As the pace of technology speeds on full-throttle, four media visionaries describe how new developments will influence how we produce and consume news in 2011. And while they may have different views, one thing’s agreed: quality journalism remains paramount.
Of course, the passing of one year into the next doesn’t really make any difference save for firework manufacturers and hoteliers eyeing extortion, but in media we’re led to believe that another year marks another sea change in the way we’ll work, rest and play. You’re familiar with the themes, but just to be sure: digital rules, books are dead, free news is the future and everything worth anything starts with that personal and possessive lower-case prefix “i” – as in iPod, iPad, iThinkiLoveYou… Oh, and paper’s dead (you’re either reading this on one of those lithium-screened breadboards or over someone’s shoulder).
We’d say “hold your horses”; we’d ask what you really get for free, we’d point you in the direction of the back of this magazine and our visit to Der Spiegel, perhaps the most laudable and profitable of superior media brands, a magazine and a firm that knows full well that quality costs and that people will pay.
We could say anything, though, so we asked a handful of media luminaries to gaze into their fully-integrated, HD-ready, wi-fi iPredictors or just their good old crystal balls and predict the year ahead in media – who will make money and how? Will social networks trounce old media or merge with it? Can paper hit back? And, are you being served?
With the arrival and popularity of the iPad and all the other tablets already showing their faces at the gate, we are seeing the end of one paradigm in the development of media platforms and the start of a new and fascinating period for storytelling.
Experts tell us that there may be 45 million tablets around within a year. Publishing houses are rushing to tabletise their products and to create the most memorable app in the market. The iPad completes the media quartet of mobile, online, print and tablet. These four platforms will serve us well in the foreseeable future. But it’s an industry in constant transition and the inventors are not taking a break anytime soon.
An unexpected side-effect is that media houses are having to think hard about how to innovate every part of the quartet. The content and visual demands of creating unique, inviting apps for newspapers and magazines force us to analyse what we do with the print and online editions, letting information architecture drive the dynamics of the content and the organisational choices we make.
The arrival of tablets provide us with an opportunity to let information architecture be the protagonist. Everything else, from storytelling to design, evolves easily from there. Heralding a new emphasis on storytelling, the tablets might turn out to be the best thing that has happened to re-imagine the newsroom, also to the benefit of prematurely declared dead print editions.
As one of the old guys in our media world, I can remember my dad, a financial editor, propping me up as a toddler on the marble bench, used to steady the heavy typeset newspaper pages, cast in hot lead, not on a computer monitor. Now my kids read on an iPad, changing pages with a butterfly touch. Mighty change? Yes and no. The Electronic Era melted the Leaden Age, but the future will still be grounded on information.
The business model, alas, will be different. For centuries journalists have dictated their point of view. Now every passerby considers himself a pro, ready to Wikileak any commentary or factoid he or she believes. Democracy indeed, but would you have your wisdom tooth extracted by a dentist home-schooled on the web? If you answered “no”, accept the same equation for the media. Technology-wise we have to embrace the brave new world. Value-wise we’ll stick to the old ones: dialogue, tolerance, professionalism. Freedom, justice, compassion will not be analogue or digital. They will pass on to new generations and we media folk must strive to assure that smooth and noble transition.
While there will always be cool new devices to get excited about, the real story for 2011 will be the rise of digital news networks. These are publishing operations configured for the web. Networked news is about forming and reforming alliances as the story, the advertising opportunity, or the audience changes. And in the digital era, it always changes.
The 102-year-old Christian Science Monitor shed daily print in 2009. We now have CSMonitor.com, a print weekly, and a foot in e-readers and other devices. Our future is not to grow in size but to build a network of alliances. Along with The Economist and 30 other publications, we are part of a new advertising group, called the Ideas People Channel, that aggregates influential readers for advertisers. The web turns 20 in 2011. The news business has had two decades to make a go of digital publishing. In theory, it should be simple: no presses, no deliveries, no subscribers complaining about soggy newspapers. That lowers costs. But web advertising sells for a fraction of print advertising.
e-readers and tablets such as the iPad seem promising, but their adoption is not yet widespread, and middle men (Amazon, Apple) are demanding a big cut. I think the future of news isn’t in monolithic publishing or cool devices but in ad-hoc networks. We cover our costs by ensuring that our costs remain low. We amplify our impact via the network. We concentrate on what we do best: journalism.
The social web and location-based mobile services are the 2011 telescopes for digital media, augmenting networks by paving paths of least resistance to reveal compelling and relevant news and information. We are all hackers of knowledge. The cognitive capacity of internet users to synthesise and sort media is adapting in the same way video games are transforming genetic dexterity in thumbs. Business models that deliver and aggregate fragments of signal in the noise will be successful. As a general rule, sell services and products, not audiences and content.
The internet is worth £100bn (€115bn) to the UK economy; that’s more than 7 per cent of GDP and larger than the construction, utility, or transport industries. Simple digital productivity efficiencies can have a dramatic impact on daily life. For instance, the average UK household saves £1,000 a year shopping online. Digital media can and does inspire and inform research, design, and creativity in everyday lives. We are what we know and now more than ever services are required for timely, nimble, and adaptive brokerage of information.
In this spirit, traditional media companies will continue to reduce their overheads and diversify beyond selling audiences to advertisers to directly selling services and products to audiences. Services like social gaming, direct retail, or social coupons for local businesses are highly profitable and offer precious revenue opportunities for possible integration with news delivery.
News organisations determined to sell content will pursue targeted return on investment models like Demand Media or location-based or niche feeds instead of generalised paywalls that won’t work. Advertising supported models with free content will continue to walk the high-wire between diluting their product through annoying adverts and low revenue.
Technological themes for 2011 include algorithms rating the “trustworthiness” of sources, sentiment monitoring of real-time opinions in social networks, and personal gossip magazines of your life and the social lives of your network. Expect more mergers and acquisitions as content providers seek to further deepen integration with social delivery and distribution.
Thinking ahead, in a few years time we could be paraphrasing Theodore Levitt and Marshall McLuhan: if the media companies had recognised that they were in the medium business and not the media business, they would still be in business.