Ex­plor­ing The Fu­ture of News With John Stack­house

The Insider - - CONTENT -

John Stack­house, best­selling au­thor and former edi­tor-in­chief of The Globe and

Mail re­cently re­leased his new book, Mass Dis­rup­tion: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Me­dia Revo­lu­tion. Late in 2015, I had the op­por­tu­nity to sit down with John and get his views on the fu­ture of news and the role that jour­nal­ism plays in our lives. The in­ter­view is a col­lec­tion of ques­tions from PressReader read­ers and a few of my own.

Here’s a tran­script of that in­ter­view…

CHANGES IN NEWS CON­SUMP­TION

NIKO­LAY MALYAROV We have some ques­tions for you from our au­di­ence. First let’s start with this one, “How has news con­sump­tion changed?”

JOHN STACK­HOUSE It’s re­mark­able how in half a life­time it’s been revo­lu­tion­ized from ana­log to dig­i­tal. Among the most sig­nif­i­cant change is the shift not only to dig­i­tal, but to mo­bile. Half of news read­er­ship is now on the phone, on the smart­phone. News or­ga­ni­za­tions re­ally have to get their heads around how to pro­duce news; jour­nal­ists have to get their heads around how to pro­duce news for a phone reader. It’s been what I’ve called at­om­ized, spread out. We all read; we prob­a­bly don’t count the num­ber of sources we come across ev­ery day read­ing, which is won­der­ful. We can get news from thou­sands of dif­fer­ent sources on a sin­gle topic; maybe it’s too much for most of us. It’s a con­sumer par­adise now for news read­ers, and it’s deeply chal­leng­ing, ob­vi­ously, for the pub­lish­ers of news.

THE END OF PRINTED NEWS­PA­PERS

NM News fu­tur­ist, Ross Daw­son, pre­dicted an end of the tra­di­tional newsprint news me­dia, in the US by 2017 and in Canada shortly there­after. Do you agree with that, and what changes do you think are com­ing?

JS I think that’s too soon. I of­ten say in 2016 we’ll be cel­e­brat­ing or mark­ing the 10th an­niver­sary of an Econ­o­mist mag­a­zine cover on the death of news­pa­pers. I think if any of us can out­live our obit­u­ary by 10 years, we’re do­ing well.

The news­pa­per in­dus­try or news­pa­pers in their phys­i­cal form have out­lived pre­dic­tions of their demise for a num­ber of rea­sons, but that end will come, who knows when. The end in any in­dus­try that’s be­ing dis­rupted comes faster than any­one an­tic­i­pates, even though it some­times takes a long while to get to that end state. Will it be 2020, 2025? We’ll see. I sus­pect there’ll be a de­cline first of the fre­quency of the news­pa­pers. Some news­pa­pers, we’re see­ing this with La Presse and I sus­pect oth­ers will fol­low, will start to scale back and elim­i­nate the week­day news­pa­per and fo­cus on the higher mar­gin week­end news­pa­per. Metro dailies will be more chal­lenged than na­tional dailies: The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal, Fi­nan­cial Times, The Globe and Mail, should do bet­ter. That doesn’t mean the end won’t come even­tu­ally for their printed edi­tions, but they’ll do bet­ter be­cause of their eco­nomic base than the metro dailies, which will be squeezed and have to make tough choices be­tween week­day and week­end. When will that end come? No one knows of course, but I would say some time in the 2020s.

THE FU­TURE OF SE­RI­OUS JOUR­NAL­ISM

NM Let me ask you a ques­tion from one of our view­ers, “Can se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism live on­line, or is it the end?”

JS Ab­so­lutely, se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism can and does live on­line. I think we are see­ing more se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism right now than we’ve ever seen. It’s harder to find be­cause the sea level of in­for­ma­tion keeps ris­ing, so it’s harder to find on some days and some top­ics the se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism. When you find it, it’s fan­tas­tic and it’s com­ing both from the es­tab­lished news or­ga­ni­za­tions, which for the most part are do­ing ter­rific work, and all sorts of new en­trants.

