The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

I fear 2018 will be the year we will see a major platform decide that news is simply not worth the trouble and move to (1) reduce the role of news and systematically separate it from other content and (2) reduce the number of news organizations allowed to publish to the platform, strictly controlling who has the opportunity. We can call this the “Snapchat scenario,” as that is basically how news works on Snapchat. Some platforms in mainland China, Japan, and South Korea also control news distribution tightly and are only open to preapproved select partners. Relatively open platforms like Facebook or YouTube could choose to adopt this model, for any mix of three possible reasons rooted in politics, users, or advertising—

Is the digital content bubble about to burst? For some of the publishers chasing the broadest scale, maybe

Recent bad news for a number of digital-born news outlets (including BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Mashable, and Vice) is a symptom not only of the intense competition for attention and advertising online, but also of a digital content bubble where most news providers continue to operate at a loss — losses that cannot be sustained indefinitely. So far, the largest digital-born publishers have been sustained by investors, some of whom may be losing their patience. Legacy media outlets have used their offline revenues to bankroll investments in online operations that are still often not profitable on their own. Smaller digital-born operations have started out with money from their founders or philanthropic backers, but many are struggling to break even. More than 20 years into the rise of digital media, it seems clear that the content bubble will eventually burst unless more robust business models are found. Investors’ high Continue reading "Is the digital content bubble about to burst? For some of the publishers chasing the broadest scale, maybe"

The mobile money challenge

In 2016, every news organization will want to be mobile-first. But no one knows how to make the business of mobile news work. This makes the mobile money challenge one of the most pressing concerns for news and journalism. rasmus-kleis-nielsenIt’s clear that the move to mobile is a defining trend of news today. The rise of the mobile web in recent years has been faster and more global than the rise of desktop web access in the 1990s. In many countries, more than half the time spent with digital media is spent on mobile devices. Mobile Internet use is growing worldwide even as growth in home broadband access and desktop use is slowing. For many news organizations, more than half of their traffic comes from mobile users. To find an audience, especially a young audience, news need to be mobile, and media organizations are right to rush in, lest they Continue reading "The mobile money challenge"

What’s Missing From the BBC’s ‘Future of News’ Report?

The BBC is a globally important news organization and looked to all over the world for inspiration by other media, whether public service, private or non-profit.

That makes the new "Future of News" report by director of news and current affairs, James Harding, a particularly important publication well beyond the UK -- BBC World News <a href="http://advertising.bbcworldwide.com/home/mediakit/reachaudience/bbcworldnews"_hplink">say they reach a quarter of a billion households globally, and boasts over 50 million Facebook likes and over 8 million Twitter followers. Google, Facebook and Twitter may well be the only media companies with a wider global reach, even though China, Russia and Qatar are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in building their international state-owned media operations.

The report sets out an analysis of where news is heading over the next 10 years, identifies central strategic challenges, and lays out the case for the continued relevance of BBC-style public service media, funded not on a market basis (as with private media), or by donations (non-profits), but by a license fee levied on most of the population.

It is a very useful report, both for a good overall analysis of some of the main changes underway in the media and beyond changing what news is and where it should go. But it also leaves a number of key issues largely untouched -- most notably the role of digital intermediaries like Google and Facebook, the growing role of PR and strategic communication, as well as the global battle for press freedom -- which it is important to highlight.

In summary (see also here), Harding's focus is on what content the BBC (and others like it), but also on the technologies used to disseminate news and engage with users, and on the people that journalists ultimately need to reach and enrich.

On the content side, Harding argues that the BBC needs to emphasize "underreported stories", especially as private sector investment in news coverage continues to shrink in much of the world, including more focus on opaque power structures (especially cross-border ones), on international and local news (as opposed to national), and on making sure that the BBC delivers news for everyone, across age, class, race, etc. differences, especially given the huge information inequalities that characterize what he rightly calls our "uneven world".

