This year’s edition of the World Newspaper Congress, held in Bangkok the last several days, ended with two reminders (their pairing perhaps unintended) on the perils and promises facing journalism.
In the closing session, held jointly with the World Editors Forum and the World Advertising Forum, the redoubtable Steve Crocker spoke boldly and candidly about that which he had helped develop: the Internet. But first he spoke jokingly. Asked if in those early days he had ever imagined that the Internet would be what it is today, he said, “Everything is proceeding exactly on schedule.”
While still a graduate student in the late 1960s, Crocker was on the team that engineered the protocols for the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, better known as Arpanet, the so-called “first Internet.” Today, he serves as chair of ICANN, the powerful Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Crocker’s real answer was that some of the things we take for granted about the Internet today were already glimpsed at the start, and others have taken him by surprise. “There were advanced graphics, database machines and so forth. We could see, touch and feel the future. The mouse and hypertext had been invented,” he said, as quoted on the conference organizer’s blog. But there was much he didn’t foresee, too. “I didn’t see Google; I didn’t see Facebook; I didn’t see the personal side developing as much.”
It was what he said about the future of the Internet, however, which grabbed the audience’s attention. In a word, he saw a pair of disappearing acts. “One is, we have seen the rise of speech understanding—there will come a time when people can interact with some devices as easily as you and I are interacting, and keyboards will largely disappear.” The second thing he foresees we will eventually take for granted is the Internet itself. “The second thing is I think the Internet will somewhat disappear. It will just be there. We don’t talk about the electric grid, for example. It’s just part of the daily life almost everywhere. Quite a lot of the Internet will recede into the background.”
This seems undoubtedly right, but as an even more famous prophet of cyberspace noted long ago: The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. For many in the developed world, a lot of the Internet will recede into the background; for many in developing countries, however, the Internet—its problems, its possibilities—will remain very much in the foreground. In other words, and for a long time to come, it cannot be taken for granted. Whether the issue is bandwidth or cybercrime, access or privacy, or any number of social questions, the Internet will not “disappear.”
The rise of the Internet, of course, is the most visible change driver in journalism (as in many other professions and industries). Many other factors contribute to the turmoil, the disruption, that has overwhelmed the industry, but it is the Internet phenomenon which has struck the media landscape like an earthquake. It is worth noting, though, that Crocker’s turn on the Bangkok stage was facilitated by a journalist, Pichai Chuensuksawadi, editor in chief of the Bangkok Post. Unlike many if not most American or European newspapers, and like many newspapers in Asia, especially in China and India, the Post was a good example of a still-largely-print-based media organization that had adapted well to the Internet age. In the last 10 years, the Post tripled its revenues.
This kind of adaptation and success is crucial not just to the media industry, but to society at large. On the final day of the Congress and its affiliated conferences, the World Association of Newspapers and Newspaper Publishers (WAN-Ifra) published its annual Global Press Freedom Report. In the 12 months between June 2012 and May 2013, at least 15 journalists died covering the civil war in Syria, and 10 more were killed in Somalia. “Whether at the hand of extremists, organised criminal gangs or official security forces, journalists increasingly find themselves in the firing line,” WAN-Ifra reported.
Conflict coverage is only the most visible, the most dramatic, responsibility that journalists discharge, but it best makes the case for journalism as something society itself needs. Difficult reporting, necessary reporting, daily reporting, however, all require continuing investments in manpower and money.