The Hardest Knock

The Hardest Knock: The last ten years of a news century
Published on September 02, 2007 in a special supplement to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the Trinidad Publishing Company's Guardian Newspaper.

September 2017
I flip open my phone, half-expecting to see the update already, but some traditions, almost forgotten now, must be honoured.
For the issue that marks the one hundredth anniversary of the first published Guardian newspaper, the online feed has been halted until the traditional press start time.
There's a part of me that feels proud of the publication for taking this opportunity to remind its readers of the long tradition of publishing, but there's another part of me that just knows that most of today's readers simply won't get it.

Where I see sentiment and history, they just see an annoying, unnecessary halt to the continuous news feed that constitutes the core of the Guardian's business these days.
My phone, which folds down to the size of a half-pack of cigarettes (remember those?) opens to a screen on which a funky graphic of letters tumbling like press rollers spells out "Please hold, the press will start soon..."
In the wee hours of the morning, the graphic disappears with a chuffing, clanking sound effect and the familiar newsfeed, a summary list of the current news on the island, region and the wider world begins to scroll slowly down the screen. The format has been re-designed, but the items I'm interested in are still tagged in the particularly fetching shade of cerulean that I've chosen for my selects.

The top story suggested for viewing is the Guardian history special, a collection of features, photos and footage that traces the history of the paper from its early days of wooden floors, monolithic manual typewriters and yellowing copy paper and the hard rhythmic banging of the lead forms as they hammered out the next edition of the paper.
There's still a published edition of the paper, of course. It's required for the public record and for people who still prefer to read something printed on the crushed pulp of dead trees. But it's been five years now since ubiquitous bandwidth and readable text on today's foldable cellphone screens smade the idea of a printed paper, sealed for posterity at the moment that ink meets newsprint, a memento of the 20th century.

Those were challenging times, as the old arguments about the convenience of radio, the engagement of television and the richness of journalistic reporting collided with a fourth force that few were paying enough attention to, the Internet.
The groundswell didn't start with the traditional media houses. It began with talented tech heads and some smart writers and photographers who saw the Internet not as a metaphorical highway but as a destination, a real medium that was maturing quickly.
Bored with the standard news cycle, they started creating news pages that featured in-depth stories, extensive photojournalism, video background and audio clips that spoke directly to a generation that had grown up on the newsbursts of RSS feeds and the pointed video clips of YouTube.

The first efforts were clunky, to say the least. Much of the writing was enthusiastic but poorly structured and fact checked, and the first thing these early publishers learned came from a hands-on experience with legal process, as their subjects responded to cavalier slander with sobering seriousness.
Things settled down a bit after that. went out of business after losing their first legal battle and the remaining web reporters abandoned their rivalry and consolidated around a more sustainable approach to web journalism.
Retired journalists found themselves needed again for more than a few sage bits of writing on the op-ed pages, as a new generation of web journalists decided that learning the ropes was better than getting hung by them.
At first, traditional media ignored the new channel for information. Traditional audience measures didn't calculate subscribers to news feeds or clock web hits, but the phone companies saw the sudden jump in subscribers to their data plans, and the surge in data demand.

The first response from phone companies was to stanch this flow by raising rates, but then they began to examine where the data was coming from and realised that what they were seeing wasn't a fad, but a trend and one that could be profitable.
Data rates dropped, prices on Internet-enabled phones were slashed and suddenly there were only two kinds of phones, cheap ones you stashed in the glove compartment for an emergency or gave to your sub-teen children and the rest, the data-enabled phones that everyone over 11 was using.
It's fair to say that traditional media didn't see this trend coming, at least not by any traditional indicators. What tipped media managers off was what they weren't seeing, specifically an audience in the age range 18 and below.
The numbers hadn't quite dropped off to zero when traditional media started studying the phenomenon, there were enough households with children reporting that they were part of the traditional audience that the decline was seen as steady, not the freefall it actually was.

But by 2011, it was clear to anyone who cared to notice that their children weren't just staring at text messages on their phones and laptops and the primary source for information for anyone under 25 was one (and often several) of the news sites that streamed information to an Internet device.
The immediacy of the information flow was startling. Young people glancing at their phones were walking off the street to alert fire officers to a blaze before the phone could ring. In one often referenced incident, an agitated youth resorted to holding up a video of the blaze running on his phone's screen to convince incredulous fire fighters.

News was being sent in as text messages by reporters and reader/viewer tips were being flagged and confirmed within minutes of transmission. Pictures were flowing into these news sites from a multiplicity of sources. At a shootout at a popular restaurant, one news site was able to post a gallery of images from phones on the spot that told the story like a comic strip.
By 2015, web videos were streaming incontrovertible proof of shady activity even as public relations professionals were denying incidents live on TV.
Something, clearly, had to give. As it turned out, the givers were the traditional media houses and the recipients were the now handsomely rewarded young entrepreneurs who had created a virtual fourth estate that was so embedded in the awareness of a new audience that it became clear to traditional publishers and broadcasters that it made more sense to buy and switch than fight.

Within a generation, newsrooms consolidated as the urgency of newsgathering on a minute by minute basis and the need to review and edit a massive feed of information became the core task of publishers.
News on television and radio became a perfunctory production, a nod to the legal requirement to provide community service, but the real business of media was the punishing work of sifting through news from journalists in the field, text feeds from readers and regular contributors, double checking the comments on stories to kill obscenities and legally dubious opinions and editing photo galleries, audio and video clips to support the key stories of the day (and night).
I often think of an aphorism that one of my mentors shared with me back when I began writing about technology, "tell me something I don't know about something I don't care about."
These days, that's metamorphosed into a new creed, "tell me everything you know about everything that's happening, because somebody out there will grab the feed to find out about it."

A postscript.
If there's anything that pontificating about technology for ten years has taught me, it's that guessing about the future is a risky business that's almost guaranteed to be an embarrassing failure.
The brief for this piece was to provide a forward look to where the Guardian might be in 2017, on its 100th birthday.
Ten years ago, I was just joining the paper again after a hiatus of five years and the future, viewed from that perspective, looks just like the past, only different.
Yes, the next ten years will definitely bring changes.
Will they be as drastic as I'm suggesting in this piece? Probably not. But there are influences strengthening that will change the way news is reported and consumed in the coming years. How they will evolve newsgathering remains unclear.
We still don't have personal rocket packs and flying cars, but the basic building blocks of this story already exist. How they come together in evolving journalism remains to be seen.
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