My journalism and media predictions for 2017

It has become something of a habit for me to post a few New Year’s predictions for the coming 12 months.

You can see previous efforts here, here and here.

So, what is ahead for 2017?

1.TOO. MUCH. VIDEO.

There is a glut of terrible video available online.

Driven by higher CPMs and the improved user experience provided by faster broadband and 4G phones, publishers have piled into video in a big way.

But too much of it is just rubbish.

Poorly produced and with little thought given to user experience, much online video exists merely to serve terrible 30-second pre-roll ads.

There are honourable exceptions but they are few and far between.

Even YouTubers are seeing a drop off in views.

Supply outstripping demand also showed up as an issue in this year’s Reuters Institute Digital Report.

The top reason for not watching a video – “I find reading quicker and more convenient”. Obviously.

video-report

But this isn’t about users, this is about producers and publishers.

They want eyeballs on content and are prepared to throw out any old crap in order to grow monthly streams.

And the worst, absolute worst, examples of this can be seen on Facebook Live.

Journalists have flocked to make live videos watched by an audience so small it is effectively nobody and have turned out the most godawful tripe along the way.

Even broadcasters, for whom there is absolutely no excuse, have managed to create amateurish, boring, pointless live content.

Please, all of you, stop it now before it is too late.

Live social video is an incredible tool – some of the stories being told are revelatory and revolutionary.

But stop turning out pointless lives for a few dozen people.

Surely by this point we must realise that behind-the-scenes video or extended interviews are the lowest common denominators of digital story-telling.

If you didn’t put it in your main story, what makes you think anyone wants to see the rubbish left on the cutting room floor?

So, here’s the prediction.

Over-supply will cause video CPMs to crash, forcing publishers to make tough decisions about whether to concentrate on quality or quantity.

Most will continue to put out rubbish for increasingly poor returns.

But smart publishers will focus on building dedicated audiences with targeted high quality content with a long tail.

2. Facebook grows up

Fake news and how to tackle it is a hot topic at the moment.

The performance of fake stories in the final weeks of the U.S. Presidential election has put the issue front and centre.

There has been a lot of talk about the importance of more fact-checking, more on the ground reporting, less comment and fewer paid talking heads.

That’s all well and good – much of it is a welcome recommitment to core journalistic values.

But the essential problem is that the distribution method of choice – Facebook – doesn’t feel it has any duties to its news consumers.

Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that he thinks Facebook is a tech company, not a media one.

That may be true, up to a point.

But in the end, if users lose trust in material they see on Facebook then it is Facebook that will suffer.

That means the company is going to have to start taking its responsibilities to users more seriously.

And draining the swamp of fake stories, propaganda, misinformation and disinformation is a good place to start.

So, here’s the prediction – Facebook will hire editors to improve its fact-checking and act to cut back the wave of fake stories as the start of a process of acknowledging its position as a world leading mass-media company.

3. AI in the newsroom

Smart newsroom products are coming.

We have already started to see experiments and roll-out of automated writing.

That will continue.

But we will also see more use of machine learning in newsgathering and production too.

During the past 12 months I have been providing some advice to a Silicon Valley startup looking at how AI can be implemented in the newsroom.

UGC verification and social newsgathering are obvious places to start, using machine learning to parse huge amounts of data.

It doesn’t mean all of us journalists are going to be replaced by robots.

At least, not yet.

But 2017 will start to see more use of automated and smart products in the production of news, freeing reporters to work on adding value to the basic commodity of information.

4. Peer to peer becomes a peer

Snapchat has become the latest social media platform for journalists to embrace.

Early adopters have seen big returns – Buzzfeed has suggested that a fifth of its total traffic comes from Snapchat Discover.

But it has really only been publishers with heavy footprints in the U.S. and UK that have seen big returns.

That is set to change in the coming year.

As Twitter struggles with open messaging, expect peer-to-peer and closed group chat to grow faster.

And news publishers will want a slice of the pie.

I ran a number of strategy sessions for digital publishers across Africa and southern Asia during the summer.

It was striking how many of them thought WhatsApp with its huge install base was a potential audience driver.

They won’t be alone.

In 2017 expect to see more and more publishers experiment with peer-to-peer and personalised news to phones.

5. What is already hard just gets tougher

2016 was a great year for news reporting.

Taken in the round, audiences have never been larger, we had unmatched international reach, and stories of weight and importance.

But the business of news continues to get harder.

It has become clearer that a business strategy based on scale cannot deliver financial security.

And we’ve all had to get used to the guilt-tripping begging notes asking for more money.

As the impact of Brexit decelerates the British economy, trying to make a media business sustainable via free content and advertising at scale is going to become more difficult.

Smart publishers have already added other revenue streams to their business strategies.

2017 is going to be a year of hard decisions that have already been deferred too long.

