So I’ve been thinking about the future of news. I mean, what are things going to look like in the next 5-10 years? Everyone knows that print has a lot of questions to answer, not least whether it’s going to survive the next decade. That’s a whole discussion in of itself, and is more about format and delivery. I’m interested in the content – and I think there are some observable trends.
- Market segmentation of viewers. This is an idea lifted, in part, from a recent New York Times piece by David Frum, wherein he discusses conservative-leaning media in general and Fox news in particular.
Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment [...] The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel).
It’s true that the American media scene is particularly polarised, and the mere act of reporting has long been near-impossible to achieve neutrally – just because even stating the plain facts is frequently intepreted as liberal or conservative bias according to whichever ideology the viewer subscribes. Nonetheless, it’s a shrewd observation that (some) media outlets have been getting to work monetizing their audience by accentuating their reporting in a certain light. Although, as Frum wryly notes:
As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly [...] As journalism, not so much.
Little point delving into that one too far, I think. People can draw their own conclusions. But it has long been the case that populism has propped up the more consciously intellectual elements of the press: The Times and the Guardian are supported by NI’s red-tops and GMG’s Trader Group and emap publications respectively, even as their print circulation gradually declines. Even in instances where editorial content takes cue from opinion rather than news – which would seem to better fit the business model Frum notes – highbrow print has suffered. At Le Monde, arguably France’s leading paper and an important publication worldwide, sales have been down year on year since 2002 (with a small blip in ’07).
In terms of what this actually means – well, highbrow viewers certainly aren’t going away. Instead, they appear to be specializing. Readership of The Economist has risen sharply to 4.5m globally, in part due to the multiple financial crises, but also because easy online access means more people are discovering it. Which brings me to my second point.
- Superstar journalists are going to become even more important. Consider Caitlin Moran, Fraser Nelson, Penny Red, Ben Goldacre, Paul Waugh, Faisal Islam, Neal Mann, Paul Lewis, David Allen Green, and so on. All on Twitter, all with tens, even hundreds of thousands of followers. News outlets themselves, such as @BBCBreaking, number into the millions. Print articles by Twitter titans such as these, as well as other, non-resident objets d’affection such as Charlie Brooker and David Mitchell, bring in a lot of views. A lot of views. Moreover, these articles, in being shared, gather more followers to the author, leading to more shares, and so on. These followers’ allegiances will also often be more to the individual than their employer, granting a mandate of sorts for more license of expression. And make no mistakes, as individual writers continue to bring in the views, they’ll either get more and more column space, or break free entirely. In other words, I think we will start to see more Huffington Post models, wherein a central editorial team handle the direction and draft in freelancers. The brand of the news outlet in question will pivot around how well that direction can be steered and channeled.
- Social media will become the leading source of traffic for digital. Given the above, this seems somewhat inevitable. It won’t be for every item, obviously, but where the author strikes a chord, you can expect it to reverberate far and wide. Take this article from The Telegraph‘s Peter Oborne, back in August. His articles normally get… well, looking at his latest three, they have 614 shares combined across four social networks. Now look at the one I linked. 57,000 shares on Facebook alone. When you’re playing with these sorts of numbers, you can bet that you’ll get more followers, more clicks, more eyes. In short, you’ll grow your audience, and that growth will have come from social. This is hardly fluffy speculation: to return to the Guardian, their Facebook application picked up 4m users and grew their pageviews by 1m in under three months.
The irony of this stuff, of course, is that dealing with digital content models – especially when factoring in audience metrics, inevitably begins to lend itself once again to monetization. Therefore, populism. Is it a good thing that an article about David Cameron being a lizard received more views than an article warning of a major food crisis in an African state? The Daily Mail Online held a Gorkana breakfast briefing recently, attended by a friend of mine. When he returned, he flopped down on the couch. It was interesting, he said, but he struggled to see how it was practically useful when considering content. I asked why, and he explained that the people from the Mail had only one goal: to become the largest news website in the world. They were not particularly interested in content beyond whether or not it would deliver traffic. In other words, a purely commercial enterprise – which brings us right back to where this article started.
So what lies ahead? I believe that the struggle is going to be finding a way to balance content models around individual star writers in a manner that brings in views, maintains the brand of the publication, and – perhaps increasingly difficult – doesn’t forget about the goddamn news.