Recently, I read a book called ‘Wilful Blindness’ which explains why people ignore inept, corrupt or misguided practices to the detriment of themselves and others. Willful blindness includes the banking collapses in 2008, inaction on curbing greenhouse gases and the promotion of the disastrous economic mantra of continual growth. Wilful blindness also includes why we ignore corporations cheating shareholders and their employees whilst they lie to government inquiries and pollute the environment – without any consequences. We are all capable of wilful blindness and even more so when we are threatened by change.
Wilful blindness has dogged the management of print newspapers in their failure to adopt a strategic online presence. Over the past few years, a dramatic drop in advertising revenue and readership numbers has forced print newspapers to either downsize staff, content or both. Yet, it is ironic that media organisations ignored new communication technologies instead of embracing their potential. This can be partly explained by the speed at which people adopted new media forms but it is also due to wilful blindness.
Reading an online paper or magazine is more than text and images. Audience engagement includes social media, videos, hyperlinks, comments and slideshows. However, it also requires fresh ideas and talent and an environment in which employees experiment and take risks. Software including Indesign, Photoshop, video editing, audio and social media management are fundamental in creating digital content.
I encountered evidence of wilful blindness recently. You see, what was obvious to me as a media teacher was that a traditional Australian media company, one of the newspaper giants, was heading for disaster. Their failure to understand and engage with digital was led by a board that had neglected to embrace change as well as thinking the print edition format, without design and layout adjustments, was adequate for online visitors.
The lack of innovation in the digital realm was evident in my local newspaper, which is owned by the same Australian media company. I live in a regional area and the newspaper caters for a population of around 50,000 which includes 20,000 in the regional centre with another 30,000 spread around rural communities.
A contact at the local newspaper agreed to a video interview for an interactive resource I’m developing for media students. Like print newspapers, the future for textbooks is online: They are easily accessed, updated regularly and contain hyperlinks, audio and animation, video, social media and forums.
My contact also agreed to consult the digital editor for an interview in which to discuss journalism in an online world. The digital editor agreed to an initial meeting before committing to an interview.
I met with the digital editor and unfortunately this is where I encountered wilful blindness. Early in the conversation I mentioned that the overall company was struggling in the digital realm. This was pretty obvious given that the metropolitan daily papers had been saying this for some time. The digital editor (who had no experience in digital) was displeased with this observation but made no comment. However, he certainly exploded when I referred to the newspaper as rural. He jumped on this statement by declaring that the paper was the lifeblood of the town and how dare I call it rural. I pointed out that the paper referred to itself as a rural one in the masthead. However, it was too late. He showed me the door and declined to participate in the book.
I received a curt email the next day accusing me of saying that the company was in a mess. I responded that I hadn’t said that at all and had merely observed that they were struggling, like many other industries, including recording, motion picture and free to air television networks, to engage with the new digital landscape. I was also told that none of the staff, including my contact, would participate in the textbook.
Sure enough, three weeks later the company announced massive job cuts across Australia. This was largely due, they admitted, to their failure to adopt a digital strategy and to recognise changes occurring within the industry.
I concluded that wilful blindness makes people not only deny the truth but distort it as well. I don’t know the future of the local paper, or the fate of the digital editor, but I know now not to refer to it as a rural newspaper, even if it is rural.
Wilful Blindness: ‘Why We Ignore The Obvious At Our Peril’ by Margaret Heffernan
Margaret Heffernan Website
Page One: Inside The New York Times. A documentary exploring the death of print newspapers and featuring interviews with journalists from the New York Times.