Media predictions for 2016

2016 desktop calendar

What does the coming year hold for the media and what will the impact be on news and journalism?

2015 was a year of enormous change, and there’s no reason to expect 2016 to be any different. So, here are five trends I think will define the next 12 months.

1. Ad-blockers will go mainstream

The current status quo for digital advertising in media cannot continue.

Advertising is too intrusive. Splash screens, auto-playing video, and ads that scroll the screen are ruining the user experience.

On a desk-top this can be annoying but for mobile users it can destroy the user’s relationship with the publisher.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have left an Independent article without reading it on my iPhone because the splash screen can’t be easily removed.

And now I don’t bother reading them at all.

This is no longer a niche experience – mobile is how people consume digital content. If your mobile experience is poor, you will lose audience.

The uptake in ad blockers has increased during the past couple of years. Early adopters have been using them to tailor their internet experience. 2016 will be the year their usage goes mainstream and the impact for publishers will be immense.

Business plans at almost all major publishers are based on delivering eyeballs to ads – even at those who also have a subscription strategy.

If the relationship between content and advertising breaks, then a new settlement will have to be found. Either by denying access to users of ad blockers, finding new forms of advertorial, or by publishers finding a way to manage their advertising in a way that is meaningful and useful for users.

If they can’t they risk being swept away.

2. A choice to make: destination vs distribution 

The content business is going to get a lot tougher in 2016.

The watchword of 2015 has been scale. Those that have it, want to retain it. Those that don’t, want to get it.

As the content bubble continues to deflate some publishers will go to the wall, others will sell up. Consolidation will be a key factor in 2016.

But the key decision for publishers will be whether or not to pursue a destination or distribution strategy.

Here’s the thing: when I talk to students about where they get their news, they invariably say from Twitter or Facebook. Of course, when you dig into this they actually get it from a publisher who is using social media to disseminate their content. But users don’t necessarily distinguish between the publisher and the distributor.

Brand and brand values don’t appear to survive the transition to social media. And that means users treat all information as being of equivalent value.

Look at the rise of fake news sites that publish stories simply to get eyeballs to their sites – how often are people taken in by them? Even journalism students, who should know better, are sometimes fooled.

Publishers have to decide where they want to focus their attention – destination or distribution?

The received wisdom of the past few years has been to emphasise the importance of being where your audience is.

But Netflix didn’t build its business on YouTube.

Why should publishers, so keen to take up Facebook Instants, build their business on other people’s platforms? Give up your brand, give up your revenue streams, give up your platforms, and you give up your business.

3. Innovation will move to the heart of the newsroom

Media businesses are generally pretty poor at innovation – as this excellently argued article by the Wall Street Journal’s Neal Mann explains.

All of us who’ve worked in jobs where we’ve tried to shake-up the existing way of doing things have encountered the same issues. Resistance to change, a culture that demands instant results driven by delivery to daily deadlines, a veneration of tradition at the expense of experimentation.

That has to change and I think newsroom managers will have to bite the bullet in 2016 and create bespoke innovation units.

Journalism and journalists will survive but if the media businesses of today want to have a future they need to embrace innovation as a process rather than always trying to copy ideas from others.

And that means experimenting with everything. Cool stuff can be done with virtual reality, 360° video, and automation. And who knows what else is around the corner? Who would have predicted in the first internet boom that mobile would be key technology of the future? The key question is how can these things be turned into innovative systems that will deliver consistently for users in the future?

If publishers take a structured and strategic approach to this, (experimenting, implementing ideas, measuring success and failure, focussing on the outputs not the processes, spreading success) they can build new products and new revenue streams that at the moment seem like pipedreams.

Of course that may mean setting up things like the Second Life bureau – but learning the lessons of failure is just as important as reaping the rewards of success.

4. Twitter will face an existential crisis

I love Twitter. For me, and for many journalists, it’s a fantastic tool. Filled with ideas, ever-changing, and rumbustious.

But it’s got a problem. It’s just not growing. And with the failure to match other social networks in scale comes a problem with attracting advertising. And that’s not going to solved by adding Moments.

In 2016 I think Twitter will face an existential crisis. What is it for? What is its future? How will it grow? How will it make money for its investors? I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, and I suspect no-one knows the answers, but unless Twitter is able to find a new strategy it faces a future of ossification, stagnation and decline.

5. Managing the decline in TV news

2015 was a pretty good year for TV news.

