What will sustain journalism in service of democracy?
Because of the rise of the Internet and the financial challenges faced by legacy media organizations, that question tugs at those who write and produce the news.
Conferences, reports and columns run through the same checklist:
- Advertising going digital and mobile and increasingly controlled by technology platforms like Google and Facebook, not by originators of news.
- Older news consumers willing to pay higher subscriptions, but the millennial generation is not on board.
- Events, digital-marketing services and transactions are adding revenue quickly, but are a small factor, compared with advertising and subscriptions.
Typically, the conferences, reports or columns have ended there — no action or answers to the challenge.
That’s starting to change. The NSA-Snowden disclosures, and advertisements which follow us across the Web, have quickened the public’s understanding of the possibilities — and dangers — of the global public network. It’s clear we are tracked, but we’re not sure why or by whom.
Newsrooms used to presume they knew their audience by having feet on the streets of the community. Editors divined public interest and chose coverage accordingly. Today, we can measure every click, and know — not guess — what’s of interest.
How might news organizations put perfect measurement and user-preference knowledge to civic use? They could invite their users to reveal their interests — their lives — in a trustworthy exchange, help manage that individual identity, assure the user’s privacy preferences are respected, and help the users who wish to engage in commerce.
Trust, identity, privacy, payment. Those are the issues accelerating into the spotlight and were the topics I researched for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute over the past few months. Some of the results of that research will be highlighted in a series of blog posts that begin with this post. A white paper is also being put together. It’s in draft form right now.
What the research says
The general overview, derived from interviews with 85 executives and experts from journalism and beyond and years of previous experimentation and experience, can be summed up thusly:
People on the go want to efficiently access the broadest range of multimedia content customized to their needs — in a single, simple action. They want trustworthy help with privacy, personalization, choice, relevance and convenience. This likely will require the coordination of publishers, content licensors, aggregator and usage trackers, a range of stakeholders currently unfocused on such collective activity.
Consumers need a simple, secure way to access, share and — sometimes — pay for the experience of discovering valuable information from multiple services and sources. News organizations — legacy and new — would like to be the best-possible source for those users to receive a timely diet of information that matters.
This post — and several more to come in the next couple of weeks — are designed to serialize the contents of the draft report. In Part 2, we’ll walk through a hypothetical “user experience.” In all, we’ll cover additional topics such as:
- The end of advertising as we know it.
- The opportunity for consortia; antitrust and sharing users.
- The privacy challenge.
- Who will pay for news?
- The technology possibilities.
What do users want?
What do users really want? That’s a good question.
There is the basic news view: “As people are using multiple platforms they are actually increasing their consumption of news but they want different formulations on different platforms at different times and they want people to follow them on this,” says Robert G. Picard, research director at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, in the RJI report. “We’re having to learn that, that is really hard for us. We are so used to creating one product for everybody.”
But there’s a deeper need for community connection — a need once met by local papers and radio stations and now increasingly met by social networks. “In an abundance economy, the thing we don’t have enough of is we don’t have enough connection, we’re lonely and we don’t have enough time,” bestselling author and entrepreneur Seth Godin observed during a Dec. 4, 2014, “On Being” radio interview with Krista Tippett. “And if people can offer us connection, and meaning and a place where we can be our best selves, yes, we will seek that out.”
These two needs — the desire to customize a personal information bundle, and the desire for community and connection — call for services broader than anything a single news organization can provide. They require a networked approach to sharing users and content.
A process — comments and change
As these blog posts run, RJI hopes to encourage review and comment on the draft report. We’ll report on some of the most insightful observations and modify a final report appropriately. From early comments, we already know more effort is required to understand what users want. Then we’ll decide whether there is enough interest to take a next step — convening an informal steering committee with assignments to consider:
- Survey or conduct consumer interest research.
- Organization structure and governance.
- Technology development and network operation.
- Marketing to the public and to affiliates.
- Payment aggregation and management.
- Privacy obligations, business and content rules.
Of the more than 85 interviews with news industry insiders and ex-patriots, engineers, advertising executives and public advocates, more than 30 said they would consider giving some of their time to help with a development process.
Stay tuned for more updates. Your help is welcomed through comments posted here, or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most digital advertising revenue at the local/hyperlocal level — as a new report from Borrell Associates shows — is flowing to commercial platforms like Autotrader and Yelp. It’s these platforms that get most of fast-growing targeted advertising aimed at specific categories of consumers. Bill Densmore, a consulting fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, sees a way out of this news crisis and has spent the past few months talking with a diverse group of experts in journalism and other industries to refine the ideas and consider an industry-backed, collaborative effort to lead the way forward.