Future of News: The Medium’s New Message

  • Markus Prior, assistant professor of politics and public affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Department of Politics at Princeton University
  • JD Lasica, writer and consultant, co-founder and editorial director of Ourmedia.com, president of the social media group.
  • Ed Tenner, historian and author

Again, this is a rush transcript. I will correct as time allows.

Markus Prior will be talking about the changes in information technology and the implications for news and democracy. The audience for network news in the US has dropped in share from 75 to 38 in 2004, and the Nielsen ratings has fallen from 38 to 18 from 1980 to 2005. There was a decline beginning in the mid-80s to the present of about 50%. Pundits and academics look at this slide and draw two conclusions.

  1. Television news consumption is down.
  2. Americans are worse off. They are less engaged.

Both conclusions are wrong but oft repeated. They say that Americans are not interested in the news and cynical about news and the political process. There was this golden age and the ‘greatest generation’ and that is over.

However, political interest has not trended down. People are not necessarily more cynical. Trust has declined a little bit. These individual level explanations have relatively to do with this decline. In the first part of the decline, we lived in a very different world. The more convincing explanation of this decline have to do with changes in the environment.

At the beginning of this decline, the network news had a captive audience. There were fewer options in media than there are today. The big explanation in this decline is that there is so much else there. The surprise is how high the network news audience was. It was because it was the only show in town. They came home to relax. Turned on the TV, and news was all that was on.

Markus then looked at consumption level of television news. Sunday show watching and evening network news have declined a little bit, but cable news has increased in weekly hours per household in television viewing. Television news is still alive. It just looks different than in the past. It is hard to get a sense of what the news audience is. Print circulation is down but online news reading is up. We don’t quite know the trends that are relevant.

There is something that we do know. Fewer Americans are contributing to the total than in the past. For some, news consumption has gone up. How do what understand the difference that this would make in politics. Let’s forget about measuring news exposure and instead ask people what they like. In the low choice environment, preferences don’t matter, but today, preferences are very important. News junkies are more intelligent than those who prefer entertainment but only if they have access to new media. He explains that in this Washington Post article:

Greater access to media, ironically, has reduced the share of Americans who are politically informed. The most significant effect of more media choice is not the wider dissemination of political news but mounting inequality in political involvement. Some people follow news more closely than in the past, but many others avoid it altogether.

There is increasing inequality in political involvement. Americans are using the access to greater access to information in different ways. News consumption, political knowledge and turnout can vary even in the absence of preference change.

Is this good or bad? You could argue that most people are better off. But are they using these new opportunities that hurt their personal interest? The answer depends.

Let me conclude, the good news is that there is a chunk of people – maybe 15-20% you can call news junkies – can become more knowledgeable and use that information. To the extent that more and more people play a role in keeping elected officials to account, that is good. This might actually work. The pessimistic scenario is that the news junkies, those who do the monitoring may, in fact, not be very representative of the rest of the population. News junkies look demographically like the people who prefer entertainment. News junkies tend to be slightly older. There are no gender, racial or ethnic or income difference. There is one difference. News junkies tend to be more partisan.

I don’t know if we’re closer to optimistic or pessimistic view, but the easy answers are too easy.

JD Lasica

The thrust of my talk is how the news media need to re-invent themselves for the digital age. He used to work at the Sacramento Bee and then went to work for Microsoft. I can’t tell you the difference between working in newspapers and working in the tech industry could not be more extreme. There has been more change in the past five years in media than in the past 50 years. He showed his five-year-old, and he said that they relate to media in totally different ways. I wrote in my book Darknet, you have to look at the people who are coming of age now and you are looking at the future.

He uses his son as a lab rat as to how he relates to the media. It’s totally different in terms of game play and how he uses TiVo.

News is everywhere and on demand. Before people got their news from a few sources: Network news and newspapers. Now, the news media has become more fragmented. If you’re a web publisher, you don’t only have to worry about website but RSS, networked digital TV, traditional cable and electronic newspapers.

He played a video about alternative media sources that did a rapid fire example of all of the media that is happening online. And he said that we don’t see this on newspaper websites.

We are seeing a mass movement of niche media. Blogging, amateur video (YouTube is three years old, and 85m people are watching 4.3bn YouTube videos a month), citizen journalism. In video world, people are creating webisodes, screencasts, stop motion photography and mash-ups.

He suggested going out into the internet archive and Creative Commons licenced video to create videos. He suggested that people could do this in your community. He gave a list of media tools.

There is a new model of peer-produced news. He showed Live in Baghdad, but they are about to close because they don’t have funding. They capture first person stories. (I was just wondering if this isn’t a model of new digital free lancing.) You can now form these new ad-hoc collaborative groups to create video that is really amazing and compelling.

Where is all this heading?

  • Continued trivilisation of news by traditional media. I’ve been increasingly upset by trivialisation during this election cycle. I think there will continue to be a race to the bottom.
  • I am going to predict that half of all daily newspapers will disappear in 15 years. What’s going to take the place of this journalism?
  • We’re seeing increased fragmentation of media sphere.
  • I think social media will be a big part of how traditional media can play a part to re-engage with their audiences.
  • We’re going to see more opinion journalism, niche and hyper-local news
  • There is a more of a threat to legacy business models.
  • Journalism as a career path is more challenging.

On the flight over here, I was reading time magazine. Joe Klein said:

The media tend to look into the rear-view mirror and see the future.