More publishers will embrace paywalls, cutting costs through reduced editorial staff, and the decision point for newspapers on when to stop the presses will inch closer.

How bad this gets will depend on the scale of Brexit’s economic shock.

If it triggers a full-blown recession, Shane Smith’s oft-quoted but never quite materialised bloodbath will come to pass.

Publishers can future-proof themselves if they embrace solid business plans with diversified revenue streams, and produce content audiences value enough to pay for.

Otherwise they risk being cartwheel makers in the age of the motorcar.

 

Five predictions for the coming year – let’s see if my track record for accuracy shows any sign of improvement in 12 months’ time.

Media predictions 2015 – how did I do?

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Looking back on 2015

Time to mark my own homework again.

Each year I make some predictions about the coming 12 months – here’s the ones for 2015 – so how did I do?

1. Podcasts are back in fashion.

Not much doubt about this one. You could hardly move for podcasts this year.

Whether it’s the return of Serial ; those that have taken inspiration from its format, such as this one by the media commentator Peter Jukes;  to those that support brands and content marketing;  to the long wait for a new edition of the on hiatus Bugle; media organisations rediscovered their love of podcasting.

The number of listeners seems to be up too – although perhaps not quite as dramatically as Serial’s astonishing figures would have you believe.

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Pew Research Center, State of the News Media 2015

Are they making money? Almost certainly not.

Podcasts that involve reporting are expensive to make. Anything involving studios is expensive too.

But where there’s audience, advertising will follow.

And the old stager The Game, which I set up at The Times back in 2006, is still drawing audience and cross-sold advertising.

2. The TVisation of the web

Have TV companies taken on digital and made it their own in 2015?

For the most part, the answer is no.

TV companies still continue to treat digital as an upstart child that will eventually accept discipline.

And digital native products continue to eat TV’s lunch.

Take the BBC’s strategy of allowing Netflix to licence its back catalogue. Nuts! Netflix has built a business on its content and now looks like a serious competitor.

That’s short term gain for long term pain.

But there are glimmers of interesting experimentation – the millennial targeting AJ+ service has found an audience with sassy video takes on news stories.

And, of course, there is the fact that digital native publishers such as Buzzfeed and Vice want to be TV broadcasters too.

Perhaps they can find a lean-back experience to match the legacy TV organisations in 2016 and inject some much needed life into the sector.

3. Towards a sustainable future for papers

Scale has been the buzzword for newspaper publishers in 2015.

Both The Guardian and The Mail have started to show progress on digital revenues.

But it’s a far from consistent picture.

News UK admitted defeat with The Sun’s paywall and decided to go free. The Times still remains behind the wall, at least for now. There’s some speculation that it too will ditch the paywall. I suspect that would be a mistake. A solid revenue and a loyal audience will have continuing value in the years ahead.

Small steps then, but nonetheless steps towards the future.

4. The content bubble deflates

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

It has been a tough a year in the content business. Swamped by clickbait and repetitious stories audiences have sought better quality content.

Ten years ago everybody wanted to be in aggregation – turns out there’s not much of a future there.

newsreadergraphic

And there’s no doubt that some of the valuations on today’s star start-ups look frothy too.

Take a look at Buzzfeed. It’s a going concern, it made $7 million in 2013. But this year, NBCUniversal bought a $200 million dollar stake at a valuation of $1.5 billion.

Buzzfeed has been investing heavily in editorial and, specifically, video. It sees itself as a key news and entertainment brand for the future.

But NBCUniveral’s making a big bet based on little grounded evidence.

Let’s call it a half.

5. The first UK-wide digital election

All the parties embraced social media for this election. You couldn’t move for Twitter argument, Facebook videos and a roar of furious agreement.

What was curious though was just how limited its impact appears to have been.

There seem to have been two main issues: trust and the self-reinforcing nature of social networks; we follow accounts that publish things we like and unfollow things we don’t.

Over time the cumulative effect creates a bubble impenetrable by news that doesn’t reinforce our prejudices. And if, by chance, we do encounter any it is dismissed as a result of cognitive dissonance.

That’s a lesson politicians need to learn quickly.  Especially those, such as the Labour leadership, who want to cut the mainstream media from their communications strategy.

All up, I reckon that’s three and a half out of five. Not bad.

Predictions for 2016 to follow.

2015: my five predictions for the media year ahead.

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Having started this blog in 2014 with a series of predictions, it seems sensible to keep up the tradition. You can see how successful I think last year’s were here. Naturally, predicting the future inevitably means egg on the face for those foolish enough to try it but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

1. Podcasts are back in fashion.

There’s nothing like success to breed imitation and Serial, the podcast investigation of a murder case and trial has been a phenomenal success. Sarah Koenig’s drawn out story seems to have been averaging around a million and a half downloads an episode. It would be wrong to say that this came out of nowhere; Serial’s an off-shoot of the brilliant This American Life on NPR. But these are big numbers.

