In a post on Medium, professor Clay Shirky says it is last call for printed newspapers.
“My friend +Jay Rosen writes about the media’s “production of innocence” — when covering a contentious issue, they must signal to the readers “We have no idea who’s right.” Among the small pool of journalists reporting on their own industry, there is a related task, the production of ignorance. When the press writes about the current dislocations, they must insist that no one knows what will happen. This pattern shows up whenever the media covers itself. When the Tribune Company recently got rid of their newspapers, the New York Times ran the story under a headline “The Tribune Company’s publishing unit is being spun off, as the future of print remains unclear.”
The future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.
Meanwhile, back in the treasurer’s office, have a look at this chart. Do you see anything unclear about the trend line?” [Chart by Professor Mark Perry]
In that vein, here’s an untold story, from me: Over a year ago, when I went in for a series of interviews at the Washington Post, I talked to half a dozen long-time editors and reporters there from around the newsroom, all the way up to then managing editor John Temple. None of them — not one — could tell me how the paper would resolve the disruption to its advertising business model posed by the Internet, find and build new revenue or address pension obligations in the context of that challenge.
The sole exception to that lack of answers was my friend Andrew Pergam, then the director of video. He was the driving force behind PostTV, an online-only video channel that was and is profoundly post-print. Andrew noted to me that while it was hard to produce high quality video, they could charge much higher advertising rates for it. The Post reportedly had 42 employees devoted to PostTV, in late 2013. As people who’s tried it know well, making good video, much less “good TV” is HARD. By the end of 2013, however, PostTV decided to move away from shows to the 2-4 minute “easily digestible segments” that are increasingly the hallmark of online video.
I thought then that it was a mistake, and the breathtaking online success of John Oliver’s signature blend of humor and investigative journalism at “Last Week Tonight” suggests (to me) that I was not wrong: people will watch longform video if it’s well done and engaging.
Oliver is obviously a singular talent, but he’s not the only person who can deliver great writing with timing, nor make the transition to a produced show, as Brian Stelter has demonstrated in moving from the New York Times to host CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
I think there’s huge opportunity for “papers” to create high quality longform video, if they can seize the day. Maybe, post-acquisition by Jeff Bezos, the Post will do so.
Here’s the thing: If they don’t, others will.The Pew Research Center’s Excellence in Journalism Project’s 2014 State of the News Media shows video, mobile and digital-native publications soaring.
Technological improvements lowering the barrier to entry, both for the audience and those in the news business, have spurred a wave of new entrants into the digital news video space. With 36% of U.S. adults recording videos on their cellphones, citizens are playing a valuable role in the news process, sharing videos of eyewitness moments around news events small and large. And both digital news outlets like Vice Media as well as legacy outlets like NBC took steps to develop approaches to digital video content in 2013.
In the 21st century, the convergence of media means that formerly print, broadcast, radio and online-only outlets are all now playing in the same sandbox: screens connected to the Internet. Consider: CNN and PBS are streaming online, producing online stories and documentaries. NPR is creating news apps and personalized players. The New York Times is experimenting with video, quizzes, Web-native interactives and mobile apps. Boing Boing blog creates videos that end up in the player on seats of Virgin Atlantic flights. Vice Media employs 1,100 people, looking to take documentary filmmaking around the globe.
I don’t mean to say that this is in any way easy for existing media institutions to adapt to, only that the necessity is clear. Again, Pew:
…a closer look suggests that digital news video does not necessarily have a clear or simple path to becoming a major form of news in the future. Producing high-quality video – or even streaming it live – can be costly, and the payoff is not clear. Video advertising, while on the rise, amounts to just 10% of all digital ad revenue and just 2% of total ad revenue. Large distributors of video content like YouTube already account for a large portion of video watching on the web, and a hefty share of the revenue. And for traditional legacy providers – local TV stations and national networks – most of their audience and revenue are still in the legacy platforms, which may reduce these companies’ desire to invest in digital video in a big way. Non-digital news revenue on local and national broadcasts, as well as cable, now amounts to $16 billion a year.
That said, I’m pretty bullish about the prospects for media and tech companies to create new products and services that source, organize, report and distribute the news. What worries me most about daily newspapers going away, however, is the impact of their disappearance on reporting on state and local governments. As the Pew Research Center highlighted in June, there’s a growing deficit there: “Less than a third of U.S. newspapers assign any kind of reporter—full time or part time—to the statehouse.”
Moreover, local TV news — which remains profitable, for the moment, focused on traffic, sports, crime and weather — is not filling that gap. Per Pew, “gully 86% of local TV news stations do not assign even one reporter—full time or part time—to the statehouse. Of the 918 local television stations identified by BIA/Kelsey and Nielsen, just 130 assign a reporter to cover the statehouse.”
While nonprofits and digital-first outlets like the Texas Tribune may fill the gap in the years ahead, they haven’t made it up yet. Pew reports that “about one-in-six (16%) of all the reporters in statehouses work for nontraditional outlets, such as digital-only sites and nonprofit organizations.”
My hope is that civic media, funded by the public and foundations, will be the way that local and state governments are well-covered. As I explored in my report (PDF) on my research on data journalism for Columbia Journalism School, “this situation may grow worse as more local newspapers close, as detailed in the landmark Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.”
As I described in the paper, one strategy for empowering citizens to be more informed about their communities and local government is the report’s recommendation to create local online hubs based upon open government data:
If the evolutionary descendants of EveryBlock are ever going to be a meaningful replacement for local newspapers, however, they’ll need to be sustainable, independent from government’s influence, deliver a valuable information product and be interesting. They’ll have to feature compelling storytelling that’s citizen-centric, uses adaptive design, and provides information that’s relevant to what people need to know, now.
That’s a tall order but there’s hope: Hundreds of entrepreneurial journalists are working on creating versions of that future today, with more to come.