have the patience for traditional media. But there will be informational chaos and confusion as well.

For a future where news is reliable, verifiable and on point – we have to take responsibility collectively. Pakistani media today needs to take immediate measures to diversify and match the speed of advancement. We need to get ready; change is already here.

This article has been excerpted froma speech made by the writer at a conference in Karachi.

The writer is the managing director of Geo News.


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