Podcasting’s been around for more than a decade now . When it first began it promised a new multimedia future for print products and I’ve written elsewhere about my efforts as a podcast producer, including setting up The Bugle. But for much of its history, podcasting has been the unloved child of multimedia content. It was quickly eclipsed by online video. I remember going to a strategy meeting at The Times at the tail end of 2006 and being asked about my plans for a new slate of podcast products for 2007, and causing consternation by saying podcasting was over – it was now all about online video.

Well, maybe I wrote podcasts off to soon. But the success of Serial shows once again that overnight success rarely happens overnight. You need to support teams and products over the long-term and give producers the space to fail as well succeed. And a long-term commitment means strong nerves and resilience as you wait to see a return on your investment. It means allocating hard pressed resources in the face of budget pressures. It also means learning lessons from competitors and using the medium to the full. And it puts story-telling back at the heart of audio journalism.

Some commentators have said that Serial is unlike anything else out there. I’m not sure that’s true. It feels very American to me and very much a child of its NPR roots. But it is true to say that it doesn’t sound like anything on British radio or newspaper sites. Be assured that’s about to change. In the same way that Snowfall led to a rash of imitations, Serial is about to get some inferior but heavily promoted competition. And its pick-up by BBC Radio 4 Extra means that Serial inspired documentaries are likely to feature heavily in this spring’s Radio 4 Commissioning Round.

But now podcasts are back, shouldn’t they be called something new with the announcement that Apple is killing off the iPod Classic?

2. The TVisation of the web

It’s long been a truism about digital that TV hasn’t made the most of new formats and mechanisms for securing the audience of the future. To begin with dial-up and slow broadband connections meant that the experience for web video was so poor, TV companies felt able to dismiss the new upstart medium as having an irredeemably poor user experience.

That’s all over now. The exponential increase in broadband speeds has allowed a TV-like experience to be delivered by a new generation of suppliers.  Up until now that’s meant platform owners such as Netflix or YouTube have seen big benefits but there are two distinct trends in place at the moment that are changing that.

Firstly, the lo-fi. The punk, just do-it, ethos of Stampy, Zoella and others has captured the imagination of a generation who appear to be less engaged with TV. This is about content makers becoming stars on new platforms and new styles of video-making. And if you’re over the age of 25, you just won’t get it.

Secondly, the high-end. For example, Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards or Vice trying to corner the market in Millennial broadcast news. This is about replicating a traditional lean-back TV experience using a different delivery mechanism.

The web is moving closer to a broadcast platform. Yes there’s interactivity but as Twitter has shown, it’s not essential for success. And this is post-text – or at least a staging point on the road to post-text. Back in the CB-radio-like days of the 90s and early 00s it seemed everyone would be a publisher – now it’s clear publishers and platforms will be corporates and that talent and content can be sourced from everywhere. And that is a broadcast model.

And who does broadcast and high-end lean back experiences? TV companies. My guess is that 2015 is, finally, the year the TV industry fully embraces digital as an entertainment medium and not just a threat to their core business.

3. Towards a sustainable future for papers

The newspaper industry continued to show two distinct trends in 2014: the decline of print and the growth of digital.

That will continue and accelerate in 2015.

The industry is still drunk on digital numbers, but three, or perhaps four, clear business models are emerging. Advertising supported, subscription and advertising, and philanthropic and membership. I expect those to continue to consolidate during the next year and I also expect newspapers to continue to cut costs as the digital advertising fails to fill the hole left by the decline of print adverts.

I also wonder if we might not see a return to products providing an edited bundle. While the trend towards personalised news continues, for me there remains value in seeing someone else’s take on the news. Relying on news to find you via your Twitter feed can be just too samey.

4. The content bubble deflates

Money has rushed in to new digital products. Name journalists have established new brands. Digital native producers have built successful new platforms. And some astonishing values have been put on the new players.

So, will this continue through 2015? I don’t think so. The valuations look distinctly frothy to me. There’s a lot of old media money being thrown at new platforms but with money comes obligations. There’s a lot of people trying to establish market share, with no clear route to profitability. You’d think the legacy media would be sensible enough to see the warning lights here, but that’s far from guaranteed.

My guess is that the content bubble will deflate this year. Probably slowly, although I wouldn’t be shocked to see a high-profile closure. And if there are any external economic shocks that degrade the advertising industry, it may be bumpy.

5. The first UK-wide digital election

It’s already begun, of course, but the coming UK general election will be the first fought using social media as the primary battlefield – especially if the TV debates fail to go ahead. At the last election, social media was still in the early adopter phase; now it’s mainstream and I expect all the parties to use it heavily in the run up to May.

