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A News Media in Crisis?

January 31, 2012

Here is a paradox. One of world's richest men, who also owns a global communications technology giant, can't get your attention. Not even when he's doing something really clever and very good.

That's Bill Gates' problem and I hope we find some solutions for him at a meeting in Seattle of some of the world's most innovative media people.

We live in a world where it is now possible to tell everyone about everything. The Internet allows us all the potential to connect globally and instantly. But because there is now an abundance of information and a deluge of digital distraction we don't always pay attention to the important things. The things where we can make a difference.

Here's one of those things.

Billions of dollars are being spent by the Gates Foundation to eradicate diseases in Africa (and on a lot more) but it's not enough. We need to make sure that the example that this work is setting, and the benefits it brings, are spread wider and last longer than the largesse of the philanthropists who put in the money now.

Even where journalism is thriving as a business - in places like Brazil or India - it does not always want to cover the tough topics like health and development.

To do that we need to communicate the facts about health and development much better than we do at present.

We need to have a debate with people in the rich countries and the poor countries about how to prevent the waste and suffering that comes with bad health and poverty. We need those citizens to have the knowledge so they can persuade their governments to act. We need to inspire other people to help and pass on the lessons learnt.

The best way to distribute that information and the best place to have that conversation is through the media. It can be through social networks like Facebook or Twitter. But we also need journalists who can report from the field and use their expertise to explain the issues and analyse what's going on.

Unfortunately, the news media in much of the world is in crisis. Even where journalism is thriving as a business - in places like Brazil or India - it does not always want to cover the tough topics like health and development. It is so much easier to put a celebrity on the front page. And to be fair to the hard-pressed journalist, there are a lot of other competing stories out there like the economic crisis engulfing Europe and North America. 

So I have been arguing for some years now that journalists need to use the new technologies to tell their stories in new ways. I call it 'networked journalism'. It means using tools like Twitter or mobile phones and it means working with the public to create the narrative. At our meeting in Seattle we are going to hear from huge traditional news organisations like the BBC who are using these techniques. 

But they need to do more than change how they work. They have to change what they are, as a business. As BBC Global News Director Peter Horrocks put it, they have to change from being a 'fortress' to a network.

And we're seeing new kinds of news institutions.

ProPublica in the US and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK are two examples of serious news media organisations funded in part by charitable foundations. I don't think that is the only or best solution but it shows that fresh-thinking about how we create journalism can produce results. 

I have seen how networked journalism is now a fact of life in modern media from New York to Nairobi. It's working, but it's still in its infancy. I think that as we get much more interactive, participatory and connected news media then perhaps we will be able to help solve Bill's problem. Journalism can't transform the world on its own; people, politicians and money do that. But as we have seen recently in parts of the Arab world, networked communications can be a critical catalyst for change.

To continue the conversation about journalism, new media, storytelling and more join the discussion at #storytelling on Twitter.

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