The digital revolution will not be televised. And it’s not in the newspapers either. In fact, media companies don’t seem to get the revolution at all.
A decade and half since newspapers started distractedly plastering their content all over the internet (mistaking the web as just another publishing platform), the media owners are getting whacked anew.
The revolution has now gone mobile. Users are spending more time accessing and sharing news on their phones than they are on traditional desktops or tablets. And having spent fortunes designing funky iPad editions, the media finds that that the people formerly known as the audience have moved on, again.
Two recent reports –from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard and the Reuters Institute at Oxford – have identified this second wave of a revolution that threatens to upend newsrooms only just getting back to their feet after the first.
“Aren’t phones just web browsers with smaller screens?” says Nieman. “Not really. Smartphones are personal, social machines, optimised for communication and entertainment. The tap-and-scroll interface works beautifully with social networks like Facebook and Twitter — less so with old-fashioned news presentation. And an interface built around apps and icons can make it a challenge for any single news source to earn a prominent spot on someone’s home screen.”
In its third annual ‘Digital News’ report, the Reuters Institute says the speed of change in digital innovation and consumption patterns around news is such that media companies frequently find themselves two or three steps behind.
Covering 10 countries (the USA, UK, Germany, France, Denmark, Finland, Spain, Italy, Brazil and Japan), the Reuters report found rapid growth in mobile and tablet use for news, with 37% of the sample accessing news from a smartphone each week and 20% from a tablet. While Australia was left out of the Reuters sample, digital trends here are similar.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reuters found younger people (18-35) increasingly have little loyalty to any mainstream media brand and tend to rely on social sources like Facebook and Twitter to discover news stories.
And, again, there is still little sign that more people are willing to pay for news. In the UK, the proportion who said they had paid for digital news in the past year was just 7%. The authors suggested this may be due to the “abundant supply of quality free news from the BBC, Sky, Mail Online, and the Guardian”. (This partly explains why News Corp spends so much of its time fighting media civil wars).
The usual response of journalists to these sorts of numbers is to rail at the audience (“What’s wrong with you people! Pay up!”), though the truth is the cost of good journalism has never been covered by subscriptions, even in the analog days. The vast bulk of media revenues (80% or more) have traditionally come from advertising.
What is starting to dawn on traditional media executives now is that digital advertising dollars are shrinking both in absolute and relative terms. The advertisers won’t pay print rates for digital. But not only that – the money being spent on digital ads is overwhelmingly going to Google and Facebook, not the old intermediaries.
The fact is the “audience” is not passively consuming the SMH or The Australian as it once did. Instead, they are on their phones, actively engaging with Twitter or Facebook feeds and sharing and riffing on what they see. And, naturally enough, the advertisers will go where the audiences are.
Stepping back from it all, media companies for 15 years have mistaken the information revolution as purely a technological change. We were switching platforms, so that just meant shifting the journalism from print to desktop to tablet.
But this revolution is as much a cultural one. The media has been disintermediated, which means a journalist’s role shifts from institutionalised “Voice of God” handing down tablets of stone to freelance curator and explainer, working with the community to do what journalism has always done – to get to the truth of things.
The mistake people make out of all this is to conclude that the destruction of the media’s business model destroys journalism. In fact, it merely destroys an institutionalised and industrialised concept of journalism formed in the 20th century.
Quite understandably, working journalists will respond to this notion with “that’s all well and good, but how do I get paid for what I do?” On that score, the Reuters report cites a number of strategies for media companies, including soft and hard paywalls.
We’ll see how that plays out. But for now, the more interesting development is the rise of entrepreneurial journalism. With the cost of distribution now nil and scarcity no longer a driver of price, individual journalists can separate from the institutions that once cossetted them and become their own media “brand”.
In the US, there has been a mini-boom in analytical “wonk” journalism, led by writers like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver, who have tapped a growing need for someone to make sense of the sheer volume of data and information coming at us.
Here in Australia, we have in that role someone like Greg Jericho, who has worked backwards from popular blogger to mainstream media figure.
Of course, this is all happening at the edges. And none of it will bring back the heavily staffed newsrooms of the 20th century. But changing technology and changing news consumption patterns in the mobile age will nevertheless require a level of fleet-footedness and entrepreneurship on the part of journalists.
One astute observer of these trends is Professor George Brock, head of journalism at the City University, London. In a recent presentation, Brock urged journalists to stop trying to prescribe their predicament before they diagnose. They need to accept that their dominant position in the information chain has been lost, he said. The next step was finding out what value they can add in a world where anyone with a smartphone can summon up information instantaneously.
“What we used to call ‘news’ was once prepared like a conjuring trick or play behind a curtain and revealed at a fixed time,” Brock said. “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. 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.”
The instant availability of more and more information heightens the importance of verification, of the need to structure information so that it makes sense and of the need to provide explanations that resonate with people’s lived experience.
Journalists have the skills to do all of that, but they need to back to the first principles, experiment and see what works.
In the meantime, last word to His Bobness…