by Thu Vân
“Your pens are the sharp weapons in the cause of telling the truth…”
Thus began a letter that President Ho Chi Minh wrote to intellectuals and journalists in the southern part of the country on May 25, 1947.
He also said in the same letter that “journalists should act like brave soldiers in the revolution to gain back unity and independence for the country.”
One cannot imagine loftier ideals for this profession.
Today, the lofty ideals may remain, but there are times I feel these are gathering dust in the shelves of our memory as the profession goes through one existential crisis after another.
More than seven decades after President Hồ Chí Minh wrote the famous letter, it is fair to say journalism has gone through many changes, all over the world.
Today, the profession is wedded, one could even say welded, to technology and business, and this creates a host of challenges in terms of the profession succeeding in the market place, in capturing the readers’ or viewers’ interest, and most importantly, in retaining credibility.
While these challenges are true of all countries in the world, they take on particular characteristics in Việt Nam.
It was not so long ago that the newspaper was the only media with a ubiquitous presence in the country.
Wherever we looked, we could see someone reading a newspaper. Sitting in a street café, standing at free newsstands – glass cases on pavements wherein newspapers were spread out for the general public to read, on park benches, on doorsteps of houses, vendors sitting on small stools – people could be seen absorbed in reading a newspaper.
It was safe to say that there was a strong reading habit in this country.
Today, the above-mentioned scenes have been replaced with almost everyone, everywhere, looking down at their smartphones or ipads, laptops or some such gadget. How many of these people would be reading the news – from the digital version of a newspaper or magazine?
It would be safe to say, in this time of Facebook, YouTube and Whatsapp, not many.
So it is this latest existential crisis, which hits the bottom line hard (declining revenues), that editors and publishers of Vietnamese newspapers and magazines, like their international brethren, are facing today.
There are no official numbers among Vietnamese news organisations about this – but conversations between big media leaders dealt with concerns over the implications digital technology overtaking print technology, and the rise of social media an advertising medium.
Most Vietnamese media agencies have adapted. There are virtually no newspapers in print that do not have an online version, although very few, if any, have specific mobile phone apps. We will get there sooner than later, I am sure, because Vietnam is a highly digital savvy country.
Responding to the threat posed by digital media, some publications resorted to writing and publishing whatever would bring in readers, or traffic, that would, in turn, generate ad revenues.
Several focused on generating content more cheaply.
As it turns out, even these ploys didn’t last long.
In 2016, Facebook made changes to its News Feed to reduce the amount of click baits.
“We’ve heard from people that they specifically want to see fewer stories with clickbait headlines or link titles,” Facebook announced. These are headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer.
The lesson that Vietnamese media should learn from this is that short-term tricks fail in the long term, and worse, result in a loss of credibility that not only hurts individual news agencies, but the profession as a whole.
Trần Ngọc Châu, a veteran journalist, former Director of the Financial Business News Channel (FNBC), said he’s been watching the decline in Vietnamese media since the 1990s, particularly in the state-owned media, that was slow to adapt and compete.
The landscape has shifted since, and no one can be excluded from the new game – the game in which journalists all have to change and adapt to survive.
The good news is, old-school quality journalism has its own value – and people are still willing to pay for it.
In another move, Vietnamplus, an online newspaper under the Vietnam News Agency, put up a paywall for parts of its content last month; with “promising results,” said Lê Quốc Minh, its former Editor-in-chief, now the Vice General Director of the Vietnam News Agency.
He revealed that Vietnamplus has kept a close watch for a while on the reactions of readers with high-quality content generated by the website, and found out that the time readers spent on such articles was satisfactory.
With news stories, readers spent about 15-30 seconds, but the long-form posts would keep them from five to six, some even ten minutes.
While admitting that there was still a long way to go for Vietnamese media agencies to successfully put up paywalls for their content, Minh said it was necessary to make a change in the news consuming habit – influencing people to pay for high quality journalism.
It is going to be difficult, but staying true to core values and still making ends meet is not mission impossible.
There are promising signs. In 2017, the Guardian had 500,000 regular paying readers; the Financial Times has a paid subscription base of over 800,000 readers; and the New York Times is seeing unprecedented growth in paying customers, with 3.5 million paid subscriptions in both print and digital versions as of December 2017.
This extraordinary period in history, which is defined by the disruptive impact of new technologies in every part of our lives, demands that journalists do more than just adapt.
As we finally get past the confusion and anxiety of the first phase of the digital revolution, as supposed truth-tellers, we must honestly face the crisis that confronts us.
Trust in the media and established institutions has fallen to an all-time low, according to a research presented at the World Economic Forum last year in Davos.
But, as the cliché goes, every challenge is an opportunity.
Journalism must take this crisis as an opportunity to regain the trust of its audience by reinforcing its core values – which have stayed unchanged, and will stay unchanged through the changes of times.
At a meeting with media leaders yesterday, the Prime Minister said he felt proud about the country’s journalists, mentioning in particular those who fearlessly exposed corruption and reflected public outrage over wrongdoings.
Our ability to take the PM at his word and to live up to President Ho Chi Minh’s vision of what journalists can and should do will decide our future.
Today’s revolutionary need is for the media to go beyond telling the truth to exploring and presenting new, radical ideas for dealing with crises so dire that the very existence of humankind is under threat.
And who better than Orwell to give the last word on truth to, in this Orwellian world?
“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”—VNS