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‘We are entering the second phase of digital disruption’

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Steve Coll, Dean of Columbia Jounalism School, was in the city to participate in a conversation with Anant Goenka, wholetime Director and Head of New Media at The Indian Express.


During the conversation, he spoke about various things ranging from the convergence of different mediums in media, the role new technologies can play in journalism and the future of the profession. Labelling the current phase as the second phase of digital disruption,  Coll said, “The first phase of disruption by digital media had begun in the late 90s but really started to accelerate after 2000. There was a lot of euphoria and magical thinking about how the restructuring of the relationship between journalists and audiences was going to create a whole new community. But, like most Utopian ideas, this also disappointed us. It showed that while crowds could possess wisdom, they could also act as mobs. The purpose of entering journalism for many of us involved holding power accountable and the pursuit of bringing transparency in democratic government. We wanted to bring out excluded voices and stories by figuring out how to engage curious citizens. And the idea that one new wave of technology was somehow going to wash away these professional purposes always seemed doubtful. Now with the second phase that we are entering in our relationship with technology, it includes some promises that we can take these emerging technologies and actually apply them to our enduring democratic purposes.”


However, while the new wave has its advantages, Coll said that an obvious exodus of readership moving towards digital is also happening currently. “In India, like in Japan and Germany, Print is still very strong. However, in the US, we are seeing a more rapid erosion of Print readership. Sunday is the only day when people seem to like to sit down with a printed newspaper. But otherwise, we are headed in a transition towards a digital reading future. Print is an amazing technology and it has survived for thousands of years for a reason. For newspapers, the message is clear, you have to start visualizing a future in which many if not most or all of your readers are coming to you digitally.” The possible solution one sees for the medium then is to re-invent itself in an attempt to keep its audience base intact, and Coll feels that the process has started already. The change one is seeing in the medium, Coll adds, has to do with the opening up of the newsroom to lots of different forms of story-telling and lots of media. “The challenge is more on the business side, the revenue side, it’s not so much on the audience side,” Coll adds.


Coll also stresses on the need for the medium to innovate and to keep looking to engage readers by holding powerful people to account, telling great stories, taking great documentary photographs or making documentary videos and films. “We live in a world where citizens need clear independent information to clarify a lot of confusing subjects and I think we are now in a phase where audiences are showing they still value professional journalists, going out there and doing their job in an independent and creative way.”  Journalism, on the whole, is also getting affected, in a huge way by the advent of social media. On its effects, good or bad, Coll adds, “Obviously, it’s changed the way readers find their stories. It has probably loosened reader’s connection to particular brands by allowing them to successfully customize their own engagement with stories. For newspaper publishers, this year has been a very important change in that they have had turned to Facebook and social media platforms to distribute their stories.”


When asked about whether he still sees the same fire in young journalism students today to go out and change the world as in the past, Coll says, “We have been amazed at the number of applications we get for specialized courses and investigative reporting courses. When you meet the students, you realize they are very driven. They want to go deep and have a public life as investigative reporters. No matter how these kaleidoscopic changes in audience strategy and advertising mix evolve over the next 20 years, I think it’s quite sound to have confidence that if you know how to report, to break stories, to surprise audiences with new information, you are going to be valuable. If you distinguish yourself by going deeper, and this is true in documentary film-making and some other areas, it’s still a sound strategy and a good way to live a life. A lot of young people that I have gotten to know over the last two or three years, are motivated that way.”


Feedback: samarpita.banerjee@exchange4media.com

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