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The media and communications industry is the sector most impacted by technology and the rapid speed with which technological changes are taking place.

This speed is unprecedented, no more so than in the news media space, where such changes are characterised by both convergence and fragmentation - convergence in terms of the platforms and technologies utilised to produce, disseminate and consume media content, and fragmentation by the multitude of platforms and content providers that shape the contemporary news media sphere.

Equally, such changes pose challenges, as well as opportunities - challenges of access and digital divides and opportunities to overcome these problems, by opening up possibilities for cheaper and greater access to and participation in media production and consumption.

Overall, “new” technology has made the news media industry adapt multi-platform approaches at all stages of the production, distribution and consumption of media content.

The focus is no longer merely on transmission, but on conversation with audiences demanding to interact with, as well as produce, content - preferably in real time.

In essence, the news media industry has gone from supplying a mass audience to serving the individual, or a collective of individuals. All in all, the rather idealistic and ephemeral idea of a “mass audience” has been overturned by very real and present, smaller and more niched audience/s.

This has resulted in contemporary audiences having both choice (between summation, opinion and context in news), as well as control over news flows in ways that are unprecedented.

With the audience as the co-creator of news, the news agenda is increasingly being determined by citizen journalists and social media activists through blogging and Tweeting through Twitter.

In particular, this serves as a tool for breaking news and as a measure for news that is hovering under the radar, and what is trending on social media is now determined by the audience and not traditional news media.

This is radically changing the way in which journalists are thinking about news or breaking news. Inevitably, it forces them to produce news at the same rate that their audiences can access it through other sources.

Journalists are obliged to operate in real time and they can no longer afford to sit on a news story for too long or to hold it back until more facts have been gathered or more research done. If they do so, they risk being “out-scooped” by the competition.

This leads to greater error margins in terms of fact checking, truthfulness and adherence to ethical codes of conduct, and standards of news.

With increased convergence of technologies, plus financial pressures on news media, has come the multi-skilling of newsroom staff, and journalists are no longer just writers or photographers, but need to have a wide variety of skills in terms of the news production process.

This is thought by some sceptics to undermine the standards of journalism, while others argue that this opens up new and interesting opportunities for the profession. 

However, it is not only the production, distribution and consumption of media that has changed. Perhaps more important are the changes to the real and even perceived role of the news media.

By its very nature as a public good and through having claimed a role as the “Fourth Estate” and representative of “the public”, journalism is hotly debated, watched by everyone as a practice that elicits different views, sometimes of praise or condemnation. 

More and more, the news media’s claims to public representativeness and as an institution to reveal as well as keep checks and balances on misuse of power, corruption, human rights abuses - whether by the state, big business or private individuals - is being questioned.

In South Africa, the news media has fulfilled such a role rather ambivalently.

While some sectors of the news media aligned themselves with particular political ideologies, during and after apartheid, others fought against them. Either way, we have never been able to claim to have news media that truly represented the broader South African public - sadly, not even our public broadcaster.

However, with the rise of new media platforms and social media in particular - especially with its emphasis on providing access, alternative viewpoints, challenges to mainstream media and the mainstreaming of politics and social debates - the role that both traditional and new media can play in contemporary society is being considerably strengthened through opportunities that new technology and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, have opened up.

Enter journalism 4.0 and a news media that learns to adopt and adapt to technology to serve and fulfil its most basic function and most important cause of delivering accurate, timely and comprehensive information to audiences, national or local, general or niched.

In the South African context, where audiences are still fragmented - with large segments still cut off from mainstream media and where access is premised on socio-economic demographics - the news media and journalists need to find ways of reaching out to new audiences and new and more socially engaged forms of news.

Whereas much focus has been put on the changes to platforms, distribution and the consumption patterns of news, it is the production of news and the tools provided for research that stand to change the practice of journalism the most. This is where the greatest potential lies for strengthening the role that journalism can play. Here journalism can use technology and social media to its advantage.

The new world created by Industry 4.0 opens up for journalism the ever-evolving tools for research and information verification provided by technology. Here, Artificial Intelligence (AI) provides endless opportunities.

Think of Wikileaks and the Panama Papers, and the endless opportunities for forming partnerships with global news networks and with journalists and NGOs that work on issues that concern us all.

Amidst the scourge of fake news, investigative journalism that draws on any resource possible to verify the facts of a story will have to form the basis of a new definition of journalism. 

With the same technology increasingly available to the audience, journalism will also have to trade in stories that provide the audience with ways to verify how a story was produced and where the information came from. Transparency will become more crucial than ideas of objectivity or even balance.

Technological advances are key in this regard and journalism can build on what technology and the promise of Industry 4.0, at least as far as AI goes, cannot do, in terms of relationships, based on very real and human interactions. Such journalism will have to be characterised by empathy. Empathy grounded in the knowledge emanating from the real and lived experiences of the other. Only then can we tell the stories that matter to our audiences.

Amidst renewed calls for transformation and the decolonisation of the news media, this is particularly important if we are to furnish a journalism that humanises, where it more often than not has dehumanised.

Thus journalism 4.0 is a journalism that uses technology to its advantage, to provide stories that are accurate, in-depth, investigative and compelling, in ways that talk to the wants and needs of its audiences.While we may no longer think of the news media as the Fourth Estate, Journalism 4.0 stands to fulfil an equally important, if not more important, role.

* Rodny-Gumede is a professor of journalism at the University of Johannesburg. 

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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Sunday Independent Dispatch