The news industry – as represented by legacy newspapers and broadcast channels – has operated under a cloud of pessimism and perceived catastrophe during much of the digital age. But this month marked a palpable shift, as felt at the International Symposium on Online Journalism. From new media companies to old news incumbents, participants shared a predominant sense of possibility, opportunity and vigour.
It was as if the news business had turned a corner – it had started to “pivot”, as we say in the start-up world.
Martin Baron, newspaper veteran and executive editor of The Washington Post, gave us nine reasons to feel optimistic about the future of journalism. Among them, he pointed to a changeover in media ownership, bringing new capital and new ideas to the industry (unsurprisingly he cited his own paper, purchased last year by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos). He also called out a new generation of digital natives entering the newsroom, ushering in new forms of storytelling and a greater drive for reinvention.
But his overarching point was that in a news business that tends to catastrophize everything – including and especially its own fate – there are reasons to be hopeful. The first of the reasons he listed: that news as we know it has survived.
“We are more resilient as an industry than others think and than we think,” said Baron.
More concretely, there was good news about revenue models (another surprise), with new and growing opportunities for “audience revenue” – one of the buzzwords of the Symposium weekend. Jesse Holcomb of the Pew Research Center explained that while total news revenue is down in the United States – from $95 billion in 2006 to no more than $65 billion today – non-traditional revenue streams are growing. Advertising, long the main form of income, is becoming less central. Audience revenue, such as subscriptions and added-value services, are a small but growing part of the mix.
The audience is increasing, too. Newspaper circulation revenue was up 5% in 2012, its first growth since 2003, according to the Pew Center. Similarly, retransmission fees are on the rise for broadcasters, accounting for two-thirds of CNN US revenue.
Other key concepts coming out of the group: breaking path dependency in how we do the business of news, shaking loose old habits and has-been models. Doing so takes “transformational leadership”, another catchphrase that dared media leaders to be more bold and creative in shaping their digital transition. That stood alongside frontier ideas in the future of news, from drone-enabled videography to augmented reality journalism (using your smartphone to project virtual information onto a real-life landscape).
There was also a shift towards user-centricity in news products and services. In fact, that was one of Martin Baron’s other reasons for optimism: we’re starting to pay more attention to our readers. Others fleshed out what that means in practical terms: an emphasis on design thinking in digital platforms and an enhanced user experience for our readers. Philosophically, it means remembering that we provide a service to users and need to make it a great one.
That is a logical guideline for any industry. But it has been largely missing from the news business for the best part of two decades. We have not been in the mindset or habit of user-centricity; in general, until now, we have created the news we are used to creating, in formats we are comfortable creating, then served it up to the audience.
That pain of digital disruption is focusing the most creative minds of our industry back where they belong: on serving the needs of our users. A greater awareness of our news product and product development pipeline will underpin the industry’s recovery. It will allow us to innovate in ways that are more relevant to our consumer and much more likely to succeed, in the form of a product-market fit.
Michael Maness, the vice-president of Journalism and Innovation for the Knight Foundation, summarized and analysed the thinking.
“People hire brands to do jobs,” he said. That includes news brands. To survive, they must produce both utility and delight.
Maness developed the “utility” notion with a breakdown of news consumption patterns – a study in how users use the news. For example, there is the “status check” (scanning the headlines), the “problem solver” (looking for a house, comparing cars for purchase) and the “refuge” (story-driven escapism into aspirational worlds).
What I personally relate to is what Maness calls “topic love”, a high-focus, consistent form of news consumption on a single subject. You love golf? You consume golfing news with “topic love”. The engagement levels are high and ripe for sustainable monetization strategies.
But every format can be exploited for its potential and creative delivery. The main impediments, says Maness, are the human factors that block innovation.
“The biggest drawback is the lack of transformational leadership,” says Maness, citing institutional challenges that make newsrooms unable or unwilling to change the way they’ve always worked. The barriers are cultural and psychological.
“The enemy of innovation is often ego,” Maness said. At the individual and organizational level, it weighs down the pace of change and adaptation, in an age of continual disruption.
Author: Lara Setrakian is the Founder and Executive Editor of News Deeply. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on the United States.
Image: Members of the media at a Microsoft launch event. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton