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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

In a digital age, can mainstream media match Silicon Valley's lure?

Ahead of The National's Future Forum tomorrow, Tom Fletcher asks how media outlets will stay ahead of the curve, retraining for the roles that robots cannot do

Fake news is intended to make individuals question everything that is put before them. Sean Gallup / Getty
Fake news is intended to make individuals question everything that is put before them. Sean Gallup / Getty

When I was at school, being disruptive got you a detention. Last week I visited a Silicon Valley academy where it was on the syllabus. In the digital age, we need to learn to be disruptors – or we will be disrupted.

Few industries face this challenge more than the media. The smartphone makes us all broadcasters; social platforms have put the “me” in media.

By the time you finish this article, human beings will have produced six million Facebook posts, two million Instagram photos and one million tweets.

YouTube has more content uploaded each month than US channels broadcast in their first 60 years.

People used to ask where you were when you heard of the death of an icon. The answer now is probably Twitter.

We watched the Berlin Wall fall through newspaper images and the Twin Towers fall on television. Now, we watch the daily rise and fall of US President Donald Trump’s ire on Twitter.

The reduced flash-to-bang time for news, from an event to coverage of it, creates the sense of time speeding up.

This is as destabilising for journalism as for the rest of us. Journalists now reflect the popular reaction, often through social media, as part of their initial reports.

The 24/7 news cycle destroys the ability to be strategic, take a longer term perspective or step out from the crush of events.

This decline in our attention spans coincides with a decline in the resources available to the news industry.

With automation accelerating, media outlets face a further existential crisis. How long will it be before artificial intelligence will be able to write this column?

Meanwhile, trust is falling dramatically in institutions and hierarchies and media outlets will not escape.

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Read more from Tom Fletcher:

How Casper Klynge is reinventing diplomacy as the world's first tech ambassador

There are fewer wars when you take power away from men in big castles

The pursuit of happiness is backed by science

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The period that followed the invention of the printing press was also one of fake news, slander and libel, a weaponisation of words. Like the internet, it reduced the entry barrier for access to information. Now, once again, journalism finds itself under assault.

Russia generates fake news via Facebook. Mr Trump singles out mainstream media for derision at rallies. Monopolisation has increased the sense that news can be traded like a commodity. So how can media outlets get back on the right side of the digital age? It depends on how they respond to four challenges.

First, can journalism disrupt itself before it is disrupted?

The shift to digital shows that it can evolve rapidly. The Washington Post now publishes a story every two minutes.

With half of all jobs predicted to disappear in the coming two decades, media outlets will need to stay ahead of the curve, retraining for the roles that robots cannot do.

Creativity and the ability to capture the human connection will become even more important.

Second, can the media help us to curate all this overwhelming data?

Of the trillion photos taken this year, which are the ones that matter? Of the four million hours of new content on YouTube each day, where is the real news?

We need help escaping our echo chambers and separating fact from opinion, reportage from analysis. Traditional media has always helped us sift data. That role just got exponentially harder.

Third, can news organisations, as they have at their best, make human society better? Will they challenge injustice and throw a light on inequality and corruption? Can they democratise their ownership models? Can they hold the new emperors, including in Silicon Valley, to account?

The facts have to drive the story, not the other way round.

The generation coming to influence is the first to have spent their entire lives with the internet. They will shine a light into dark corners and comfort zones. Any craft that cannot show that it has social value will struggle.

Finally, can traditional media embrace the desire that individuals increasingly have to participate? Can outlets channel our desire to take photos, share news, create films in a way that builds collective awareness of the world around us? Can they build peer review systems for news-gathering that increase our trust in the product?

As marketeers have long realised, people believe the voices of their peers more than elites. A generation of citizen journalists is an opportunity. Transparency safeguards relevance. Engagement builds trust. Journalists will need to embrace their inner anarchist.

We all need the ability to make this transformation. It will take courage and creativity. It will rely on the next generation of readers, watchers and producers learning the critical thinking needed to discern and value quality rather than fall for the demagogues who want to destroy it. The press can continue to entertain, educate, enlighten and empower us. But we will all need to help.

Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador and will be speaking at The National’s Future Forum tomorrow in Abu Dhabi