For over fifty years UNESCO monitored processes of news collection and dissemination worldwide, and supported the establishment of national news agencies with a view to improving news collection and dissemination within nations and promoting greater diversity and balance of news sources in international news. UNESCO’s many initiatives included the establishment of regional news agencies in Africa (CANAD, SEANAD and WANAD), and support for PANA (Africa) and CANA (the Caribbean). But by the turn of the year 2000, it was becoming clear that many national news agencies were in crisis. There was growing concern in UNESCO about the gradual commercialization of news, and its implications for the media representation of rural and poor segments of societies, and for the ability of these populations to participate in national democratic processes. Concern was reinforced by the collapse of news agencies in some poorer countries and the diminishing interest of some governments in supporting them. At least one important consideration, in its potential both for exacerbating as well as for contributing solutions to the crisis, was the impact of technology, notably the Internet. The Communications Division of UNESCO initiated preparations for the Workshop on the Internet and National News Agencies: An Experts Meeting.
The Division circulated an explanatory paper authored by Mr. Gervasio Kaliwo for the benefit of Workshop invitees and contributors. This noted that several national news agencies in Africa had shut down, and others were near to closure. The classical model of news collection and dissemination, at the core of which were the national news agencies, had been undermined by the Internet and other factors. Some agencies had veered closer than ever to governments, at further cost to their credibility; while others were trying to privatize, but without the benefit of an adequate evaluation of the changing context and its implications for agencies’ survival. The Internet challenged nations to consider what kinds of news collection and distribution should they encourage. What were the implications of the Internet for competition, quality and accuracy in the supply of news? Was news just a commodity to be determined by the market place? Such a view sat uncomfortably with the philosophy and policies that had previously underwritten UNESCO activity in this area. UNESCO policy presumed a correlation between pluralism of sources of information and the exercise of citizenship and democracy. News was seen as a form of public information that should wholly embrace the cultural, education and scientific realms. The purpose of the Workshop was to develop a forward looking strategy that would help news agencies anticipate and adapt effectively to change, and in the process to re-evaluate their role, mission and performance.
The Workshop brought together in Amman the representatives of 13 news agencies from developing world countries of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern and Central Europe, and the Middle East. These also reflected a broad range of different kinds of news agency, including both national and regional agencies, agencies whose ownership was either public or private or a mixture of both. In many instances, these agencies were in the process of accommodating to significant political and economic transformations of their respective nations. Also in attendance were three academic experts, one technical expert, three UNESCO consultants whose work had been instrumental in establishing regional agencies in Africa, and UNESCO staff. (A list of attendees is provided in Appendix 2). The conference agenda (Appendix Three) included presentations by representatives of the participating national agencies in plenary sessions (Appendix Four), and a series of smaller discussion panels each dedicated to a particular theme. The main outcome of the conference was a set of seven discussion papers, together with corresponding recommendations, that emerged from the discussion panels (Appendix Five). The panels addressed issues related to diversification of services; ownership and management; implementing Internet strategies; marketing and client relations; personnel training, professional development and professionalism; networking; and the future of national news agencies.
Workshop discussions and recommendations demonstrated that the Internet is indeed both a significant opportunity for news agencies and also a threat. For example, the Internet offers the potential for significant reductions in communications costs in the gathering and dissemination of news. It also extends the potential reach of national agencies, at least for the benefit of clients who have Internet connectivity - still sparse in many parts of the developing world. The Internet is also a source of competition that, along with other factors, contributes to a destabilization of traditional markets. The Internet poses many technical, design, professional and strategic challenges. However, the relevance of the Internet and appropriate responses to it can be misjudged unless the technology is analyzed in relation to the broader context of agency operations. Among the most important contextual factors identified in the Workshop were tensions in the relationships between agency executives and their political, media or other owners. Tensions had been exacerbated by broader changes in the media environment, including the impacts of deregulation and privatization of previously State owned or controlled media and other organizations, and greater competitiveness on international media markets as a result of the loosening of restrictions on movements of global trade and capital. In Africa and elsewhere these trends had eliminated or gravely weakened several national agencies. Strategies of accommodation to the Internet were likely to be successful in as far as they articulated and provided a response to such changes in the broader environment. Successful strategies were likely to address one or more of the following, among other issues:
The cultivation of a more entrepreneurial climate within national news agencies to help them compete against other news suppliers and to identify new market opportunities. This entails: nurture of a new professional culture, the elaboration of a different business model, the reconstruction of ‘brand identity’, the organization of innovative patterns of ownership, strategic alliances; foresight in the provision of incentives and rewards for workers, and a re-definition of the range of activities that are proper to national agencies, possibly extending to multi-media strategies.
(ii) Elaboration of structures of separation between agency operations and political authorities. This entails willingness on the part of political authorities to maintain subsidies where these are clearly needed to ensure the adequate realization of a national agency’s main work, while creating the conditions for both editorial autonomy and agency accountability.
Preservation of mission to serve the information needs of the nation as a whole. This entails strong commitment to principles of national inclusiveness, accuracy and impartiality, strong enough to ensure that the drive towards self-sufficiency is compatible with the continuing contribution of news agencies to an informational public sphere of great diversity and quality.
There is considerable scope for technical and training support across all areas of agency operation. Cutting across the three elements identified above is the issue of organization form: for example, there are regional agencies, broadcast and Internet based agencies. The basic mission of a news agency, its public service functions, can be achieved in a variety of different ways, using different organizational vehicles and technologies.