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The Great Global Media Disruption

June 20, 2012
newsk-williams

To say that the Australian media scene is in a state of flux is the understatement of the year so far. Fairfax announced this week it would turn its broadsheets into tabloids, put paywalls on its websites, close its printing presses and axe 1900 jobs – all within the next few years. Not to be outdone, News Limited will cut its eastern seaboard divisions to five, in a “one city, one newsroom” policy, resulting in redundancies, but putting no number on how many. But News Ltd Chief Executive Kim Williams (pictured above) said the company remained committed to print and still sold 11 million newspapers a week, despite embracing digital technology. Well, American newspapers have been going through similar changes for years now, and many journalists are without jobs. Ron Javers (pictured below) is a former Executive Editor of Newsweek International and founder of Ron Javers WORLDWIDE, a firm that develops strategies for media and communications companies in China and around the world. He has been a visiting professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou for the past six months. An old friend, Ron Javers, has agreed to be a guest columnist for gonzomeetsthepress, and reports on the impact the digital revolution has had on newspapers in the US.

  

All American newspapers are caught in a bind, actually several binds, if you count the advertising recession that is still continuing in the American market.

US papers still earn the vast majority of their revenue — around 80 per cent — from their print editions, and most of that revenue comes from print advertising.

Print ads sell for higher rates, and, analysts say, print readers spend more time with the paper or magazine, and tend to make it part of their daily routine.

Yet publishers are also aware that clinging to print makes it more difficult to become fully digital, responding to new technology breakthroughs and to fast-changing audience needs and market opportunities.

In terms of production, print is a far more costly system to own and run; presses are enormously expensive things to buy and run. And all those delivery trucks take a lot of petrol. All of this makes print, at once, newspapers’ most important asset and their greatest liability.

While digital advertising is growing, it is growing slowly, and some recent studies in the US suggest that digital will never be able to replace the larger revenue that print once provided.

Just this week in The New York Times, media critic David Carr wrote: “When I started writing a media column seven years ago … the magazine business was still on the march and the newspaper business was twice as big as it is now. The Huffington Post? It was a curio cooked up by some woman named Arianna that seemed like a showcase for her and her famous friends.”

Now, change in digital is coming faster than ever, he notes: “Huffington is a particularly acute reminder of how much things have changed. Last year, The Huffington Post was sold to AOL for $315 million, less than a year after Newsweek was sold for a dollar, and in April the site won its first Pulitzer…”

More unique web visitors now go to The Huffington Post each month than to The New York Times. Shocking, but read on.

At this point in the Great Media Disruption in the US, there is little agreement on where it will all end. My thought is that it won’t end, and the changes will come faster and faster.

Now, I’ll share another sentiment.

I might characterise it as an “Old Fogey” sentiment — but I do appreciate the sentiment.

I used to follow closely the very strong foreign reporting of the journalist Chris Hedges in The New York Times.

These days, Chris believes that he was forced out of the Times over his disagreement with management on the American war in Iraq. I dont know whether that’s accurate or not.

But in his writing now, for the website Truthdig (http://www.truthdig.com/ ), he is both a critic of newspapers … and a passionate supporter of what he calls the flawed truth we can find in print.

Here’s his take on the Great Media Disruption: “The death of newspapers means … that we will lose one more bulwark holding back the swamp of corporate malfeasance, abuse and lies.

“It will make it harder for us as a society to separate illusion from reality, fact from opinion, reality from fantasy. There is nothing, of course, intrinsically good about newspapers.

“We have long been cursed with sleazy tabloids and the fictional stories of the supermarket press, which have now become the staple of television journalism.

“The commercial press, in the name of balance and objectivity, had always skilfully muted the truth in the name of news or blotted it out. But the loss of great newspapers, newspapers that engage with the community, means the loss of one of the cornerstones of our open, democratic state. We face the prospect, in the very near future, of major metropolitan cities without city newspapers.

“This loss will diminish our capacity for self-reflection and take away the critical tools we need to monitor what is happening around us.”

Finally, I want to share another, more optimistic, point of view from a digital practitioner (I am not sure whether to call him a journalist), Richard Gringras, Google’s director of something called “news products.”

JOURNALISM’S FUTURE WILL BE BETTER THAN ITS PAST 

“These are extraordinary times. These are exciting times. There has been tremendous disruption, but let’s consider the huge positives that underlie that disruption,” he writes. “There are no longer the same barriers to publishing: everyone has a printing press, and there are no gatekeepers. There are new ways for people to both consume and share news. There are powerful new technologies that can change what journalists do and how they do it. In my view, the future of journalism can and will be better than its past.

“Here are the tasks at hand:

1. Addressing content architecture

The architecture of news content has barely changed. It continues to mirror the edition-oriented nature of the prior media forms — streams of articles that appear one day and drop into the archive the next. Can we better explore and adopt new approaches that, like Google’s earlier experiments with ‘the living story,’ maintain the full expression of a reporter’s efforts in one place behind a persistent URL?

2. Evolving the narrative form

While early radio news began with readings from the newspaper, that model was quickly superseded by a shorter crisper style appropriate to the radio medium. In an evolving culture dominated by updates, posts, and bullet points, are there approaches to conveying in-depth journalism that extend beyond 5,000-10,000 word articles?

3. Creating the Reporter’s Notebook 2.0

We now have, effectively, no limit on publishing capacity and no technical barriers to real-time publishing. Since our medium can accommodate the full expression of the reporter’s work, is there not significant value in developing new tools to support a reporter’s day-to-day efforts?

4. Rethinking organizational workflow

Given current and future advances in how news is gathered, organised and presented, that also suggests a rethinking of editorial roles and organizational workflow? Are there new approaches that let news organizations leverage the assistance of the trusted crowd? Might we benefit from systems that allow smaller news organisations to work together?

5. Exploring computational journalism

One major technological impact is the opportunity to use computer science to assist with reporting efforts, to parse massive data sets, to monitor public sources of data. Can investigative journalism aggressively leverage computational journalism to not only help with stories but eventually become persistent, automated investigative reports?

6. Leveraging search and social

Search continues to be a central source of news discovery, and social sources are quickly becoming important drivers of incoming traffic to news. Are there better ways to use search and social to not only drive audience engagement but inform them? Can we learn from the approach of sites like ProPublica that create a series of social posts, each disclosing an additional nugget of journalistic knowledge and wisdom?

7. Rethinking site design

Four years ago, many news sites saw half their traffic come to the homepage. Today, due to continued growth in traffic from search and social, homepage traffic is typically 25 per cent of inbound audience. That means 75 per cent of inbound traffic is going directly to story pages. How do changes in audience flows impact site design? Indeed, how do they cause reconsideration of the very definition of a website?

8. Shifting to a culture of constant product innovation

The pace of technological change will not abate. If anything, it will continue to increase. To think of this as a period of transition from one state to another is unwise. This might not be easy to address but it needs to be addressed. How do we staff news organisations with the appropriate kinds of resources and the appropriate mindset such that constant innovation is imbued into an organization’s DNA and into the role of every participant?”

Gringras concludes with the thought that, as mentioned above, with all the eventual innovations, the future of journalism will be better than its past, if we all work to make it so.

From my present perch here in China, I tend to agree. But for the short term in Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Beijing and many other great cities, there will be a lot of journalists out of work.

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