Reinventing news
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - October 10, 2020 - 12:00am

There’s a new contender for the eyeballs of the estimated 200,000 Filipinos in the UK and beyond, looking for news. The online news magazine Tinig UK has emerged from the turmoil of COVID-19 and economic gloom and is a journalistic product of the so-called passion economy.

People are consuming significantly more news since the coronavirus pandemic, at the same time the news industry is accelerating the shift to an all-digital future. That’s the topline of a recent survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

It’s a complicated story though. The survey also found that people are still highly concerned about misinformation and see Facebook and Whatsapp as the main channels for its spread. At the same time, Whatsapp saw the biggest growth within the substantial increase of the use of online and social media to obtain news. More than half (51 percent) of people surveyed said they used some kind of open or closed online group to connect, share information or take part in a local support network.

Here in the UK, my attention was caught recently by a post on Twitter by Tinig UK. Its founder Liezel Longboan told me she is aiming to fill the gap for a website that is a text-based news outlet which really focuses on Filipinos here.

“When COVID happened at the height of the pandemic I was regularly on Facebook and thought: ‘How do we know if these news are true?’ It’s a bit disappointing that there’s no place to go to check if what’s being shared has some basis and I think that’s what really pushed me to start it,” Longboan told me.

For Longboan, an important aspect of her start-up is to put the Filipino community on the information map. She told me that there had been an article about a Filipino dish – tortang talong – by a British chef that had set Filipino chefs buzzing on Twitter. “(They were) complaining ‘Why is the Guardian letting some white British writer to write about tortang talong? Why not get in touch with real Pinoy chefs?’ And I was thinking Filipino chefs, you need to write! You don’t wait, you need to put results out there. We need to bring ourselves out there because nobody’s going to take notice of us unless we write and stop complaining.”

Longboan is keen to introduce high-quality news features and strong journalism into the mix through Tinig UK. She recently published an article “Understanding the data on Filipino healthcare deaths” which has been referred to by the National Health Service in understanding the situation of Filipino NHS healthcare staff. She hopes to do more of this type of research which looks into issues affecting UK-based Filipinos.

Tinig is a good example in journalism of the so-called Passion Economy where individual creators can connect directly with their customers. It is enabled by new technologies and the changing media ecosystem as well as shifts in labor structures. It’s born out of waning interest in the “attention economy.” According to  another study, more respondents (52 percent) are desperate to cut the cord and spend less time on their social accounts. Emerging out of this frustration, the passion economy has created space for interactions that are based on sincere, shared passions and interests.

Longboan is a 47-year-old academic and working mother. She first arrived in the UK to take up a doctorate at Cardiff University’s highly-respected journalism faculty on a Ford Foundation fellowship that she says helped her to be more critical in the way that she consumes news and understands how the news is written and framed. “Back in the Philippines before my PhD, I didn’t really care much about these things. I read the news without thinking about the politics that goes into what’s being written and presented to us. My research background has made me look at the news in a more careful way.” The title of her thesis, “Technologies of Indigeneity: Indigenous Collective Identity Narratives in Online Communities,” is a bit of a mouthful but the topic itself examines the online Igorot communities and how it affects people in real life. “There’s a big online forum that was founded by Igorots based in the USA. They’ve also got a lot of members in the UK, so I looked at the way these interacted online and I found that these are actually middle-aged senior Igorots. I was really surprised that these are very modern, highly-educated immigrant Igorots who are shaping the discussions back in the Cordilleras about Igorot identity,” she told me.

The feedback so far has been generally positive. People tell her that it’s high quality, different and well-presented with zero adverts. They appreciate that it’s not just about events that are taking place in the community. “I think we really want to be taken seriously but it’s difficult to balance how we reach a wider audience but at the same time maintain a serious tone for the website.” says Longboan.

The passion economy presents a new way to capitalize on creativity by connecting creators with genuine, engaged communities who share their passions. For consumers, it means they can expect to see greater variety and access to creative products and services from these creators. Ultimately, they can expect to see forums and marketplaces that emphasise the individuality of people on both sides of the equation. It’s a model that’s coming into its own but, as ever, every start up has to work out the kind of business model it needs to survive.

It raises big questions for the news sector: is this a desperate response to the journalism business crisis and to pandemic upheaval? Or is it an explosion of innovation in reaction to the limits of traditional news organisations? Is it a marginal set of trends or something more fundamental for journalism as an industry and as an ethical, political, social practice?

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