On the technology side, he underlines the need to continue to operate with a mix of distribution platforms and technologies, including "legacy" ones like traditional TV and radio, but also on more emphasis on more distinctly digital and mobile formats and platforms, as well as the need for more data journalism, more personalized news services ("If you like this, you might also like..."), and more engagement with users, all facilitated by digital technologies.

While recognizing many of the challenges ahead, Harding's overall stance is up-beat. In his view, news is changing "for the better, overwhelmingly." A colleague from a private news organization would probably be the first to say that is probably more true when one is funded by a license fee than if one is struggling to break even on a market basis.

What's missing from this, then, beyond the limited attention paid to the challenges commercial players face? I would highlight three important things that are underplayed in the report.

First, the increasingly important role of digital intermediaries like search engines and social media. In six of the 10 countries we surveyed for the 2014 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, search engines are a more widely used way of finding news online than the websites of news organizations like the BBC. Digital intermediaries often offer amazing and highly valuable services to their users, but it is also important to keep an eye on their increasingly central place in the overall media environment as the sites via which we find news, where we consume it, where we engage with it. As Emily Bell has rightly argued, this puts the biggest of these companies in very powerful positions and raise questions of accountability and conflict of interest. Continue reading "What’s Missing From the BBC’s ‘Future of News’ Report?"

The Abundant Riches of American Political Journalism

Jurek Martin complained in a recent Financial Times column about the rising poverty of American political journalism, decrying the "crippling reliance on opinion polls", the relentless churn of 24-hour television "news" (good thing he isn't on Twitter...), and the near-obsession in some circles with the 2016 Presidential Election at the expense of reporting on what is actually going on now, why and what it means.

Martin complained, "[I]n the 40-plus years I have been familiar with American political journalism, it has never been as poor as it is today."

All the phenomena that Martin mentioned exist, and they can be annoying. Yes, too often, opinion polls are reported in a mindless fashion. Yes, much of what passes for news on television is superficial and driven by self-promoting pundits ready at hand with pre-packaged opinions and professional outrage. Yes, many political stories speculate about the distant Presidential Election instead of focusing on the monumental challenges at hand in Washington, D.C. and in state and local governments around the country.

But Mr. Martin, you don't have to watch Fox News if you don't like it. You don't need to read premature speculation about 2016. And you don't have to care about what respondents have answered in the most recent poll. Because American political journalism today is not impoverished. It is abundantly rich.

You have so many other options, quality daily news coverage from a number of mainstream news outlets, long-form articles in magazines and online, intelligent satire, a growing number of blogs focusing on minutia of policy, interactive data journalism helping you understand the flow of money in everything from the federal budget to the most recent campaign.

Yes, there is much crap, plenty to provide endless anecdotes to support the that the state of American political journalism today is poor. But there is also much excellent work being done, timely, accurate, multifaceted reporting on what is going on.

I am even tempted to suggest that the best political journalism today is better in some ways -- more contextualized through links, less arrogant and self-satisfied, more conscious that it has been taken for a ride in the past and that many citizens are losing patience with journalism, and have many other ways of spending their time -- than political journalism was in a past when a few newspapers and a few television news programs held a much more dominant position in the American media landscape and political system than any one outlet does today. Was American political journalism really great during the Reagan presidency, for example? In the coverage of the first Gulf War? Some of the best commentators at the time did not think so. It is hard to see when exactly Martin's Golden Age was, and how golden it was.

This doesn't mean contemporary American political journalism doesn't have any weaknesses, flaws, or problems. It has many.

It has well-known problems, many as old as the profession itself. Political journalism remains reliant on a narrow range of pre-approved authoritative sources who mainly represent their own or their institution's self-interest. It struggles with slow-burn issues like poverty, climate change and the transformation of our economy, stories that have few obviously colorful personalities and little overt conflict. It remains insular, more in tune with what is going on inside the Beltway than with Paris, Texas. More interested in Paris, Texas, than in Paris, France. Ordinary Americans and their hopes and problems are rarely featured (except through opinion polls or as anecdotes).

