Wednesday, 28 July 2010

What's the future of news? Don't ask me!

This is a blog post based on my response to a student email I received asking me about my opinions regarding the future of news that I thought some readers may be interested in.  Now this is a very good student who transferred from a practical degree to take one of our theoretical degrees - BA (Hons) Media, Culture and Communication - who is currently on a Summer internship at ITN helping with their development team. It's not often that our team gets to talk about theory students doing practical work so forgive me for my little indulgence.  Anyway, they are working on a project looking at a number of issues including the the current broadcasting environment, the evolution of Internet-based news, Twitter, smartphones and how these are all becoming ever more integrated and converged, which all sounds pretty interesting.  Everything that follows has been cut and pasted from that email so forgive the spelling errors!

The future?

Ah, the future of news, eh?  I'll come straight out and say I don't know what the future is going to be and there are many people in the same boat (including news providers!).  Lots of talk circulates around mobile being the next big thing.  We've all head the hype about the iPad and how it may save journalism but it's still early days on that front.  3 million units sold is impressive but not when it set against the global fall in paid-for news content.  Personally, I have no doubt smartphones and tablet devices will play some part in nurturing news but I think there are a few barriers at the moment including technical infrastructures (like the UK 3G/4G networks, Apple app approval processes), data limitations being imposed by mobile providers (O2 and 500mb per month cap) which will restrict the way in which news is consumed via those platforms (I can stream Sky News and BBC Radio 4 on my iPhone via 3G but reach my data cap pretty quickly unless I switch to wifi meaning I'll consume less bandwidth heavy forms of news) and the prohibitive costs of ownership (iPhones/iPads are not cheap, but Android devices are affordable to many).

I'm still confident in the value of the printed word, I'm just not sure it's being delivered and curated by established news organisations effectively.  Let's look at two examples from the UK broadsheet/quality markets; namely Times Online and

The recent Murdoch/Times paywall issue is interesting in that News Corp is happy to sacrifice large numbers of eyeballs (in front of ads) for about 10% of their audience who are willing to pay for the service.  They changed the website design so it looked more like a newspaper too, which is pretty strange.  I'm not sure a small paying audience is sufficient insurance against obscurity, especially when the Times doesn't seem to have the kind of content that other paywall sites have (ie the Financial Times has an affluent, niche audience willing to pay for business news).

Emily Bell, the former Director of Digital Content at the Guardian  (and now a New York Prof of Journalism!) has been pretty vocal about this issue, as has Jeff Jarvis (blogger, academic, journalist, entrepreneur).  You should skim Jarvis' blog for some excellent ideas on the future of (hyper local) news:  There is an idea that being highly visible is important for monetising news.  The more reach you have the better placed you'll be to sell advertising and services around content.  I think the latter is important here and maybe more important in the future.  The Guardian are currently toying with their Extra service ( - a £25 per year service offering live debates, news room visits, masterclasses, liver performances, exclusive offers etc to subscribers.  It might help build reader loyalty - the incentive to pay and get something out of that paid-for service.  It might also be a last ditch attempt to stymy the massive losses they've been posting the last couple of years.  Who knows?

I do know that The Guardian are interested in hearing from their readers about what they should do next.  As an iPhone app customer I've been asked to take part in various feedback sessions and one online Q&A did ask about whether or not I'd pay a monthly subscription (for the record, I'm more than willing since I use their website a lot and have stopped buying their papers for the most part).  It's an idea that might work for them, but it might backfire - especially when there is so much freely available content (BBC, I'm looking at you) that readers can go to.  It might be in their best interests to keep the content free but build in some additional features into the application such as personalised content.  Currently app users can pick their favourite themes for quick reading and share relevant stories across Twitter, Facebook,  and email but there is no way to actually engage with the news from the portable device.  This seems to be completely at odds with their main website functionality.

Curate and engage

The ability to comment on stories and engage with writers via the blogs over on Comment Is Free is a model of how to curate and sustain reader attention.  I'm frequently surprised by the sophistication and persuasiveness of argument that can be found in the comment section by Guardian readers.  Sure, there are moments when the ability to hide behind a pseudonym allows for a fair bit of trolling, flaming and nastiness, but this is superseded by the positive forms of engagement on offer.  Add to this some of the excellent daily/weekly podcasts they put out (Tech Weekly, Science Weekly, Media Talk, etc) feature insightful news, relevant expert guests and feature some of the highest production standards (on par with the BBC) all of which they sustain and curate via their main news site as well as with Twitter feeds, Flickr groups and Facebook pages.  They have a consistent and wide ranging presence, all of which push the brand to readers in ways that being behind a paywall prevents.

