Peripheral journalism is disrupting traditional media


By André Gouws

The growth in digital media, especially in social media, has led to major upheavals in journalism. It is well known that traditional media around the world have been struggling to adapt to the digital environment for decades, with many print newspapers closing down and news media now distributing their content online. In South Africa is one well-known example Volksbladwhich no longer appears in print format, but is only published online.

Traditional media have lost much of their income due to large Internet platforms such as Google and Meta eroding their advertising revenue. This has led to news offices that are getting smaller, and media houses that have scaled back their representation in smaller cities and towns simply because there is no longer enough money. The news media’s reach has therefore fallen, because people no longer get all the news they are looking for or simply do not trust the news media.

The influence of the news media is diminishing, especially among young readers who are the future consumers of news. The biggest newspaper in South Africa was always the Sunday Times, which once sold more than 500,000 newspapers per Sunday. The figure is now around 93,000. The result of this is that news deserts arise. This means that many people in South Africa and worldwide live in places where there are no (or very few) news sources.

Furthermore, research shows that only 40% of people worldwide trust the traditional news media, because they believe the media is biased. The 2023 edition of the Reuters Institute’s digital news report shows that people have more trust in tastemakers and social media platforms than in the news media. According to Reuters Institute director Rasmus Nielsen, there is no chance that people born in the 2000s will suddenly move back to traditional news media websites as they get older.

There are now many other news sources besides the traditional media (newspapers, news websites and the broadcast media). The new news sources vary from ordinary people, who spread news and information about their surroundings on social media, to websites operated by specialists in certain fields such as science or academia. These new news sources are now their only news sources for many readers.

The creators of these new types of news sources are people known in academia as peripheral actors in journalism, or simply peripheral journalists. These are people who do their work on the boundaries of traditional journalism. Peripheral journalists are often people who create and distribute news about their environment or their specialist field on websites – YouTube, TikTok, Facebook and other platforms. These are not people trained as journalists, but they are obviously doing journalistic work.

This is a trend that is emerging more and more in academic research, as researchers struggle to determine where these peripheral actors fit into our understanding of journalism. There are more and more researchers who believe that peripheral journalists do indeed do journalistic work and thus help to fill gaps in the news environment.

There are many examples of reliable peripheral journalism around the world. Dr. Aljosha Karim Schapals of the Queensland University of Technology published a book last year, Peripheral Actors in Journalism, where he argues, among other things, that peripheral journalists have successfully taken their place in the media landscape. They challenge the role of the traditional media in that they have now also taken their place as storytellers. He believes that peripheral journalists take their role as people who tell important stories seriously and make an effort to produce good work, just like traditional journalists.

Dr. Scott Eldridge II in 2018 in his book Online journalism from the periphery showed how websites such as WikiLeaks and the social media platform Reddit also conduct journalism. Reddit is a social media platform that encourages conversations where users often collaborate as a group (crowd sourcing) to corroborate facts and stories and present reliable information.

Eldridge points out that traditional journalists view the work of peripheral journalists as a threat and strive to reinforce the boundaries around their profession, often by claiming that peripheral journalism is of poor quality and even fake and that only traditional media are “good ” journalism industry.

However, this is no longer the case. Sufficient research has been done to show that peripheral journalists often (but certainly not always) do good work. When people feel that they cannot rely on the traditional media, because it is simply no longer present in their communities, or because they no longer trust this type of media, there are often peripheral journalists who fill the gap with quality work.

Although little research has been done in South Africa on peripheral journalism, one possible example is WhatsApp groups. Many of us are members of WhatsApp groups in our neighbourhoods. These groups often fulfill a kind of journalistic function. This is where people get news about their immediate surroundings, participate in discussions about current affairs and often these groups also play a role in local politics.

In my own neighbourhood, for example, the local councilor is part of a WhatsApp group. He will often follow up conversations that take place there by, for example, taking steps to have potholes or burst pipes repaired. It is therefore clear how effective such groups can be. In the past, the local newspaper would first have to report on an ongoing problem such as a burst pipe that is not being repaired. Then the municipality would (sometimes) act. Now the action is almost immediate, right after the WhatsApp conversation about the problem.

It is therefore clear that peripheral journalism is also present in South Africa. Researchers and lecturers should take note of this, because it will broaden our understanding and teaching of journalism.

The demand for trained journalists to work in news offices is still huge in South Africa, especially for community newspapers. However, it is clear that it is also necessary to train peripheral journalists. There is a tendency for young people in particular to decide to simply create their own small “news offices”, by spreading information and news on YouTube or TikTok, for example. They may not consider themselves journalists, but the work they do fulfills some journalistic function, such as spreading news about their neighborhood or some specialist topic.

So if people are getting more of their news from sources outside the traditional news media, we must try to understand the implications and as educators we must make an effort to ensure that we produce students who will continue to create and disseminate credible news, even if it is outside the traditional news media. This means that journalism training can also be of use to a wide variety of students, not just those who want to formally become journalists.

People who want to create and distribute online content will benefit from journalism training. Understanding of ethical issues in journalism, knowledge of storytelling techniques, knowledge of digital equipment, understanding of what the audience looks like – this is all useful knowledge for anyone who wants to one day distribute content online. We also need to cultivate media literacy among all students, to critically evaluate the new types of news sources.

By also training peripheral journalists, our students will be able to prepare to deal responsibly with the content and news they create and distribute, which in turn will contribute to a better and more reliable online information environment for everyone. It is a given that peripheral journalism will grow, therefore it is necessary to thoroughly prepare students for it. As journalism educators, we can play an important role in ensuring that peripheral journalists create content of value that is accurate, ethical and, ultimately, reliable journalism.

  • André Gouws is a lecturer in Languages ​​and Social Sciences at Akademia.