Levels of trust remain high, viewership of the main bulletins has been broadly stable, the election was still fought on TV rather than online and some high profile transfers and relaunches have garnered positive headlines.

But….

There is a long term problem for TV news. It’s not breaking through to younger viewers and, as older ones die off, it faces decline.

I expect that process to gather pace in 2016. Audiences will drop, perhaps not precipitously, but steadily. As viewers drift away from linear TV towards on-demand, the point of having an appointment to view TV news bulletin becomes less and less clear. And if younger viewers don’t pick up the habit of watching at 10pm – the format is doomed.

The TV companies recognise this risk. If James Harding was employed at the BBC in order to bolster its digital coverage, the always impressive Jonathan Munro was brought in to manage the TV coverage; to ensure that quality was maintained during a period of sustained decline in audience as the BBC experiments with different formats for its journalism.

This isn’t a prediction of imminent collapse but I think 2016 will be the year that the declining trend in audience and relevance for TV news becomes more clear.

So, five trend predictions for 2016. But, as they say, the only things certain in life are death and taxes.

Who will be the new Political Editors of BBC and ITV News?

westminster

They’re changing the guard at the Palace of Westminster.

After 10 years as political editors of BBC News and ITV News respectively both Nick Robinson and Tom Bradby are off to become presenters. Nick on Radio 4’s Today programme, Tom on ITV’s News at Ten.

The political editor of a TV (and these days digital) news service is a unique position in the broadcast firmament. Reporter, pundit, political anorak, celebrity, workaholic,  and conduit between government and company – the roles it encompasses are varied and subtle. It requires a sophisticated skill set to do the job well.

So, who’s in the running for two of the top jobs in British news?

As I’ve argued before these roles have for too long been awarded to middle-aged, white men. And the two deputies, James Landale and Chris Ship,at BBC and ITV respectively, fit that demographic. Both are competent and well respected, either would be a safe pair of hands.

But the deputy never gets the top job.

If you’re James Harding or Geoff Hill you want your appointment to make waves, garner headlines, perhaps bring in fresh blood and say something about your positioning of your news brand.

And I’d say that also rules out Sky News’s Joey Jones.

I’d say the most eligible candidates are all women. For either channel the interview short-list could look something like this:

Newsnight’s Laura Kuenssberg, Emily Maitlis and Allegra Stratton – all rising stars with serious clout, they may well want to take on the challenge while leaving Newsnight to head towards oblivion.

The BBC’s Lucy Manning – a well respected political journalist at ITV and Channel 4 before heading to the BBC, she’s got the Westminster chops. Crucially she’s also close to Head of Newsgathering, Jonathan Munro.

Channel 4’s Cathy Newman – a previous life with the FT and as a political correspondent means she’s got the experience. But with Jon Snow rapidly approaching 70 perhaps she might feel her name is firmly in the running to be lead presenter at Channel 4.

And as an outside bet, especially for ITV News, I’d look at the former political editor of The Observer, Gabby Hinsliff.

One final thought: Evan Davis has never really appeared comfortable at Newsnight. Could this be a way back into the mainstream of news?

BBC News cuts – the gap between perception and reality

How do you do more with less?

That’s the conundrum the BBC News cuts announced today are trying to solve.

I’m not going to go into which posts are closing and whether that’s right or not – there’s still a lot of detail to come out.

But I would just flag up a couple of things.

Firstly the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. James Harding says he couldn’t find any fat to cut, and then demonstrates how much fat there is to cut. Back office savings are being implemented throughout this process – for example the closer integration of BBC World and BBC News Channel. A no brainer.

The other issue which leaps out is Panorama cutting staff reporters. On paper this looks like a sensible, modern move. Jim Gray is clearly thinking about the Dispatches model, where content is commissioned from independents, or in this case freelances, rather than having expensive staff sat around producing very little.

That sounds, and is, sensible.

But it will play appallingly. “BBC cuts Panorama” is the headline that its legion of press officers will now have to firefight tomorrow, and it’s the underlying perception it will now have to fight in the years until the next licence fee renewal.

That’s a tough sell when you’re expanding as yet unproven digital projects – look at this reaction in the New Statesman.

And there’s still the unresolved issue of cutting services licence fee payers use to support the expanding costs of the World Service, which they don’t. The BBC Trust also chose today to fire a warning shot on the closure of BBC3, pointing out the problems of reaching young, ethnically diverse audiences.

