Today, media reaches into every corner of the world and is becoming increasingly important, particularly in the West. Universities, think tanks and research centres are producing a complex body of knowledge about the current news-making process.
When projecting the future of media, a good starting point is the following quote from Moisés Naim’s 2013 bestseller The End of Power, in which the author highlights three major factors that are changing every field of human endeavour, including the journalist-readership relationship.
More revolution: characterized by increases in everything from the number of countries to population size, standards of living, literacy rates and quantity of products on the market. Mobility revolution: has set people, goods, money, ideas and values moving at hitherto unimagined rates towards every corner of the planet (including those that were once remote and inaccessible). Mentality revolution: reflects the major changes in mindsets, expectations, and aspirations that have accompanied these shifts.
It is widely known that the internet has been a game-changer in this “mentality revolution”, and even more so in the information field. Today, billions of people are online and mobile devices enable them to record and share news and multimedia content with a global audience. This is especially true for English-speaking outlets.
This trend towards fast-moving news is partially responsible for the crisis among major printed publications, as recently highlighted by the Newspaper Association of America among other sources. While throughout the 1970s newspaper sales had some ups and downs (but with generally stable figures), since the 1980s the dominant US media companies shrunk in number from about 50 to about five in early 2000s.
On the other hand, both audiences and revenues are skyrocketing in the digital arena, and more and more readers get their daily news via smartphones and tablets. However, old media is producing mixed signals: some outlets are struggling to keep up with this digital revolution, while others are fully embracing the unexpected shift.
Obviously the approach chosen by new media and “digital native” outlets is less problematic, given its complete reliance on social-media channels and mobile apps – even if it attracts some criticism for low-quality content and lack of journalism standards.
Besides a growing generational divide in many US newsrooms, this picture shows the need for quick adjustments to an ever-changing wave of online innovations for both traditional and new media environments. Indeed, in the last few years many old-school reporters have moved their quality and expertise in the digital realm, while traditional enterprises are making room for new jobs: social discovery specialist, data scientist, community manager, social advertising analyst, and many more.
The result is an eclectic collection of hybrid newsrooms, where 100-year-old newspapers are in direct competition with websites launched just a few years ago. Some outlets were brewed in prestigious university media departments, while others are simply one of the many Silicon Valley achievements.
Obviously the overall role of journalism is rapidly changing: is it better stick to old news reporting or create click-baits? Should we aim at “former readers” or consumers? The reality is that today’s online business model is largely dependent on advertising and requires huge traffic levels to produce good revenues. Therefore any addition to a “conventional” story – direct comments, social-network discussions, mobile-app presence – becomes a vital part of a larger process aimed at attracting more users.
Similarly fluid dynamics are at play within the traditional corporate world, where, for instance, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million in cash and pushed its gradual redesign towards tablets and mobile devices, rather than to a newspaper “to be read on the web”. And even if the recent acquisition of AOL by telecom heavyweight Verizon (for $4.4 billion) is mostly due to its advertising technology assets, many are expecting big changes for AOL-owned TechCrunch, Patch and especially the many national editions of The Huffington Post.
Another giant clash underway includes top online actors such as Google and Facebook, both strongly pursuing a variety of agreements with online publishing enterprises. For example, the former has created a fund of $150 million to help traditional EU media to fully jump into the digital domain, while Facebook has set up partnerships with many news outlets – in its new Facebook Instant Articles programme we can already count the New York Times and Buzzfeed, among others. As explained by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr, publisher and CEO of the New York Times: “We have a long tradition of meeting readers where they are, and that means being available not just on our own sites, but on the social platforms frequented by many current and potential Times users”.
It is a landscape further complicated by the great success of instant-messaging apps such as WhatsApp, which has more than 800 million users and was bought for $22 billion by Facebook in February 2014, and the arrival of players with very different business models and editorial goals. These include Anthony de Rosa’s Circa, which focused on breaking news and bullet points; Vice News, now expanding its current news offering with high-quality video content; and Medium, a participatory platform established by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in August 2012, which has evolved into a hybrid of non-professional contributions and paid professional contributions, and is a successful example of social journalism. Today Medium hosts stories by renowned journalists such as Steven Levy, editor of the BackChannel section, or intriguing sections such as Eidolon, with a fascinating tagline: “A modern way to write about the ancient world.” Also worth a mention is Quartz, a digital native news outlet that relies on veteran and young reporters for economic and world news aimed at mobile devices, with a main office in New York City and correspondents in several cities around the world.
In addressing this evolving landscape, Gianni Riotta of Princeton University, a big fan of new technologies, had this to say in a recent commentary for Italian newspaper La Stampa: “We tend to judge the cultural impact of new tools according to the old paradigm. For instance, Socrates hated writing because it would eliminate the only way to reason he loved: dialogue and conversation. It is true that we lost for ever such noble traditions as oral culture or the epic tales recited by heart to the sound of the zither, but later we realized how much we gained by moving to a writing culture […] The truth is that new tools force us to think, write and create in a very different way. Therefore, we are always facing a cultural revolution, not a technological one. And we must adapt to succeed.”
To find out what the future holds for the media, we must first understand today’s cultural transformation. As pointed out by the late New York Times columnist David Carr, we should see the inevitable crisis of traditional media as an opportunity for positive change. “I think that being a journalist a few years back was a much easier or comfortable job,” he said, “but we have to deal with our current situation, not with something lost in the past or a wishful thinking. I believe these are truly exciting times for the media world.”
Our planet is undergoing deep transformations at social, political and cultural levels, and online news reporting does (and must) reflect this. We should embrace and develop the landscape outlined above, with its many different players, models and approaches. After all, change in media is the daily business, not an exception – and talking about it could easily become yesterday’s news.
Author: Andrea Stroppa is an internet security researcher and blogger for Huffington Post Italia.
Image: A commuter (R) reads on her e-reader while riding the subway in Cambridge, Massachusetts March 18, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder