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.

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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.

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BBC Young cut for BBC Old

 

I was on BBC Northampton this morning talking to Helen Blaby about the decision to take BBC3 online only.

I called it what it is: a budget saving decision dressed up as innovation.

You can listen here – starts at about 1h 10

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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.

Who’s making great online video?

 

Which news organisations are doing great online video?

A couple of recent articles have prompted me to take a look at this – firstly  this one from Media Shift, in which Janine Gibson, incoming Editor-in-Chief of theguardian.com says it’s so entrenched in the system they barely think of it as a separate element anymore. Then there’s this one from journalism.co.uk in which The Times’s deputy head of digial, Lucia Adams, talks about their shift from quantity to quality.

To begin with I’d better declare an interest.

I set up the multimedia department at The Times and Sunday Times back in 2006 and ran it until 2008. We started experimenting with video in 2007. Much of that experimentation took the form of throwing mud against the wall to see what stuck, but there was an underlying strategy based on some key principles.

Firstly, that the quality user experience for online video would continue to improve so everything had to be done with the highest possible quality at the point of production. That meant buying kit and building facilities and not being derailed by those who wanted everything done on mobile phones.

Secondly, that videos should exploit the key drivers of traffic on the site; and, finally, that it should not compete head to head against existing broadcast outlets.

So, we made films about cars with the InGear supplement of The Sunday TImes, such as this one about the Porsche GT9, and got Gordon Ramsay to make recipe videos. I also pressed hard for a content sharing deal with a news broadcaster which would give us scale with news inventory but wouldn’t be competing on an unequal basis with ITN or the BBC.

We had our successes and I also made mistakes – auto-roll videos on the homepage being, perhaps, the most egregious. But it was new territory and, like all innovations in the newsroom, part of the challenge was creating new content and formats and part of it was embedding change and new workflows.

By mid 2008 we had reached around a million video streams a month – small beer by today’s standards but it felt significant at the time.

That was around the time I left the paper. It seemed to me that video was becoming less about trying to do something different, establishing a new brand and new ways of telling multimedia stories, but more about focussing on repurposed news clips. There’s some value in that but I didn’t feel it was playing to the paper’s strengths. So, I read Lucia’s comments about moving away from news and focussing on quality with something of a wry smile.

So here we are, six years on, videos never been more prevalent online. Everyone’s got fast broadband connections, the audience is there, what’s being done to service them? I’ll be taking a look at my old shop, The Times, plus The Guardian, Sky News, The New York Times and Vice. This is an entirely arbitrary list – but I think covers a good range of outlets.

1. The Times

Compared to the films we made back in 2007/08 the material being produced by The Times feels much more measured and professional. The material is well shot and there’s an emphasis on quality of production. The films are also well-distributed through the site, rather than being ghettoised under a video tab.

It’s clear video, and specifically sports video, is a key driver for users to pay to vault the paywall. The use of Premiership football is especially smart.

But for me, there are still some key problems. What is video to The Times? Is it just a nice to have added extra, or is it an integral part of their story-telling? There’s no doubt that video needs to be an element of a multimedia package. But I don’t see stories here both using video as a driver and playing to video’s strengths. For example, this film with Norman Lamont is good – but what are the specifically video-led elements that drive the story. Video is led by pictures, what images are used here that make this a must see video?

And I think that lack of identity extends to the look of the videos – there’s no Times style. That’s an issue, I think, after seven years of production and one they wouldn’t accept from the website. Perhaps Lucia’s drive towards a less-is-more approach will remedy this.

2. The Guardian

The look is something The Guardian is getting right. From news clips to longer format material, everything is in-style and recognisably on-brand. It feels as though the creative director has given this the once over and ensured everything is formatted correctly.

The Guardian has also worked hard to distribute video through the site, from short news clips from ITN and Reuters through to self-produced content, there’s considerable variety of video here.

But there’s also an issue. They’re just not using the medium to its fullest extent. Take a look at this video  with the excellent Alexis Petridis. It’s a good concept, Alexis is an engaging and eloquent presenter and the look is modern, metropolitan and recognisably “Guardian”.

But there’s just no reason for this to be a video – where are the must see-images, or must-hear sounds? This is radio with pictures. Or a column read aloud. And this mistake is repeated time and again around the site. They’re just not using video to story-tell effectively. I know with music reviews you can argue there are rights issues. But if you want to be the biggest website in the world and you want to do music reviews, man up and pay the MCPS.

3. Sky News

Storytelling using video isn’t something you would expect Sky News to struggle with. This is their bread and butter. The site is filled with video elements, live feeds, repurposed news packages, cut up two-ways, interviews, and short clips of must see video. If you want video, Sky News has it.

The problem for Sky News though is two-fold.

Firstly, the presentation is dull, conservative (with a small c) and old-fashioned. The site looks like something from the middle of the last decade, not the sort of all-singing, all-dancing digital experience you would expect of Sky. The channel’s been hugely innovative in television presentation, but that innovation doesn’t seem to be reflected in the digital experience. That’s a shame and I hope it’s something Sky quickly sorts out. Sky News needs to transform into a multiplatform operation, and that transformation needs to be quicker and slicker than is demonstrated by this site.

The second issue for Sky News is that they’re not making any concessions to the digital user experience. The content is offered up for consumption in the assumption that people will watch for the same duration and in the same way as on TV. That just isn’t the case. Like many broadcasters turned web publishers, they suffer from the problem of thinking more-is-more, rather than starting with the user and trying to deliver a news service that fits their needs.

4. The New York Times

Ah, The New York Times. Serious, dull, worthy New York Times. Don’t be expecting any fun here. That’s the cliche. And so it proves. This is the high-fibre version of online video. Serious subjects treated seriously.

But it’s done well. Really well. Take this video  – beautifully produced, well told. Money has been spent here and you can see it in the coverage. This is good video storytelling and story selection, mixed with decent budgets and worthy intent. Yes, this could all be a bit more dramatic; yes, it could display a little more wit and attitude. But if you’re staying on brand with the New York Times – this works.

And speaking of cliches, here’s a video where an American cooks a hamburger.

5. Vice News

To the other end of the spectrum and Vice – the wannabe MTV of digital and broadcast news. The brand is testosterone filled and in-your face. The words “woah dude” never far from any presenter’s lips.

But there’s some good reporting here – take this one from Ukraine – or this one on a far-right protest in Austria. Well chosen images, good interviews and insight. There’s no reason why any of the broadsheets or broadcasters should turn their noses up at this.

You might argue that there’s little breadth to the coverage – the story selection is all broadly similar. But this is absolutely on brand for the core Vice audience. The durations of some of the pieces are also surprising – there’s a lot of very long content on the site. Presumably this is repurposed TV content being used elsewhere in the rapidly expanding VIce empire – but are lots of  people really watching 45 minute docs on YouTube? Maybe, provided the storytelling is good enough.

It’s a bit of a cliche to suggest that digital-native publishers are doing online content with more verve and style than legacy media. But there’s no doubt that’s what’s happening here. Vice’s content has lessons for everyone, even if no-one should be aping their exact output. Seven years after I started doing web films for The Times, I’d say there are still big lessons to learn for newspapers and broadcasters when it comes to making engaging, well-made and well told stories for digital viewers.