What’s less clear is what the nature of that engagement will look like. I don’t expect social media to feature a particularly positive campaign. This will be about parody, pastiche and mocking your opponents’ positions. There will be enormous amounts of half-truths, spun facts and campaigning hyperbole. Journalists will have an enormous job to do separating the fact from the fiction.

Still, it was ever thus. And it’s likely to be enormous fun.

Reasons to be cheerful about the future of news

M+J

A couple of weeks back I hosted a Q&A session at The University of Northampton with ITV News’s Head of Digital, the redoubtable Jason Mills.

Unlike many in the media, he was cheerful and upbeat about the future of news – even going so far as to tweet me this after the session:

That reflects my own view.

Last year, when I was applying for jobs lecturing in journalism, I spent a lot of time telling anyone who would listen that there’s never been a better time to be a journalist. The entire industry is being remade, rule-books ripped up, received wisdom over-turned. People throughout the media are comparing the digital revolution to the invention of the printing press. New companies are being set up, experiments are being carried out, reputations are being made.

Of course, things don’t look so rosy if you’re a middle-aged hack on a newspaper. Innovation and disruption are exciting things to do, but not so comfortable to have done to you. As George Brock from City University has outlined in his relentlessly optimistic “Out of Print: Newspapers, journalism and the Business of News“, it’s the people who repeatedly throw the spaghetti against the wall who are going to create the new publishing platforms and maybe some of them will strike oil too. For those dazzled by the pace of change, institutionally or personally unable to react, it will be all too easy to be over-taken by the pace of change.

But I think there’s reason to be optimistic. For some time it’s been fashionable to predict the rise of the individual journalistic brand. The reporter or columnist who becomes bigger than the institution they work for. Recent moves in the United States suggest that time has arrived and that journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Ezra Klein and David Pogue are now able to command significant value to transfer to digital start-ups, bringing their cachet with them.

The Pew Research Center has published some new data looking at the size of the digital native news market. It looks encouraging, these are significant editorial departments. And as Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti has made clear, these are organisations with significant editorial ambitions which stretch far beyond 28 Devastating Truths about Adulthood Nobody Ever Tells You.

It’s a fascinating time. Both to be a journalist and to be a journalism teacher.

But, as one former ITN colleague tweeted me earlier:

Still that is another story….

Why Al Jazeera English needs to think again about digital news

The Guardian has published an interesting interview with Al Anstey, Managing Director of Al Jazeera English.

It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the disgusting behaviour of the Egyptian government in arresting Al Jazeera journalists on trumped up terrorism charges through to the network’s expansion plans.

I’ve worked with Al at ITN and Al Jazeera. There’s no question in my mind that he’s one of the sharpest people in TV news. Highly intelligent and thoughtful about the role of international TV news, he’s robust in defending Al Jazeera’s reporting and has a comprehensive vision for its development.

Which is why I found this quote so disappointing:

“We already have the highest quality content gathered by a fantastically diverse team around the world. If you break up the constituent parts that go into a two-minute television package, what you have that hits the cutting room floor is gold dust,” he says. That “gold dust” – longer interviews, more informal chats with the correspondent, explainers – can be “tailored to different platforms and provide a much richer resource depending on which platform you are looking at”, adds Anstey. “It’s about changing the mindset.”

The idea of digital news as DVD box-set extras is very old-fashioned. It’s the same kind of thinking that saw TV companies early attempts at digital include behind the scenes video-diaries or cross-promoted longer versions of broadcast interviews.

The reason it’s so disappointing is that it starts from the wrong premise. Rather than looking at what the audience wants and needs from a news service, it starts from the point of view of “we have this unused stuff, let’s shove that up online”. It’s the antithesis of providing a user-focused news service.

Put crudely, journalists have made editorial decisions about cutting material to emphasise the key lines – if they thought there was value in using the stuff on the cutting room floor, they’d have already used it. Why would anyone think that time poor digital users want to sit through the extended cut?

But change is needed.

Al Jazeera English’s website needs over-hauling. The navigation is based on inheritance from the TV channel’s structure and its reporting looks divergent from the core news operation. It also needs to continue to break new ground using digital media to report from around the world and to engage with an increasingly digitally literate global audience.

I’d also like to see put more focus on its eye-witness reporting, rather than the less interesting opinion pieces which, for me, sit oddly with the channel’s desire to provide impartial coverage of complex situations.

I applaud Al’s desire to bring greater convergence between the digital and broadcast sides of his operation, but I hope he will bring change that will see more digital innovation based on satisfying audience needs rather than on making more of costly newsgathering at the expense of user experience.

And just as I was thinking about this blog, I spotted this piece from Buzzfeed on innovative short-form video. It may work, it may not – but it seems to me to be a sophisticated attempt to engage with a tough to reach audience.