To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of newspapers are somewhat exaggerated. But traditional media is experiencing the “perfect storm” of declining circulations, collapsing advertising revenues and seismic changes in the way news is produced and consumed.
This is forcing change on an industry that has to-date largely resisted it.
Globally, changes in news production and consumption are not happening uniformly. Newspaper circulation declined by 9 million worldwide in 2010 according to the World Press Trends report published by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
Newspapers are still read by 2.3 billion people compared to 1.9 billion who read their news online.
The impact of the circulation fall has been greatest in the US with an 11% overall decline – compared to an increase of 7% in the Asia Pacific region.
At the same time, newspaper advertising revenues continue to nosedive, the biggest decline again happening in the US.
The net result of declining revenue has seen the closure of newspapers and the permanent move from paper to online for others. Even for those newspapers still in business, the fall in income has seen widespread layoffs of staff and expectations of increased productivity from those who remain – the archetypical “doing more with less” … and less.
Migration online for some news organisations has accompanied changes in the way the public consume the news. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism report showed that 46% of Americans currently get news from 4-6 media platforms per day and 37% contribute to news creation by commenting and sharing. Only 7% get their news from a single media platform.
Daily news consumption patterns have changed with the iPad being used in the morning and evening and mobile phones being used constantly throughout the day.
In all of this, the debate on what should happen next has raged. This is mainly because there’s no single obvious solution, and what you consider to be the most important problem depends on your perspective. For the CEO and shareholder, the primary focus has been to try and reverse the fall of revenue, often through slash and burn.
For editors, journalists and the customers, the problem has been that the nature of news and the relationship between the producers and consumers has fundamentally changed. News is no longer produced for a passive audience to consume. As mentioned previously, 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented on it or shared it with others. Information sourced from social media, blogs and video sites often makes its way into reporting.
The issue with revenue can’t be tackled without first adapting news organisations to these changes.
John Paton, CEO of the Journal Register Company has declared that traditional journalism is dead. He sees that the “crowd knows more than we do and the crowd can do what we do”. Once you reduce the cost of production of news to next to nothing, then everyone can produce “news” and can disseminate that news through social media, video and blogs.
The crowd, of course, is local; they are at the scene when events happen, cameras, recorders and phones at hand. Everything is instantaneously uploadable and shareable. Much breaking news is now produced this way, associated with a hashtag.
The crowd is also blogging, along with expert analysis and opinion. Companies, think tanks, and academics are producing timely, informed and expert content, often at a speed and depth most news organisations find difficult to match.
Companies such as the Huffington Post have tried to aggregate some of this content with contributions from more than 9,000 bloggers – some of whom are now suing the company for what they allege is a lack of financial compensation – in addition to content from regular staff. Sites such as the Daily Kos are also collections of contributed blog posts with a political leaning.
John Paxton is not the only CEO of traditional media organisations to recognise things have changed. News companies such as the Guardian, Al Jazeera and the New York Times have adapted their own businesses to extend regular reports with blogs, video, Twitter and Facebook feeds, comment and community input.
The Guardian recently started an experiment where it has made public its newslists, the articles and events that journalists are covering and working on. They also have a blog site, commentisfree where community writers can contribute blog articles.
The New York Times and Al Jazeera have moved in a similar direction with equivalent features. All of the news organisations have allowed journalists and editors to interact with their readers and others on social media.
The New York Times has been declared the “most social” of companies in the US – however, two relatively unknown tech companies, intuit and juniper, were second and third, so this should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
Al Jazeera is probably the leader in its use of technology and social media to report, interact and incorporate content with and from the public.
It uses Flickr to share images and Scribble Live to write, edit and share collaborative content. Al Jazeera is also very active on Twitter, using feedback to determine what to report and to help shape stories that are breaking.
Al Jazeera has adapted to working with citizen journalists. Ultimately, the entire organisation is working in this way, a key differentiator between organisations that will succeed in the digital world and those that will fail.
Other organisations are taking a different approach to collaboration between the public and professional journalists. This so-called “pro-am” (professional-amateur) process involves professional editors assisting public contributors to submit content to a set standard or quality.
This is the approach taken by The Conversation – a site for which academics write articles in their area of expertise which are then polished by professional editors. Earlier attempts to effectively do this, such as “Assignment Zero”, a collaboration between Wired Magazine and NewAssignment.net did not succeed, mainly because of a lack of supporting technology and poor organisation.
NewAssignment.net is collaborating with the Huffington Post on OffTheBus.net which will provide citizen journalist coverage of the US 2012 election campaign.
Clay Shirky, author and academic at New York University, has discussed the transformation news organisations are going through as a revolution where – like any revolution, perhaps – we don’t know what the end result will be.
We can guess the production of news has irrevocably changed from being institution-based to a hybrid of institution/crowd. We don’t know the business models that will support this and we can guess about the organisations that are most likely to succeed and fail.
We can also guess there is no reason that the quality of news reporting both from an immediacy aspect through to in-depth coverage should change – if anything, there is reason to believe it will improve.