Posted by: structureofnews | March 24, 2011

Whose Future Is It Anyway?

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has come out with its annual State of the News Media report, and apart from the usual good survey of where the US industry stands, it highlights a key issue for journalists – and possibly journalism.

…a more fundamental challenge to journalism became clearer in the last year. The biggest issue ahead may not be lack of audience or even lack of new revenue experiments. It may be that in the digital realm the news industry is no longer in control of its own future.

The report notes that a host of new intermediaries – Google, Apple, Facebook, etc – now stand between them and their customers (readers and advertisers).  And that translates into less control of their business and less understanding of consumer behaviour and needs.

“In a world where consumers decide what news they want and how they want to get it, the future belongs to those who understand the audience best, and who can leverage that knowledge with advertisers,” said PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel. “Increasingly that knowledge exists outside of news companies.”

Arguably, it’s even worse than that.  The PEJ report is very much focused on how the content that news organizations – journalists’ work, in other words – is getting to audiences; but there are plenty of non-news organizations (the Center for Responsive Politics, just to name one) that are also serving people’s news and information needs.  Throw those in the mix as well, and it’s clear only a small sliver of the leading edge of news innovation is coming from newspeople.

In some ways, this shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s been tracking the changes in the way people are coming to information and how they’re using it – as opposed to just following how news organizations are adapting to the new world.  There is a fair amount of innovation going on in the news industry; but there’s much more going on outside it.  And – for better or worse – non-news organizations aren’t constrained by journalists’ mindsets, traditions and baggage.

“You won’t find new business models if you’re not willing to change the product,” (David Levy, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford) said. “The problem with newspapers is that, sometimes, people are looking more from producer’s perspective than consumer’s end.”

And journalists – sometimes for noble reasons and sometimes for not-so noble reasons – still aren’t terrifically interested in changing the product.  But if we don’t at least experiment with new products and processes, other people will do it instead.

Some traditions are truly noble: A desire to serve the public interest, a commitment to accuracy and fairness, for example.  And not all non-news organizations will share those goals.  But we’re also hobbled by our desire to keep doing things much the way we’ve always done them, and still only tweaking around the margins of how we do things.

There’s much more in the PEJ report – including a look at international trends and a nice section on the economics of community news.  As it notes, the US news industry is in particularly bad state compared to the rest of the world, partly because of its heavy dependence on advertising revenues, and partly because it’s a fairly mature market.  In contrast, for example, newspapers are growing in India and China.

Still, it notes:

If the developing world with growing populations is seeing newspapers thrive, most developed nations are suffering. The view in most places around the world is not that they are immune to the problems of American newspapers, but rather that the U.S. industry is ahead of them in navigating a dangerous curve.

The mistakes and the triumphs of American journalism will be the laboratory for these media elsewhere.

Well, there’s no question there are lots of mistakes being made.  And there are certainly some triumphs.  But there are many more players in the game than just journalists and news organizations, and the laboratory a much bigger field.   (To murder a few analogies.) We may not be the most successful at this new game of innovation.  But we certainly won’t win if we don’t even take part.

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