As she discssed freedom of speech with INMA members, Cuban American Maribel Pérez Wadsworth, INMA president and former president of Gannett Media, referred to her origins and how hard it was for her then-teenage mother and aunt to flee Cuba while their father remained a political prisoner on the island.
“This [her mother’s fleeing to the U.S.] was necessary to guarantee the hope and democracy for future generations of our family,” said Pérez Wadsworth. And she added: “When I say that this mission is important, it comes from a very personal place.”
During a recent INMA member, Pérez Wadsworth, discussed with more than 75 INMA members, from 35 media companies in 17 countries, the importance of independent journalism to sustain democracy amid a growing trend toward autocratic governments in Latin America. The Webinar was moderated by Pablo Deluca, president of INMA Latin America, who handles corporate affairs at news portal Infobae.
For INMA’s president, journalism “is critical for the sustainability and strength of democracy.”
Pérez Wadsworth’s presentation revolved around three main topics:
- The press’ fundamental role to support democracy.
- The need to drastically accelerate our digital transformation.
- Diversity as an imperative to push innovation.
Media + democracy go hand-in-hand
Attacks against press freedom come in different shapes, from physical violence and intimidation to political pressures, she said. To exemplify this, she showed some figures stating that Mexico leads in the number of journalists killed between 1992 and 2022, according to a recent report from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
The CPJ’s report found that deaths of journalists had risen by 50 percent in 2022 compared to the prior year.
She noted that aside from coverage of the war in Ukraine, the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist is Latin America: “Almost half of the journalists killed worldwide died while covering key issues in Latin America.”
Pérez Wadsworth also referred to political threats and brought up the new bill proposal in the state of Florida, United States, which would oblige bloggers to register if they plan to cover Governor Ron DeSantis and other high government officials or face fines. That bill would also force communicators to reveal how they make their living: “This is nothing short of political intimidation,” she warned.
Whether physical or political threats, “the results are the same,” she said, “fewer journalists to cover key news, and less freedom to do it in an independent fashion, without fear to retaliation or worse.”
According to Pérez Wadsworth, fewer journalists and less independent, high-quality journalism have a direct impact on citizens’ quality of life.
A recent study by Northwestern University showed that at least two media outlets go out of business every week in the United States. Also, 70 million Americans have limited access to trustworthy, independent sources of information, per the same study. In Argentina, 17% of the population lives in places where there are no independent media outlets whatsoever, says a 2021 report by the Argentine Journalism Forum, or FOPEA.
Pérez Wadsworth quoted American Penelope Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University, regarding the violence against journalists: “This is a crisis for our democracy and society. Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain print or digital news organisations.”
According to Abernathy, places with no strong media outlets experience greater corruption, voter participation is depressed, and the spread of misinformation increases, among other harms.
Stealing second base to progress digital transformation
INMA’s president also prompted entrepreneurs and media outlets to risk doing something different: “As we say in American baseball: You can’t steal second with your foot on first,” meaning that media companies won’t get results unless they’re willing to risk something and act differently.
Pérez Wadsworth anticipated a revolution in the digital media business and urges everyone to take on the challenge “before it’s too late.” She also mentioned the usages of Artificial Intelligence, which she sees as a game changer, especially tools such as ChatGPT.
“We must act urgently to understand and take advantage of the power of this new technology,” she said. “Otherwise, we risk lagging behind for good.”
Many publishers are forming internal task forces to begin experimenting with ChatGPT and its applications and use cases for everything from customer service to content creation, Pérez Wadsworth said, adding that the use of Artificial Intelligence for the creation of news stories has seen adoption by many publishers and she expects this to accelerate.
Gannett Media, for example, used Artificial Intelligence to create localised news stories based on COVID-19 vaccination and infection rate data.
Pérez Wadsworth touted the power of diversity within teams: “The idea is to take advantage of diversity to foster innovation and therefore obtain better commercial results.”
She showed a direct correlation between diversity and revenue based on a recent study by Boston Consulting Group, which shows companies with below-average diversity of people achieved 26% average innovation revenues, whereas companies with above-average diversity show innovation revenue rates of 45%.
Other business trends INMA is monitoring, according to Pérez Wadsworth, include: the rise of hybrid business models that better calibrate between subscriber and advertiser revenues; the effects of macroeconomic trends, inflation in particular, that are impacting consumer spending; the need to match the pace of AI’s advance with the establishment of appropriate ethical standards for its use.