American political journalism also has new problems -- problems I discuss in my new book with Raymond Kuhn, Political Journalism in Transition -- but these problems are not the problems of poverty that Jurek Martin complains about in his frankly back-wards looking and jaundiced piece in the Financial Times.

The new problems are problems of a growing polarization between the information haves and the information have-nots as more and more Americans no longer trust politicians or the journalists who report on them and tune out. They are problems of often harsh cuts in newsrooms, not in the number of reporters covering the White House and the most high-profile partisan and intra-party conflicts, but in a declining number of reporters who write for a general audience about municipal governments, about state-level politics, and about more specialized policy areas like housing, the environment, and defense, where special interests, both public and private, often slug it out in darkness with, but few journalists reporting on what is going on in matters than concern all of us.

These are the problems we should be concerned with -- the risk that political journalism increasingly orients itself towards reporting for the few who follow politics closely, not for the many, the risk that political journalism is reduced to covering a few aspects of the many facets and many layers of modern politics. Complaining that things where much better back in the day will do nothing to address these challenges. Journalists of Martin's generation had their chance, did their job. Now, it is up to a new generation of political journalists to prove that the fundamental mission of their profession can be renewed for a new age under new conditions.

The coming disruption of television news

For commercial news media in the Western world, the underlying thrust in 2014 remains the same that it was 2013 and has been for a decade or more. It is a move towards a world in which we will have more media — including stakeholder media serving various special interests — but fewer resources for professionally produced, general-interest news journalism. None of the business models currently in place nor those being tried out generate the revenues common in the 1990s. In this environment, survival is success both for established legacy news media and for new entrants.

rasmus_kleis_nielsenThree things to watch as news media organizations old and new struggle to navigate this environment:

  • Will the full gale of creative digital destruction finally hit television? Is this going to be the year linear, programmed television on broadcast, satellite, and cable — after years of people crying wolf — begins to experience disruption on a scale comparable to what print publishing and the music business have already experienced? So far, evidence for cord-cutting is mixed and limited, and television continues to dominate most people’s media use.

    But broadband access and bandwidth is increasing, TV advertising is showing signs of weakness in the U.S. as audiences fragment further and move to other platforms, and in the U.K., streaming and various forms of catch-up services, often accessed via “second screens,” are increasing rapidly. There is also concern that many broadcasters so far have been missing out on the move to mobile platforms and that they, like newspaper publishers before them, may be losing touch with younger generations. Television broadcasters never invested as much in news reporting as newspapers did, but they did invest in news, and they do disseminate news to very large audiences. Both the investment and the dissemination will change if television is disrupted on a large scale.

  • What is happening with relations between content producers and social media? Publishers have long seen sites like Facebook and Twitter as frenemies. Publishers have complained that social media sites benefit disproportionally from their content, but have shied away from preventing people from sharing it freely, as they also want the audience social media can drive to news websites (a third or more of overall traffic in some cases).

    As established social media sites continue to adapt to serve their users and fend off new competitors, they have also begun to more explicitly recognize the real value of professionally produced quality content for their business. Just as Google in 2011 tweaked its algorithms to keep content farms and low-grade, search-engine-optimized fluff out of the top search results, Facebook in December 2013 announced changes to increase the amount of links to “high quality content” that appear in users’ feed (mentioning. among other things. news about current events from trusted sources). Twitter has talked very openly about the “special” relation it has to television and the centrality of the social media-legacy media relationship to its business model and future development. These developments may help publishers who have been struggling to make money online to sustain their investment in journalism.

  • How will pay models for digital news evolve? I don’t see any way in which the spread of digital pay models across much of the newspaper industry in North America and Western Europe points towards a near future in which these companies will make anything like the kind of money many of them made in the 1990s. But I’m cautiously optimistic that those organizations who produce genuinely distinct quality content, continue to serve their audiences, and are willing to invest in developing their digital products can reach a point where pay is one amongst several meaningful sources of revenue.

