People who ponder journalism’s prospects have turned cheerful. Not suddenly, but over the past few months. The evidence that there’s capital, generative energy and signs that some digital publishing can survive is too obvious to ignore. So the shift has been from pessimism to futurology.
What kind of journalism are we going to see or should we want to see? “Open”, “networked”, radical, non-capitalist or done in looser structures than in the past? Because we’re in a phase of accelerating, plural experiment, what will happen will be all of these things and more.
Just pause for a second to appreciate what a change in the conversation the hi-tech millionaires, philanthropists and venture capitalists have brought about, at least in the US, by demonstrating that they want to be involved in building the next journalism. The emphasis is now more about the content than about the delivery and the platforms. As a writer of the pre-digital age put it, we’re watching “the turning of a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” This is nowadays known as “disruption”.
Here’s a meandering list of seven factors which will shape the next journalism. I’ll be talking about this at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia later this week. (And there’s more on the background to all this in Out of Print, see right).
1. The digital era has irrevocably changed the nature of impact. One of the simplest, largest and most neglected changes made by digital communications is the increase in the quantity of information: not just velocity, but volume. We are not likely to see again a time in which single revelations have the impacts that they might have had in the world of 50 years ago. Yes, some stories are larger than others, but even their impact is diluted by the increase in the number of outlets and routes down which information can travel. We pay less attention to almost everything – and certainly to news – because there’s so much of it streaming past and we can always find it again.
2. As a result, “news” is an idea which is being bent into a different shape. Even if a single outlet has something big and releases it first, a scoop is not quite the event that it was. Partly because a revelation will spread a long way very fast and won’t be “broken” by being published to many people simultaneously at a set time. What we used to call “news” was once prepared like a conjuring trick or play behind a curtain and revealed at a fixed time; if it was big news, its release was an event.
Now new information flows in a liquid torrent down many routes, propelled by the partnership of the internet and mobile phones. In this context, any “newsroom” has to be completely clear about what value it adds to a story. The old print habit of slipping one new paragraph on top of other paragraphs of old information and calling it “news” won’t survive. Valuable information is discovered, published, aggregated and given extra value by individuals and organisations who aren’t interested in whether they’re “journalists” or not.
3. Journalists still grope, in this radically connected context, to make clear the value in what they do. They can insist that verification and investigation will not happen naturally in a ceaseless flow of data, conversation, gossip, rumour and manipulated misinformation; someone must make a choice to do these things and find the resources to support them. They can insist that big ideas depend on long passages of written words to spread and be debated. They can insist that a space to establish what is most likely to be accurate and true in the midst of what is now a marketplace for noise is something of value to democracies and worth fighting for.
In the downward spiral of still-declining revenues and high fixed editorial costs, this case is not an easy one to make. I can’t prove this scientifically – I wish I could – but I’m certain that the things of value that journalism can deliver and which are worth insisting on are more firmly embedded in many societies than we assume. (Certainly not embedded in all, but that’s another story). The logical outcome of vastly more information in circulation is more need for verification, structuring information so that it makes better sense and explanation. All of those ideals have been expressed in the past few months by new online journalism startups.
4. Journalists nostalgic for the past should stop complaining about the superficiality and frivolity of sites whose strength is based on producing material people want to share. In an era in which every user can switch out at any second, the ability to harvest attention is basic. There are many different ways to persuade people to pay recurrent attention to what you do, but without that hook little journalism can succeed. Telling people that it’s their democratic obligation to read/watch your journalism will never work, let alone qualify as a business model.
5. If the business model of print and (probably) terrestrial broadcast is broken, it sends journalism back to first principles: disclosing and structuring information in ways which people find attractive and useful. Given that increasing numbers of people find mainstream journalism failing to do this, discovering unmet needs becomes more urgent and important. As the media scholar Anthony Smith put it more than 30 years ago: “It is the imagination, ultimately, and not mathematical calculation that creates media; it is the fresh perception of how to fit a potential machine into an actual way of life that really constitutes the act of ‘invention’.”
That makes traffic data and its quality an asset which any newsroom should care about. Some editors and journalists think that online traffic data – much of it certainly misleading and unreliable – is “market research” which will be used as a weapon to bludgeon editorial employees into pandering to the sillier whims of readers.
Intelligently gathered and used, usage data allows journalists to refine their instincts. That means smart software and smart people to use it well. The advantages of geographic or spectrum-based distribution monopolies have gone. The insights which data can provide allow you to see how your creative and editorial strengths can be played to best advantage. Tip: watch how the Financial Times is doing this.
6. News media compete for attention because they’re in a market. I’ve seen suggestions (example here) that journalism might not have to worry any more about the inconvenient demands of the market. Two observations.
While everyone thrashes around looking for a business model, philanthropy has a crucial role to play in bridging the gaps between a dying business model and a new one. It’s certainly true that in the digital era, starting a niche journalism site now is way cheaper than it was 30 years ago.
But building journalism organisations which last depends on finding recurrent revenue or cross-subsidy to pay for reporting. It’s hard to see how philanthropy can supply the sum of money required permanently to subsidise more than a fraction of news media. Even in the US, a large economy where giving has tax advantages, the numbers don’t add up.
Second, larger point. Speculation tends to assume that news media will or won’t find a (singular) business model. This is an assumption based entirely on the recent past when advertising income built the base for both print and network TV. I doubt that there will be one single model which dominates. So the language which reflects dreams and aspirations about one business model needs to go plural. There won’t be a one-size-fits-all template. Ads, subscriptions, premium content pricing, events, crowdfunding (working better at a local and specialized level than anyone dreamed it might), micropayments, philanthropy – they’ll all be in the mix of experiments.
7. There’s a potential tension between a looser structure for news media businesses and reputation or “brand”. While trying to figure out a business model for digital journalism, some publishers are experimenting with networks of contributors who use a common platform and technology without needing to subscribe to many (or any) collective editorial rules and discipline which apply at the mother-ship. (Forbes is one of the best-known examples).
This sounds like a neat solution to the problem of how publishers get breadth and depth of content without having to pay heavy staff costs. But there’s a catch. Some news organisations – take the BBC as an example – have structures, rules and disciplines running under the surface of everyday activity which are basic to the trust in their brand. The rules are there to ensure consistency and standards of behaviour which in their turn are designed to reassure users, readers, listeners and viewers about reliability. Even the smallest investigative site will need to operate a few rules which ensure that its team doesn’t reveal a story before it’s ready to go and will not want individuals on that team revealing internal disagreements or the identity of sources.
Are we going to see a variety of news outlets which cover a range propositions from “we have rules about how we try to tell the story right” across to “anything goes here, but there’s a lot of exciting stuff in the mix”?
If you’re investing in a journalism start-up or looking for a job in one, try testing your candidates against the 7-point checklist above: how do they understand and handle these issues?
Update 30/4/14: If you were patient enough to get to the end of this, you might like the related one by Adam Tinworth on “explainer” sites, which I hadn’t seen when writing yesterday (disclosure: Adam teaches part-time at the City University j-school where I work).