The old business model for media organisations is broken: Dominic Ziegler


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Dominic Ziegler is currently The Economist’s Singapore bureau chief and Banyan columnist. Based in Singapore, he covers the whole region, from Afghanistan down to New Zealand.

In his career at The Economist, spanning nearly four decades, he acted as the newspaper’s China Correspondent, Washington Correspondent, Tokyo Bureau Chief and Asia Editor. He also published his book, ‘Black Dragon River’ in 2015. 

This year, Ziegler came to Dhaka to attend the Dhaka Lit Fest, which recently ended. The Business Standard sat down with Ziegler to speak about his illustrious career, press freedom, social media and more.  

What is the state of press freedom around the world now? 

Well, we’ve been fighting for more press freedom around the world. I would say, in recent years, things have gone backwards in several countries. For instance, the Philippines has seen an assault on the press. And in fact, Maria Ressa [co-founder and CEO of Rappler], was threatened by former President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte that her publication would be shut down. But she was given a Nobel prize and that has helped. We’ve seen press freedom going backwards in a lot of places. 

However, I’m mildly optimistic that things might be turning in parts of the world, precisely because the autocrats and populists who have been ruling have not been performing very well and so their popularity has fallen. For instance, Brazilian populist presidents have not been returned to power. And to me, that’s a kind of little chink of optimism in a general environment of reverse in this area.

What about the financial viability of media organisations in the age of social media? 

It’s incredibly hard. The old model was to build up a high readership and then sell advertisements on the back of that high readership. That model is broken. It’ll never return. And at the same time, readers reading news on the internet have come to expect it to be free. And it is extremely hard once you’ve lowered the paywall to bring it back up again. Slowly, it’s happening, and I would like to think that it’ll happen more for media institutions that are trusted, and trust is really at the heart of these things. 

People will be prepared in an age of fake news to pay more for the knowledge that the news they’re getting is honest and has integrity. That’s one model. But another thing, I think, it’s going to be essential is there has to be a philanthropic dimension to the supply of news and analysis. Not all media organisations will make money, but philanthropic institutions and others will see the value of having independence, impartial news and reporting and will put money to support it; I very much hope so. 

Speaking of fake news and misinformation, how can we fight it?  What should the readers do and what should we do as journalists?

If you ask how to separate fake news from real news, it becomes a bit more difficult nowadays. I think it’s really up to the readers. I would be glad to see people turning to authentic media, rather than turning to a rumour or all social media that is being manipulated by state powers or others. 

And I think that is a long-run thing, but I hope that there will be attempts. I realise as a user of social media that they need to be much more discriminating about what they read, and they need to be more careful about the sources of their news and information. Now you cannot believe everything. 

How does The Economist decide which story to pursue? What’s the process involved?

We need more time to really discuss this but, in short, we have editorial independence because the editor herself is not chosen by the owners. She’s chosen by an independent board; she has editorial independence and she gives us journalists editorial independence, and we are trusted therefore to decide what the stories are. 

We work in a very collegiate, collaborative way. We work with intense and complete integrity and we have a separate department that checks our facts. So often what we say is fact-checked by others and out of this comes insightful, informed reporting on the central issues of the day. 

How does The Economist continue to attract readers in the magazine format, despite not putting much emphasis on graphics?

These days, graphics are important and we are evolving in that area too. Our subscribers can read us with the physical paper, they can read us on the phone, or iPad, on the web. However they like it, we will supply it. We also supply our weekly edition in an audio version too; but we were doing so much more and have been investing a lot in data and graphics. 

And that is an essential part of how we tell a story and often, our stories will be predominantly about graphics and the representation of data and trends, more than they will be about the words. So we are trying everything and evolving to meet a new era in which just print pieces are not enough; we have to do much more in many media dimensions, that also includes podcasts and films. We are even on TikTok. That doesn’t mean we all dance in front of the camera to try to go viral. We do it in a different way, often with data. 

Even without the graphics, we have our readers. And the secret sauce for this is the absolute integrity of what we do. Also, we work in collaboration, and we have the resources to do so. We are fortunate that we are profitable; we’re a private organisation and make money. 

And, as I say, with collaboration, it means that we’re not just single journalists, we work together, and not just amongst journalists, but also amongst data experts, and production experts and or experts in other areas. 

And we have this debate culture in the DNA of The Economist. We constantly debate amongst ourselves and anybody is able to express their views, whether they’ve just joined that day or whether they’ve been there for 30 years.

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