Broadly I approve of the strategy on display here. But when pushing for radical change, it wouldn’t do James any harm to look at bit more supportive of some of the best elements of the BBC’s legacy and to look as though he’s safeguarding the interests of licence fee payers.

 

Can BBC World be digital first?

I’ve been taking a look at Sir Howard Stringer’s fascinating report looking at the future of the BBC’s world news operations.

Commissioned by new Director of News James Harding, it takes a look at how to achieve the new Director General Lord Hall’s vision of a 500 million global audience for BBC products by 2022. And it was written by the man who may well be the new chairman of the BBC Trust.

So, this isn’t just hot-air. Both Stringer and the BBC say this isn’t a blueprint for the future. They’re being disingenuous. It is exactly that.

What’s the plan then? Well, it’s simultaneously radical and conservative; strategic and reactive; bold and yet curiously cautious.

Let’s take the big one first:

Mobile and social first. For a pure-play digital news organisation this would be a no-brainer. The BBC already says its website has more mobile users than those using traditional PCs. By 2022, one would expect this to be by far the most dominant method of accessing digital news.

But it’s hard to under-estimate what a large change in mindset and culture this will require of the BBC, for World Service radio, World TV and the digital news operation. What will it mean for newsgathering and output? The website’s a powerful player in BBC News these days, but even with Harding’s emphasis on digital, it’s still not the primary driver of output. Forget meaningless calls to action, such as the nonsensical claim that more people follow @BBCBreaking than watch an edition of the 10 o’clock news (they do, but who are they, where are they, what are they and how do they interact with BBC services?), when it comes to driving newsgathering and the daily output it’s still the big beasts of output that matter most. The TV news bulletins, Radio 4 news programmes, World Service news.

To break down that powerbase and to move towards an always on-air approach to digital news will be a huge strategic, cultural, and managerial change. Reworking the digital output so that it’s targeted at global mobile users is an editorial as well as a technical challenge. And it’s a laudable ambition that signals an appetite for the future which should be welcomed.

Lots of the coverage of the review has focussed on Sir Howard’s reflection that the BBC doesn’t punch its weight when it comes to social sharing of news. He points to Buzzfeed as one of the new kids on the block with global traffic that’s similar to the BBC’s once you exclude the UK (which is a bit of an odd thing to do given that’s the home market). This has prompted much horrified and rather literal comment. As if the BBC’s content is now going to solely be made up of lists such as this absolute corker or GIFs of cats that look like Hitler.

But it is worth reflecting on whether there are things that can be learnt from the mechanisms and brands of social news. Why can’t Newsbeat be a global youth news brand? Is the news coverage of the website too strait-laced, where the programmes themselves have personality. Where, for example, is the website version of Newsnight or PM – not just as a brand extension but in style and tone for digital natives? Channel 4 News has made great strides in reflecting it’s broadcast brand online, why haven’t BBC news programmes?

These, it seems, to me are perfectly sensible questions to ask. There’s no dumbing down here. But for all those newspaper editors watching with crossed fingers, hoping that the BBC’s getting out of straight news reporting…. don’t hold your breath. It seems to me this is tinkering at the margins of the core product not reinventing it.

And after the big bombshell it’s back to business as usual. Earn more money from commercial ventures, tick; grow the big language services and get rid of the small ones, tick; partner with local providers, tick. All long-standing BBC ambitions that rarely seem to have much impact. Yes, Top Gear makes a lot of money, as do other programmes, but there’s been less success with other commercial proposals – cf Lonely Planet. Because, in the end, the BBC is not a commercial organisation – it doesn’t have the profit motive embedded in its DNA.

There’s some other mildly interesting thoughts, a multi-genre channel for Africa akin to BBC America and a new Korean language service. Again these are extensions of current strategy, rather than radical new ideas.

And then there’s the completely pointless and bonkers idea: the international op-ed forum. Because the BBC really needs to be republishing controversial opinion pieces like a hole in the head. Firstly, this is hardly an under-served market – everyone from The Guardian, to the New York Times, to Al Jazeera does it. And secondly what possible benefit does it bring to the BBC? This feels like a concession to the fact that senior journalists like leader and opinion columns and conferences, but the BBC should leave it well alone.