My feelings about Twitter as a news source change regularly.  I started out by using Twitter as a way of discovering news stories when the number of people I followed was relatively small (ie less than 200) and manageable.  As the number of people you follow increases it becomes harder to negotiate the inane from the relevant, especially as Twitter is geared around short bursts of phatic communication.  I suppose this is one of the reasons why the Lists feature was introduced, so users could tune in to certain people and not others at any given time.  Twitter is good for pointing people to interesting stories or links but it doesn't quite beat a good RSS feed in my opinion.  There's no real way of knowing how long Twitter will be around for, especially in its current guise without a clear business model, so I'd be cautious about seeing it as the future of news.  As a cost-free network for connecting people with interesting things to say, Twitter is great, but it isn't a creator of news content with some exceptions (see this fictional dystopian story for an example:

I haven't really got around to talking about books on the subject and I'm going to have to be brief.  There are many writers who have sung the praises of the Internet in it's various stages of evolution: as a medium of abundance, a pluralistic space, a democratising tool, etc.  One of the better books I've seen in recent years was the edited collection by Natalie Fenton (2009), New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age - there's a few good chapters in there.  There's one which suggests that the despite the Internet bringing us new ways of reading about more diverse material we are actually becoming less engaged with differing viewpoints.  We tend to consume news or info that already supports our pre-existing ideas. The irony here is that the world of abundance hasn't broadened our engagement - rather we've filtered our world views through lenses that reinforce our established positions (with the odd exception).  Add to this the academic work of people like Justin Lewis (Cardiff University) which has pointed out that massive cuts in the financing of expensive news content has led to widespread reliance on PR copy and what Nick Davies calls 'churnalism' and the future of news doesn't look so bright.

There's also a great presentation on TED by Ethan Zuckerman (from Global Voices, a site for bloggers around the world producing non-mainstream news content: in which he discusses how easy (and dangerous) it is to filter out issues

I want to come back to a recent example of the ways in which, despite the advantages of the Internet with its easy distribution channels, the traditional news providers still have an important (gate-keeping?) role to play.  You might recall that in April Wikileaks released a video of a US Apache helicopter firing on Iraqi civilians (2 versions: one 39 minute unedited version and one 18 minute edited version framed with a quotation from George Orwell) which drew a lot of attention and criticism from the US government. I've embedded that video below but you may need to sign in to YouTube to watch it.

Wikileaks is a site dedicated to whistle-blowing and supposedly free from editorial inflections - the edited video seemed very much like editorial work rather than a objective fact.  This week the announcement that Wikileaks  had released 92,000 documents about the war in Afghanistan to the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel was an important one.  Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks) realised that in order for these documents to have maximum impact they needed to be examined and considered by professional journalists who could make sense of the content and frame it in a way that the public could readily engage with.  There's an excellent account of this process on Comment is Free by Dan Kennedy (academic)

Whatever the future of news is, it has to be responsive to news consumers and responsible to the basic tenements of democratic engagement.  If news providers ignore their audience, they'll soon discover they have no audience.


Sean Gartland said...

Good read! I worry that the poorer and older sections of society may get left behind even more in the future. The price barrier is often high for 'digital news' and coupled with the decline in local news outlets people could get isolated very quickly. I believe this has, to some degree, helped elements of society such as the BNP/EDL gain a foothold. Tack on the inevitable assault on the BBC by the government and the quality of discourse in this country will take another hit.

Some links to academic research on news consumption;

Rob said...

Thanks Shaun. The digital divide issue is a very real one and I guess it is one that will diminish over time as technology becomes more affordable and attractive (although I'm not sure how cheap smartphones can actually get given that they tend to be subsidiesed by 18 month+ contracts). The BNP/EDL have been quite effective at harnessing the power of digital media - there are numerous hate groups on Facebook, for instance. I think the technology is neutral in that respect - it's what people choose to write onto it that matters. Education is important in combatting these issues.

Those links to the Pew studies were really useful, cheers

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