Starkman Starts with the Bad News at the NewsImpact Summit

September 14, 2017

The digital revolution has created new challenges for the news business and threatened journalists’ ability to contribute to democracy, according to Dean Starkman, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, instructor and senior fellow at CEU’s Center for Media, Data and Society.

As the opening speaker in downtown Budapest at the September 11 NewsImpact Summit, which investigated the opportunities and challenges that digitalization poses to the media, Starkman focused on the challenges, worldwide and in Central and Eastern Europe.

“I’m basically here to bum you out,” he explained. “And then if you still haven’t given up, maybe you can find ways to save journalism during the rest of this conference.”

Photo: European Journalism Centre and Google News Lab

NewsImpact Summits were held in 14 different countries in Europe and the Middle East before coming to Budapest’s Akvarium Club on Erzsébet tér. The series is organized by the European Journalism Centre, with support from Google News Lab, and has the goal of encouraging innovation in news coverage. The Center for Media, Data and Society partnered in the Budapest NewsImpact Summit, which was subtitled “Methods and Tools for Digital Journalism” and presented new ideas for keeping news vital in the digital age.

Certain types of news products are doing fine, according to Starkman, who noted that the market for information about consumer goods, the work world and celebrities is booming. But when it comes to public interest journalism, the kind that supports democracy by informing citizens, he said we are in a time of crisis.

The problems

“Where we are right now is not normal. It is not normal for the president of the United States to essentially designate journalism as an enemy of the American people,” Starkman said.

 He listed some well-known concerns about the American press, like the preponderance of truly fake news, US President Donald Trump’s efforts to demonize good journalism and the right wing’s successes in pulling “the mainstream” to the right. He noted that print newspapers are vanishing, but they do not have an opportunity to be reborn online, as Google and Facebook dominate the digital advertising market. News outlets have responded to shrinking revenue by shrinking staffs or closing, which means there are fewer in-depth and investigative stories, Starkman said. He added that a tendency for news outlets to concentrate in major population centers encourages the kind of poor coverage of people living on the periphery that allowed the US media to be caught by surprise at the broad support for Trump.

As bad as the American situation is, it’s even worse in this part of the world, Starkman said, noting the particularly challenging situation of Hungary, where roughly 90% of the media is seen to be under government control.

“In small CEE markets, it’s very difficult for media outlets to get traction,” he said. Despite blatant government efforts to silence them, and an apparent a lack of impact of their stories, Starkman said, journalists are still able to make a difference, even in Hungary.

“It’s not just about measurable impact or parliamentary committees that are never established,” he explained. “It’s about a narrative that’s formed.” For instance, Starkman said, here in Hungary, where the current Fidesz government used to have an air of permanence and invincibility, coverage of opposition efforts have altered the narrative, to make the possibility of change in the 2018 election seem feasible.

Solutions from the region

The Central European perspective on the media was also on display when it came to discussing solutions and benefits of digitalization. In a panel moderated by CMDS Senior Program Officer Eva Bognar, representatives of two news websites from the region, Dennik N from Slovakia and from Hungary discussed their different approaches to economic survival.

Photo: European Journalism Centre and Google News Lab

Dennik N uses a subscription model, that puts most of the content behind a paywall. "I think people are willing to pay for this added-value, long content," said Tomas Bella of Dennik N. “We know that our users want to read us. They paid for it, so the content must be good.”

Photo: European Journalism Centre and Google News LabIn contrast, is free to read and seeks revenue from advertising, but they need more income, so they are currently conducting a crowdfunding campaign. According to Balázs Fenyő, of, people want and need good journalism, but it costs more to produce than can be funded through traditional means. As their crowdfunding page notes, stories conducted through time-consuming investigative journalism “would bring back a fraction of the production costs, while their societal benefits could be tremendous.”

Other regional contributors to the conference included Zuzanna Ziomecka of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. Ziomecka spoke about the new project her paper and other partners are undertaking with the support of the Google Digital News Initiative. Curated by women, “News Mavens”, seeks to encourage reporting from a woman’s viewpoint.

Noting that "women make up only 27% of decision makers in European newsrooms", Ziomecka explained that stories that are highlighted by news outlets are generally chosen by men, and can ignore women’s perspectives.

She said that her project will soon be publishing a news portal, with women journalists from various news organisations acting as the curators, who choose the content for that site. The end result, she said would be a better gender balance in the the news we receive. "More perspectives is what we need to understand the world", Ziomecka explained.

Another local presenter was Tamás Bodoky, the founder of the Hungarian investigative news portal, which also contains the “Magyarleaks” platform, a secure system that lets whistleblowers give anonymous information to the media. Bodoky told the conference about the importance of getting the audience involved in sharing information, and discussed the tools that can be used to encourage this. The key, he explained, is to make it safe for someone to leak information anonymously, and to to make sure their experience is rewarding by publishing stories about good leaks.

Other presentations included creative responses to the challenges of digitialization by major outlets, like the BBC, Der Spiegel and the Washington Post.

The summit featured a lot of good ideas and innovative approaches that offer promise for future solutions. While no one had a magic answer for the threats of digitalization that Starkman brought up at the beginning of the day, even he had to admit that digitalization is also providing benefits for journalism. As an example he noted the Panama Papers, the 2016 story about money laundering that involved a consortium of hundreds of reporters around the world.

“You just couldn’t do this without the internet,” Starkman said. “It leverages existing resources.”

Judging by the ideas and energy shared at the NewsImpact conference, journalists are happy to use the internet as a lever, and they are not yet too “bummed out” to keep seeking innovative solutions for the future of the news business.

The article was written by Tom Popper.

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