The Future-C conference is over. Through more than 30 roundtable discussions, talks, and presentations involving over 100 leaders in the field of content and journalism we set out to find the future. Among our participants were representatives from The New York Times, NPR, Vice Media, Google, Facebook, Dataminr, Chartbeat, USV, BDMI, Columbia University, City University of New York. the Nieman Lab at Harvard, and several media startups. Broadly, here are the top six findings.
“American journalism is stronger than ever”
Journalist Jeff Howe said this during a presentation of his book Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future (co-written with Joi Ito). Howe was referring to some of the outstanding investigative reporting during and after the US presidential elections as well as the newly discovered belief that independent paid media is a vital part of democracy. The New York Times saw their digital subscriptions increase significantly by almost 300 thousand to 1.6 million in just three months after the election, The Washington Post announced an increase of their newsroom staff by almost 10% to about 750 people, and NPR is enjoying an all-time high with almost 40 million listeners. “It is a dynamic time for journalism. The community has been reinvigorated and has rediscovered a sense of purpose and drive,” said one participant, a journalism school executive.
“Journalists have embraced strategic thinking and digital”
There is no doubt that the presidential elections had a positive effect on US media across the board. But it might be that there is something else, rather overlooked, which has been affected: strategic thinking in the digital age. Formerly, strategy and digital capabilities were never part of a journalistic education or career. Now, applying strategic thinking and digital is part of every newsroom as journalism today comes in “many shapes and forms,” according to one journalism professor. The senior editor at a major news outlet participating in our discussions said that, “Journalists in the newsroom were always a bit skeptical about strategy. The next story mattered more than the big picture, competitive pressures, or trends. That has changed.”
The new media environment
The old business model of subscriptions, ads, and classifieds is long gone. Even digital subscriptions cannot make up for the loss. At the same time, content in various forms is exploding. “Every company is a media company,” said one digital executive. This makes attention and discovery of content crucially important. Two news and content aggregators have become dominant: Google and Facebook drive over 75% of web traffic for news outlets. Even well-known sites like The Washington Post or The New York Times cannot ignore the new method of discovery with audiences just reading bits and pieces instead of the whole newspaper.
From bringing audiences the news to improving their lives
We’re not talking about a hospital or a pharmaceutical company. By applying strategic thinking, news organizations have fundamentally changed their approach to their audiences.
- From news gathering and reporting to selecting where an organization can make a difference and stand out. In other words, news organizations have moved from a “department store” approach (all news) to a “specialty shop” approach (certain news and analysis chosen to make a difference).
- From reporting the facts, to focusing on how editorial content can make the lives of audiences better.
- From thinking in products and departments, to researching audience habits and preferences and establishing multi-disciplinary teams and partnerships.
Innovations through experiments, tests, partnering, and focusing on quality and data
Ways of working have fundamentally changed as new tools and processes are created. Driven by fast-paced processes in software development, the way news and content are being produced has (again, fundamentally) changed. For example, news room staff are still pitching stories, but many start their daily conference by looking at Google trends, broadening their personal views of that is relevant. The Associated Press used to cover merely 180 of the most important stocks during earning season. With the help of artificial intelligence, all 3,000 listed company earnings in the US are being reported (better and more accurately), freeing up time for journalists to conduct deeper reporting. Chartbeat helps organizations optimize their news sites and Dataminr enables journalists to identify stories and sources faster and better. Applied Predictive Technologies helps companies to decide among various versions by systematic testing. These examples have two things in common: Data supplements intuition and experience, quality and excellence of work are just table stakes. These factors are likely to become the norm for content production in future.
Digital platforms: A lost battle for news organizations?
Platforms in general are attractive as they allow the owner to set standards and terms for the audience using it. Platforms are also highly lucrative: Facebook, Google, and Netflix are prominent examples. However, although media organizations may own popular websites and brands, integrating third-party content is rather new. Platforms are difficult to get right and most attempts at establishing platforms of some kind have failed. Samsung in news and Best Buy in films—to name just two. We got excited about a new approach: gbox. Gbox is essentially a collaboration among publishers to provide audiences with a token and enable them to experience the ease and features of a platform. It is a new approach towards platforms and may lead to other new ideas, ultimately bringing more independence for publishers.