The stunning announcement that Hosni Mubarak was resigning from Egypt’s presidency in response to widespread civil protests—in which the media played no small part—is yet again a reminder of journalism’s democratic purpose. Coupled with AOL’s purchase of The Huffington Post, it also illustrates the rapid changes journalism has undergone of late.
Ideally, a free press serves as one of many checks and balances in the political system, fosters accountability, provides a public forum for diverse voices, and builds an informed citizenry that can participate in the democratic process. It preserves democracy where it exists and even helps to foster democracy where it does not. When obstructed from fulfilling these roles, the media not only fail to advance democratic governance, but can actively undermine it.
But a fundamental question dominates the industry today: How can the media, especially in Latin America, continue to fulfill its essential roles in the face of continuous challenges?
Threats and Challenges to the Media
Latin American media confront a wide range of threats, from the long-standing to the new, the overt to the surreptitious. Long-standing barriers to freedom of expression include anachronistic legislative frameworks, such as obsolete desacato (insult) and criminal and civil defamation laws; impunity for criminal acts against journalists; and the withdrawal of government advertising or licensing support. Extortion and bribery by drug traffickers or corrupt officials also continue to be a problem, leading to intimidation, violence and troubling trends of self-censorship. Examples of these “conventional” threats abound. Just last week, the Ecuadorean government arrested an opposition journalist and interrupted a morning news broadcast on an opposition station; on Wednesday in Mexico, armed individuals attacked two media companies in the north-central city of Torreón, a battleground for competing drug cartels.
Aside from these obvious aggressions, the journalism industry has also begun to face quieter threats, less readily apparent. These include the precipitous declines in advertising revenue and increases in concentration of ownership, especially with the explosion in digital and social media. While in some ways these changes are expanding the number of voices in the media, in other ways they are drastically reducing the quality and diversity of information presented. Upending traditional business models for journalism, these pressures continue to leave many to question whether journalism as we once knew (or idealized) it, is dead.
Though cognizant of the many threats to freedom of expression, I am no pessimist about the future of journalism. And I am not alone. Jaime Abello, co-founder and director general of the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, a Colombia-based nonprofit center for developing capacity among journalists, told me in a recent interview that, “In spite of everything, there has always been journalism, and there will always be journalism.” No matter the obstacle, there are some strategies we can adapt to ensure that high-quality journalism continues to exist.
Media behemoths and small newcomers have already begun take on the challenge, offering up a variety of innovative advertising, content delivery and business models. The first, most obvious solution, is for traditional print news sources to begin charging for their online content, as they always have for their print content. It seems increasingly likely that the mainstream news are headed this direction in 2011, with newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal already leading the way in the U.S. and suggestions that major Latin American dailies like Chile’s El Mercurio and Brazil’s O Globo will soon follow.
Beyond this basic shift, news organizations will still need to develop new operational models, funding sources and revenue-generation models. One possible option is that of nonprofit investigative journalism centers, such as Chile’s Centro de Investigación e Información Periodística (CIPER) or Colombia’s Consejo de Redacción. These centers are funded largely, if not entirely, by philanthropic foundations and often receive support from or collaborate with public or academic institutions, ensuring smoother operations, more resources from which to draw and greater impact. In the United States, ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative site, is sharing content with many print publications that are losing the resources for original investigative reporting.
Another possible path that has gained traction in the United States is “hyperlocal” journalism, which, as it sounds, covers highly specific, limited geographic areas. AOL’s Patch and the New York Times‘ local blogs are two well-known examples. Although the movement is not widespread in Latin America, there is interest in it. Responding to this interest, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas recently offered an online course on the topic for Latin American and Caribbean journalists.
Yet a third new model may be for journalists to take on a greater role as content aggregators and editors, rather than only reporters and writers. In today’s climate of information deluge, perhaps what readers are lacking is not the main story, but rather, someone to synthesize the various versions of that story, and distill the meaningful content from the trite. Latino and Spanish-language counterparts to the U.S.’ Huffington Post and Drudge Report have already sprung up, such as the Latino Briefing Room and Argentina’s NSBK. In addition, social news websites like Menéame and Fresqui, which feature stories submitted by users and rank them based on popularity, are becoming increasingly popular.
As these models continue to evolve, they will be joined by others that will carry the mantle of creating and disseminating high-quality content, so as to educate the public and demand accountability of political leaders and systems. In today’s often volatile world, such content is one thing for which we can be sure there will always be demand.
*Update: The Committee to Protect Journalists recently launched Attacks on the Press 2010, a comprehensive guide to international press freedom that is published annually. Click here to access the report.
Nina Agrawal is Associate Editor of Americas Quarterly and Policy Associate at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.