But all of this doesn’t even begin to tackle the big challenge for World News on radio, television and online. It needs to justify itself to the licence fee payer. At a time when the licence fee is coming up for renegotiation and domestic viewers are seeing services close, can the BBC really justify an increase in spending on services that don’t have a sound commercial under-pinning?

It seems to me that’s the big issue that Sir Howard’s report is missing. Why should the licence fee payer support a new Korean news service when the BBC is closing its youth TV channel? The costs may not be comparable, but without a solid argument as to why this is the right strategy, the BBC is setting itself up for a confrontation with the people it relies on most.

And if you want to see Buzzfeed school the BBC in how to cover a BBC story in Buzzfeed style – take a look at this.

 

David Dimbleby to present BBC Election 2015

David Dimbleby (credit BBC)

The BBC have announced the presenters for next year’s election programme – The Guardian has a write up here.

So, can I have that as a near-miss? Senior Dimbleby stays on for last curtain call with Huw Edwards, the junior Dimbleby, no longer in the wings but sharing the stage.

Still I think it’s an opportunity lost. James Harding could have used the moment to mark a definitive break from the past. Instead this is the future shuffling, blinking into the limelight. And hopefully they’ll make better use of some of the other talent than last time around – Emily Maitlis deserves better than crunching results on a touch-screen.

So, not-scaring the psephological horses over at the BBC. Adam Boulton will presumably host Sky News’s election coverage as an anchor rather than political editor. Your move ITV…

 

Five predictions for 2014

Trying to predict the future is a mug’s game.

No matter how right you think you might be, you’re always going  to be wrong about something. Nothing ever turns out quite as you might expect.

And publishing predictions on the internet is particularly foolish. Every sceptic from now on can come back here and say “Well, you were wrong about this, so you’re almost certainly wrong about that.”

So, what better way to start a new blog than five predictions for 2014….

1. TV journalism old guard to retire.

On first sight that might not seem like much of a prediction. After all, people retire all the time. But 2014 marks a change point for TV journalism. The BBC’s new Director of News, James Harding, is getting into his stride, outlining his vision of a scoop orientated BBC. While over at ITV new Editor Geoff Hill is still dealing with the fallout from his generation skipping appointment. Behind the scenes there’s been movement among the newsroom big beasts but, so far, that’s not been reflected in on-screen talent.

Expect that to change.

The biggest set-piece event for any British newsroom is a General Election. For the BBC and ITV it’s the product of months of planning, with senior staff seconded to deliver comprehensive, fast and reliable results programmes and, perhaps more importantly, to shaft the opposition.

Get it right and barely anyone notices. Get it wrong and expect it to be endlessly dredged up by the press and your rivals.

So, with new boys in charge at ITN and the BBC what’s it going to mean for the on-screen talent? Well, the easiest way to put your new and improved stamp on a broadcaster is to shake up the presentation teams.

First up the BBC. David Dimbleby is, of course, a broadcasting institution having presented the BBC’s election coverage since 1979. However, by 2015 he will be in his late seventies and, despite the new tattoo, his on-screen performances have started to look a little doddery. During the seemingly never-ending coverage of the 2010 election and coalition negotiations he appeared increasingly exhausted.

It’s time for Harding to bite the bullet and bring in a new presenter. Naturally, Huw Edwards is the Dimbleby in waiting, although it’s clear Jeremy Paxman would like to bring a more abrasive style to the cosy election programmes. But perhaps the time has come for a bolder choice: both Martha Kearney and Emily Maitlis would make interesting appointments.

For ITV it’s a tougher decision. Political presenter of choice Alastair Stewart is still going strong. Bringing encyclopedic knowledge and a high level of professionalism to the role, he’d be a difficult presenter to leave on the subs bench. But the fact remains that during the 2010 programme, the grey haired Alastair, sat on a grey set, in a charcoal grey suit, interviewing a succession of grey pundits.

This is not the image ITV wants to present.

The obvious replacement is Political Editor Tom Bradby. Already performing well on his own mini-me Question Time, The Agenda, Tom’s cut his presenting teeth. But if he’s still more needed as pundit than presenter then it’s time to give Julie Etchingham a shot at the top job.

2. A national daily newspaper announces it’s going weekly.

The long, inexorable decline of the printed press has continued through 2013. Although proving more resilient than some of the Noughties’ digital evangelists had expected, the fact remains that even the most ardent supporter can see the current status quo at the newsagents can’t last. Even some of the big regional newspapers are being wiped out.