    Putting aside the often discussed highly non-representative examples of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, take three other cases: Axel Springer in Germany has just announced it has won almost 150,000 paying digital subscribers for its popular tabloid Bild after introducing a freemium model six months ago. The company reports 47,000 digital subscribers for its upmarket broadsheet Die Welt, which introduced a metered model about a year ago. The Helsingin Sanomat in Finland has introduced a metered paywall, sold digital subscriptions at an additional cost to close to half of its existing print subscribers (more than 130,000), and seen online advertising increase at the same time. News Corp, long ridiculed for the “hard” paywall around the London Times, now reports more than 100,000 digital subscribers for the upmarket Times and its sister paper the Sunday Times (both of which have been charging since 2010) and the same for the popular tabloid the Sun (which introduced its premium Sun+ four months ago).

    With the possible exception of the Helsingin Sanomat (130,000 paying digital subscribers in a country of less than 6 million!), none of these numbers are eye-popping success stories, and in most cases they pale by comparison to each title’s print readership, diminished as it is. But all of these figures are a heck of a lot better than nothing, and they may point towards a future where there is still some commercial basis for producing news.

It may be boring and slightly depressing to focus on these kinds of issues that continue to challenge the business of journalism, but when it comes to the future of news, as when it comes to so many other things, it is worth following the money.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is associate professor of communications at Roskilde University in Denmark and research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: The New York Times Is Leaving the U.S Newspaper Industry Behind

The announcement that the New York Times Company wants to sell the New England Media Group (including the Boston Globe) and focus on its flagship title illustrates how the New York Times is leaving the U.S. newspaper industry behind.

The paper that Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Sr. worked to transform from a Manhattan-based operation into a national operation through satellite printing and regional editions his son Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. now works to turn into a truly global news content company through an emphasis on digital subscriptions and new Portuguese and Chinese language editions oriented towards cosmopolitan elites in emerging markets.

This transition from metropolitan newspaper with national aspirations to metropolitan news organization with both national and international readership is not an easy move for the New York Times. But it is an impossible move to even contemplate for the Boston Globe, let alone the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the two titles that, with various related operations, make up the bulk of the New England Media Group.

By putting the New England Media Group up for sales, the New York Times Company and its new CEO, former BBC General Director Mark Thompson, has implicitly acknowledged that searching for a way forward for the Globe and the Telegram & Gazette, important as that is in itself, is an unwelcome distraction from the company's primary objective of moving the flagship title forward by building the national and international audience.

It is no longer clear that the Times has much in common with these titles, or that the synergies sought when they were bought in 1993 (in joint advertising sales, for example) matter very much anymore. It is, however, clear that these titles do not have the resources or the brand to cater to the global audience the New York Times itself seeks, and that they are now probably losing money or at best breaking even.

The Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and hundreds of other metropolitan and local daily newspapers around the U.S., will have to find their own way forward instead. Proud titles from the LA Times and the Dallas Morning News to the Tulsa World and the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, and countless smaller newspapers, face many of the same challenges of declining print readership, flagging advertising revenues, and unprofitable digital operations that the New York Times has struggles with. But they cannot go global.

Their future, in all likelihood, involves a move in the opposite direction, with a greater focus on being the most trustworthy source of news about local issues. It probably also involves further downsizing as local news organizations try to find a sustainable model based on local readers rather than the advertisers who are leaving in droves and/or paying less for ads. It may also necessitate investors less focused on short-term quarterly profits and more towards building a long-term sustainable model for local news production, even if it may never be as lucrative as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. It could well see the most successful American local newspapers become more like their much more robust German counterparts, who have, with their strong connection to their local communities, substantial paying readerships, and less advertising-dependent business models, so far fared better during the digital transition than many other newspapers.

Whatever that future is, it is not the future of the New York Times, a news organization that is leaving the U.S. newspaper industry behind.