The age of polymorphous media

For my sins, I spend a proportion of my professional life listening to journalists moaning about what is at risk and what has been lost in the digital era. I’ve come gradually to the conclusion that what they mourn most of all is the loss of simplicity.

Journalism expanded in the late 20th century in conditions which were historically exceptional and which, in retrospect, look miraculous. Print had stable advertising and circulation income; the capital costs of presses acted as an automatic barrier to new competitors. Terrestrial television had either taxpayer subsidy or advertising. For journalists, life was simple: they only had to worry about competition from the nearest rival.

In some competitive markets this made life tough, but not complicated. That agreeably simple era has been replaced by a chaotic and fast-changing system for news and opinion which is volatile, unpredictable and polymorphous. In other words, the present is like every other period of journalism’s history except the late 20th century.

If you’re running, working in or thinking of investing in a business involving journalism, here are five things worth keeping in mind in 2016:

  1. The decline in the power and clout of big journalism institutions still has some way to run. This is less an observation about the decay of business models than it is about shifts in the balance of power made by technical innovation. Established news brands with large, expensive newsrooms have mostly cut down those costs and reduced their losses even if they still do take a slice of advertising revenue out of proportion to the number of their readers and viewers. But the real change is continuing decline of leverage. Politicians, advertisers, readers and viewers still attend to what they say and write, but they don’t have to. There are too many alternatives available. This post by John Herrman of The Awl gives a (lengthy) series of American examples drawn from the early phases of the US presidential election and sport. Both politicians and sports stars are making different calculations about when, how – and if – to grant access to journalists. Big, mainstream media names are losing out. Watch the money: in 2017, digital advertising worldwide will probably outstrip TV for the first time. The disrupters are now arriving at the gates of the great powers in TV.
  2. News media are polymorphous, endlessly changing shape. Media power, once very concentrated, has been fragmenting into smaller pieces for several decades and is now subject to successive waves of change which don’t stop. No sooner have an editor and CEO woken up to the fact that more of their output is looked at on mobile devices than any other way than they realise that news distribution is now in the hands of Facebook and Apple. The they have to start thinking about what virtual reality technology means for them. Predictions about the context in which journalism operates are routinely upset. Newsroom have to be both bold (open-minded, experimental, risk-taking) and conservative (sticking firmly to what they do distinctively and well) at the same time. Adaptability has limits. Buzzfeed has done brilliantly by making content which people want to share, giving rise to predictions that media are becoming “homeless” and super-syndicators who don’t care whether or not the users goes to the site. But this kind of flexibility needs to include a journalistic purpose: telling people what they may not want to know but need to learn. (See 4 below).
  3. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the greatest single change in the digital age is not the velocity of information, but its quantity. Journalists manage abundance. This means that the impact of any single piece of journalism is reduced. It also means that the value of any single item to most users is less. Because the supply of information has increased and that – given that demand for news/opinion is steady – means the price falls. Have a look at one of the most interesting micropayment experiments begun in Europe, Blendle, and see the average price per article. Ten cents.
  4. Given the rate of innovation, it’s hardly surprising that a lot of reflection about journalism and how it changes is gizmo-driven. Giant tech companies such as Facebook to claim that because they are not editorial companies (in the sense that they don’t generate content, they just process it), that they make no decisions of editorial importance. The first claim is technically correct, the second is baloney: Facebook certainly exercises editorial discretion. The wish of these companies not be saddled with the burdensome responsibilities of caring about the consequences of information they handle will not be granted. Gradually and reluctantly over the past few years, Google has conceded that, yes, it takes decisions which affect the flow of information between people. Facebook, which tweaks its algorithms and edits according to the laws of various countries and its own rulebook, has not even reached the point of admitting that it has editorial responsibilities in carrying news. I write this not to encourage people to bitch at the tech giants, but to encourage their users to push these companies to ask for help in growing up. Editors, those throwbacks to an earlier era, have useful advice for the young sovereigns of cyberspace.
  5. Change can be divided into the adaptive or operational sort and the transformative kind. Digital, needless to say, is transformative for journalism (and of many things beyond). A symptom which signals deep change is a shift in the power balance. Simple example: terrestrial television channels have never been so powerful since cable and satellite channels arrived in the 1980s. An oligopoly of attention-owners was undone: the viewing figures for the two main evening TV bulletins in the UK are around half what they were before TV channels began multiplying. New competitors now come from unexpected directions. Any large organisation can hire creative and articulate talent to become a media organisation. LinkedIn may be making a poor fist of becoming a power in business journalism, but if you follow extreme sports you follow Red Bull’s specialised coverage. If Atom Bank go into financial reporting or Uber into travel journalism, watch out. The only way for mainstream media to deal with this is by relentlessly rigorous focus on what a newsroom produces that no rival can match. Why has the Boston Globe started online “verticals” to cover Boston politics, the Catholic church and the Redsox? Because their experience and expertise can dominate these topics. Amidst this kind of change, ruthless focus on added value is power. Doing things by tradition or habit is disaster.

The digital era began a couple of decades ago and gurus debating the “future of journalism” instantly divided into two camps: digital devotees and mainstreamers. Digital devotees believed that means of communication would sweep away the established media and all its tawdry underperformance, corruption and failure to hold power to account. Mainstreamers thought that the internet and all its works were grossly overhyped and mourned the death of the perfect vehicle for original journalism, newspapers. (Some wry commentary on this black vs white view here from the wise Nick Lemann).

Time has passed and it’s increasingly obvious how little that old-versus-new story told us. The reality has turned out to be much more complex, shifting and interesting. Polymorphous in fact.



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