At first sight, it appears logical to predict that at some point newspapers will go entirely digital. That’s almost certainly the case in the medium to long term. But the savings that could be made by axing the legacy elements, such as printing and transporting newspapers, haven’t yet outweighed the big commercial problem: digital advertising just isn’t worth as much as selling adverts in newsprint.

So, my guess is that one of the national newspapers will announce it’s going weekly. The means that it will keep a premium product in newsagents, but cut some of the costs of daily printing and production. It’s a model which is already being trialled by Variety in the United States. It doesn’t mean an end to daily journalism. But the output will truly be digital first.

Who will it be? The Independent’s position looks the most precarious of the serious press. And its owner has shown himself to be willing to take risks. Will he be the first to stop daily printing?

3. NBC news to get a shiny new website.

The imminent departure of Chief Digital Officer Vivian Schiller for Twitter has given new NBC News President Deborah Turness a chance to make some changes.  Deborah is a creative dynamo, brought into NBC to shake it up and make it more competitive with it’s traditional TV rivals and the new digital upstarts. It’s a tough challenge. And her recent appointments show she’s not afraid to cherry-pick former colleagues from ITN to help her do it.

Chief among them is ITV’s Director of Online, Julian March, soon to be NBC’s Senior Vice President of Editorial and Innovation. Quite a title.

Jules is a smart, resourceful editorial leader who has turned ITV from a digital zero to, if not quite a hero, at least to a something. He’s put ITV’s VOD strategy on the right path, got the commercial and editorial teams working together to try and innovate their way towards a commercially sustainable future.

And he built his reputation at ITV by relaunching the moribund news website as a digital stream of live, rolling digital news. Expect to see something similar happen at NBC.

4. Twitter and linear television drive more “event” programming.

Why, ask the digerati, hasn’t the commercial disruption wrought upon newspapers by the internet been replicated in television? The imminent end of linear TV has been predicted many times, so why does it still seem to be surviving in rude health?

Some of the reasons are pretty obvious. Linear TV still produces content people want to watch in a way that they want to watch it. Viewers prefer the experience of switching on the TV to watch Eastenders to wading through quirky cat videos on YouTube.

Plus, there’s also the fact that broadcasters have been smart about making sure that their content is consumed online in a way which hasn’t cannibalised the core product.

But the main reason that linear TV is till the mass medium product of choice is that it’s brilliant at creating and broadcasting live events and has learnt to create instant communities around them.

Take a look at Twitter when the X-Factor final is underway. People like to watch a live unveiling drama and to share that experience with others. The fabled water-cooler is still delivering it’s moments, but they’re happening simultaneously with the broadcast rather than the next day at work or school.

Broadcasters want more of this. They’d also like it if they could capture that interaction on a platform where they could monetise it too. So, expect Twitter to try and kill that idea at birth and to find ways of sharing the love, and the revenue, with broadcasters. The live events drive the traffic on Twitter, which drives the audiences to the live events. What’s not to like?  Could Twitter be the X-Factor series sponsor in 2014? Stranger things have happened….

5. TV debates announced for 2015 general election.

The difficult thing about genies is that once they’re out of the bottle, it’s hard to get them to go back in again. During the 2010 General Election, the campaign was dominated by the televised debates. “I agree with Nick” became the catchphrase of both Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

But the debates had some big issues. Firstly, there were too many of them. Three leaders’ debates for the BBC, ITV and Sky, plus a Chancellors’ debate for Channel 4 was overkill for a three week long campaign. Secondly, the format owed too much to the United States’s Presidential Debates and wasn’t engaging enough for viewers. We’re more used to the cut-and-thrust of Question Time, rather than the formalised minute long answers of American television.

And for a lot of politicians the debates over-shadowed the election. It became more Presidential, less about getting the message out in the constituencies. The media event seemed to be sharing equal footing with the political event. And no-one likes to share the spot-light.

So, that’s the end of that then, right?

Not so fast. Yes, the format needs some work and yes there’s always a feeling that incumbents don’t need to do it. But it’s hard to give up those three hours of primetime coverage, hard to give up the feeling that you’re making connections in a way that speeches and events never do, hard to give up the sense that you’re going to make mincemeat of the opposition.

Now the question the media will ask is “why do you want to stop holding TV debates”, not whether you’ll allow them. And no-one wants to appear frit. So, expect some changes, but expect an announcement.