We need to take media executives to Silicon Valley and immerse them in start-up culture. We need to create innovation labs and skunkworks. We need to collect that work and put it under public domain licence. We need to look at geo-tagging, map mash-ups. Your readers live in their communities. There are ways that people intersect in their communities. There are interesting ways to use those social graphs. Dare to fail. Everybody fails but all they do is start over again. They are more willing to experiment. News is a process and a service, not a finished product. We’re going to have to re-examine “professional journalism” precepts especially objectivity and exclusivity. Smaller and more nimble news operations will be necessary.

Note: JD Lasica has done an interview with Ed Felten, one of the hosts of the conference and also a security expert who has done a lot of work to reform electronic voting.

Ed Tenner

We just heard about rear view mirrors, and I’m afraid as an historian, that’s what I’m about. I’d like to look at the attempts in the 1990s of attempts to view future on the web.

In 1995, I spoke at a meeting for Annenberg Washington programme. The opening speech was given by Edwin Diamond, and he gave the internet boom to the space reporting he once did. The boom in space reporting was down to the ample advertising from the aerospace industry. The current boom in the 1990s was also driven by hope that there would of advertising revenue of reporting on it. The real question of newspapers and news magazines. How did they get it so wrong? They were very optimistic at the time. If you look at circulation and advertising in the late 90s, they seemed to be right. What happened to the profits?

I’m not a specialist in web advertising. I’d like to give a few reflections on what might have happened to that. In field I work, book publishing, the web hasn’t had an impact. There have been fewer innovations than people expected.

I view this as a revelation not a revolution. The crisis of middle class magazines preceded the crisis in newspapers.

One trend I see is the de-centralisation of authority. I see growing economic inequality, but there has been a softening in respect for many professions and including the profession of journalism. There once were personalities in the media who had respect and awe and were common bases of discussion. Today’s commentators have fan bases but not the kind of broad cultural authority that network news anchors once had. The legacy of the question authority bumper stickers in the 1960s. It even has happened in the medical profession. Doctors used to be the gold standard of respect, but now people are taking medicine into their own hands such as alternative medicine and homeopathy. He talked about the fall of Arthur Andersen. Many great authoritative institutions have weakened themselves.

Journalism was late the movement towards professionalism. Missouri School of Journalism was founded in 1908. Medill School founded in 1921. It’s not just the erosion of respect for authority but also people taking things into their own hands. Professional standards do sometimes give people the impetus to live up to those standards. We do lose something with that.

In the middle of the century, there was less of an effort to make a distinction between high and low culture. There was an irreverent mixture of things. Later in the century, people in the city made an effort to elevate high school (my words, not Mr Tenner’s). In the post-war affluence, there has been inversion in the cultural norms and even age. The young drive ad campaigns in an effort to reach young consumers.

What can we draw from these trends? A lot of changes are needed. But let’s look at comparative advantage. Newspaper and other print media have to focus on those services that they can do better than other information sources: On the audiences they can server and the advertisers to reach them. The other approach could be described as the outside-in. Sometimes the best ideas come from people outside of the traditional background.

One great hope for the press is that online revenue could rise to offset decline in print revenues. A hundred years ago, you could open up newspapers and magazines and find fears of excessive reading. Book and newspaper reading was corrupting society. It was distracting young people from productive careers. It was harming eyesight. But what goes go can also come up again.

Q: There was a question about political polarisation.

A: Markus Prior: News junkies are more partisan, but you are losing the moderating influence of those who don’t participate. However, I believe that the red/blue divide is overblown. The people who care less are tuning out.

News consuming is done by fewer Americans. Fewer Americans are consuming more news.

Q: One of the symptoms of our discussion is tied to delivery platform of TV. He gave the example of video being consumed on other platforms such as YouTube. But the news and information might be consumed on other platforms.

A: Difficult to answer that question. Basically, he had to narrow things down to find a relevant question to answer. (That is a brutal paraphrase.)

Q: Is this just re-purposing content on new platform? Is it really about blowing up your website?

A: Most of interesting experiments coming outside of traditional media world. Digg. TechCrunch.

Q: Impact of new media on candidates.

A: JD Lasica: Barack Obama has social networking ability on his site. If you remember his speech after the Rev Wright blow up on religious tolerance, the reporters who followed this speech asked where are the sound bites. Obama decided to treat the audience like grown-ups. More than three or four million people watched this on YouTube instead of having to rely on traditional filter of media. Postive development, and it will be interesting to see where this goes.

Ed Tenner: Aspect of campaign that has fascinated me, unintentional soundbite. People run these sound bites as a loop. I wonder if people will be focused on not giving opposition sound bites that can be used this way. Obama’s famous ‘bitter’ remark was leaked by blogger favourable to him in a meeting that was supposed to be off the record.

Q: They say that politics is theatre for ugly people. Writers strike in Hollywood so people wanted to be entertained.

A: Markus Prior: Most important fact why so many more young people care and why debates attracted more audiences is why so exciting, for the first time in primary election two candidates so evenly matched that this can go on for so long.

Q: How do writers get paid?

Panelists said that paid writing is not going away.

JD Lasica: Anyone in your 20s considering going into journalism, I say: We need you. You also have to realise that you won’t be at same news organisation for 20 years. You’ll have to be nimble. You might want to start a niche blog. I make some money with my blog, but I make more money in speaking and consulting.

Mark Davis from the San Diego Union-Tribune said that journalists need to learn how to do video in some form and be able to tell a story in some way.