Media predictions 2016 – what was right and what was wrong?

Time for me to mark my own homework again. 12 months ago I made some predictions for 2016.

How on point do they look at the end of the year?

1. Ad-blockers will go mainstream

If you’re under 25 you are almost as likely to use an ad-blocker as not.

And the numbers are rising.

This year’s Reuters Digital News Report made the same point:

Ad blockers age

One report, published in the summer, suggests a 90% jump in ad-blocking on mobile devices in the past year alone.

That said, mobile network Three seems to have gone luke-warm on its plan to introduce automatic ad-blocking for all consumers.

As I argued last year, this is all about user experience.

If users feel ad blockers cut data usage, improve page delivery speeds and kill off ultra-intrusive formats such as splash screens, they will vote with their feet.

There are some signs of progress in the ad industry.

But companies need to move faster to tackle what is a potentially existential threat.

Once an ad-blocker is installed, what incentive is there to remove it?

Appeals to logic are not sufficient.

I teach undergraduate journalism students.

Rough in class surveys suggest that most of them use ad-blockers and none of them pay for news, but they still want to work in an industry being strangled by a lack of digital revenues.

I’d say this prediction was correct.

2. A choice to make: destination vs distribution 

Would it be distribution or destination in 2016?

Not much doubt the resounding answer was distribution.

The old adage that you should be where you customers are, held true again.

But the underlying financial weakness of this as a business strategy has been shown again and again.

Buzzfeed and NowThis are both heavily invested in a distributed content strategy.

They’re both huge content farms that appear to make essentially no money from distributed content but use it as an advert for their branded content businesses.

Both companies also continue to attract significant VC investment.

But is this a sustainable business strategy or are the disrupters at risk of being disrupted?

It’s not yet clear but should the financial outlook turn chilly in 2017, things may come more sharply into focus.

The question in the prediction was right – whether it was the right answer though is debatable.

Let’s call it a half.

3. Innovation will move to the heart of the newsroom

More innovation was on show in 2016.

The Washington Post demonstrated there’s still some life in newspapers.

And there was a lot of talk about VR and immersive video. Not least at The Guardian.

But there’s still a long way to go to make it deliver as a story-telling medium.

Have newsrooms really embraced innovation? There are some examples of progress.

For the most part, though, the answer seems to be to keep doing what they’ve always done while incrementally changing.

That’s hardly a surprise. But disappointing nonetheless.

4. Twitter will face an existential crisis

Boy, did it ever.

It’s been a tough year for Twitter.

Shares tanked after a failed sale over the summer.

And costs are running so high it’s losing $500 million a year on revenues of $2 billion.

Its active monthly user base appears maxed out at circa 300 million.

And it has a terrible reputation for trolling, misogyny, and racist abuse.

Twitter is going to have to change to continue to exist – there can’t be a standstill point here – without change it will decline and die.

No company can survive for long on flatline growth and losses of hundreds of millions.

And those of us who love it will have to hope that its charm and vibrancy isn’t destroyed in the process.

5. Managing decline in TV news

It has been another great year for TV news content.

Huge stories and amazing, brave and fascinating reporting.

But the slow decline of the medium continues.

As a fascinating report for the Reuters Institute for Journalism by Professor Richard Sambrook showed, a sustained decline of 3-4% in audience per year is comparable to those seen by newspapers a decade ago.

And the inexorable rise of on-demand programming shows that linear programming is, at least in the long-run, dead.

The BBC News Channel may have survived the latest cuts – at least for now – but TV news is in long term decline.

That doesn’t mean everything ends tomorrow.

But editors need to think hard about what the netflix of TV news looks like, even as disruptors like Vice move into the linear space.

We know that traditional TV packaging doesn’t work well in social news.

Can a lean-back experience deliver where a smartphone based approach won’t?

A tough nut to crack but one that I hope will be solved in the coming years.

So I make that three and a half out of five. Thoughts for 2017 will be coming shortly.

Cristina Nicolotti Squires poached by Sky News

One of ITN’s most successful and creative executives, Cristina Nicolotti Squires, has announced she’s leaving to become Director of Content at Sky News.

It is a big job with responsibility for news and current affairs across multiple platforms.

And it is a big loss for ITN. Cristina is a formidable presence in the newsroom. Smart, resourceful and passionate about news, she will be a tough act to follow as Editor of Five News.

Like her predecessors  Chris Shaw, Deborah Turness and Geoff Hill, she’s used the editorship of the comparatively small-scale Five News as a springboard to bigger things.

She moves to Sky at a time of considerable change. Many of the old guard are moving on. Not just on-air talent such as Jeremy Thompson and Eammon Holmes but some of the most experienced backroom staff too.

Head of News, John Ryley, is clearly preparing for a future of on-demand digital news as well as a live streamed channel – perhaps no longer delivered on TV nor based in a studio.

Professor Richard Sambrook from Cardiff University has written persuasively about 24-hour rolling news being a product of newsgathering technology that now looks outdated. Even the most traditional 24-hour channels, such as Al Jazeera, are considering what post-TV news looks like.

As 24-hour news veteran, I still retain an affection for the form. But there’s no doubt that it cannot compete with the immediacy of digital news, even if there is still value in a live stream of content. It is hard to gear up to rolling coverage if you lack the platform and resources to produce it.

So I will wait with interest to see what Nicolotti’s Sky News will become – how she’ll balance innovation with maintenance of the existing product. And hopefully she’ll kill off the ruddy awful “The Pledge“.

 

The future for TV news channels

Cardiff University’s Richard Sambrook and Sean McGuire of Oliver Ohlbaum argue here that the 24 hour TV news channel has had its day.

Why, they ask, pay for studios, presenters, crews and reporters to hang around waiting for news when audiences can get it instantly online? TV news can’t beat digital, so why not get rid of some of that costly infrastructure and rethink broadcast news as an on-demand service?

At first sight it’s a compelling argument. TV news is locked into formats developed decades ago, change has been slow to show on-screen as disruption has happened all around it. In my own experience I know that between 2006 and 2012, when I worked predominantly in digital news, it felt like there was wave after wave of disruption and innovation – podcasts, web video, social media, broadband uptake, personalisation – each one forcing us to reexamine our assumptions.

When I returned to television in 2013 it felt like nothing had changed. That’s not quite true – the ability to use broadband in newsgathering had reduced the reliance on satellites, but aside from that, I got straight back on the bike.

But….

The trouble with this kind of argument is that it presupposes an active viewer. Someone who wants to take the time to create their own personalised bulletins, that’s interested in watching a raw feed of video of an event, that has no interest in the context and analysis added by reporters and guests – but still wants the high quality newsgathering that Sambrook and McGuire think they’ve freed their reporters to conduct.

Some people are like that. But I’d suggest most are not.

Sometimes people just want to watch the news. Yes, that needs to be made easier to consume when I want to consume it – but that seems to me to suggest more infrastructure built around a TV news channel not the abolition of the channel itself. Yes, live news needs to cover better stories, to reduce its reliance on balcony two-ways with journalists far from the story. In my opinion, Al Jazeera English has a good track record in this. But I can’t see that a reduction in competition is likely to improve the quality of coverage for the viewer.

And, yes, people make mistakes. But I think viewers can forgive that. Just as they can also forgive the mistakes that happen online in the wake of disasters. 

TV news needs to change to keep itself relevant. It needs to lose its complacency, to embrace online and the digital revolution, but the idea of an output spine which keeps newsgathering motoring 24-hours a day is still relevant, and long may it continue to be so.