We’re see­ing new plat­forms - Medium for in­stance is a ter­rific plat­form that is al­low­ing a lot more of what peo­ple might call cit­i­zen jour­nal­ism, or semi-pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ism that’s very in­ter­est­ing. There’s a lot of good stuff, a lot of good writ­ing on Medium as well as on other new plat­forms, in ad­di­tion to the great tra­di­tional news or­ga­ni­za­tions that we’re all fa­mil­iar with.

NM Se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism ob­vi­ously costs money to pro­duce, a lot of money to pro­duce. Our view­ers have been ask­ing us, “Who should pay for it and if some­one pays, then how?”

JS This is the great­est chal­lenge of our times in me­dia. It’s won­der­ful to be a news con­sumer; it’s pretty good still to be a jour­nal­ist. But the pub­lish­ers are wrestling with that hor­ri­ble fi­nan­cial equa­tion. One of the things that I ar­gue in the book is that both read­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers have to come to grips with the eco­nomic model. I’m of the be­lief that news or­ga­ni­za­tions need both to pay. The news me­dia, es­pe­cially from the print tra­di­tion, has al­ways re­lied on a¼ : ¾ split, more or less, be­tween cir­cu­la­tion and ad­ver­tis­ing. That’s im­por­tant in the busi­ness cy­cle, be­cause cir­cu­la­tion tends not to go up and down the way ad­ver­tis­ing does. And it’s im­por­tant to say to your con­sumers, I be­lieve, “We ex­pect you to pay some­thing; we’re pro­duc­ing re­ally good stuff here, and we ex­pect you to pay for part of the cost for that and chal­lenge us to

im­prove the qual­ity.” That’s what the mar­ket­place does.

News or­ga­ni­za­tions, in my view, have to find a way to get con­sumers to pay for part of the cost. They have to think be­yond news it­self. I don’t be­lieve peo­ple will pay just for the news ar­ti­cle. They want a whole ex­pe­ri­ence. Peo­ple are will­ing to pay to have an as­so­ci­a­tion with a news or­ga­ni­za­tion if it’s de­liv­er­ing great news, ac­cess to news mak­ers, qual­ity ad­ver­tis­ing, dis­counts on deals and an abil­ity to en­gage with other read­ers as well as with the jour­nal­ists. All these things sort of go to­gether in a bun­dle that I be­lieve peo­ple will pay for as sub­scribers. The sec­ond part of the equa­tion, the big­ger part, is to say to ad­ver­tis­ers, “If you want to reach our au­di­ence you’re go­ing to have to pay more than you’d pay through pro­gram­matic buy­ing, through the ro­bots.” That’s a chal­lenge both to the ad­ver­tis­ers and the pub­lish­ers.

The ad­ver­tis­ers, I think, are will­ing to say “Okay, we’re will­ing to pay more, but we’ve got to get a bet­ter en­gage­ment with the reader. We have to know who they

"I DON'T BE­LIEVE PEO­PLE WILL PAY JUST FOR THE NEWS AR­TI­CLE THEY WANT A WHOLE EX­PE­RI­ENCE PEO­PLE ARE WILL­ING TO PAY TO HAVE AN AS­SO­CI­A­TION WITH A NEWS OR­GA­NI­ZA­TION IF IT'S DE­LIV­ER­ING GREAT NEWS, AC­CESS TO NEWS MAK­ERS, QUAL­ITY AD­VER­TIS­ING, DIS­COUNTS ON DEALS AND AN ABIL­ITY TO EN­GAGE WITH OTHER READ­ERS AS WELL AS WITH THE JOUR­NAL­ISTS"

are, so give us bet­ter data.” I think that’s an im­por­tant chal­lenge to pub­lish­ers, to en­sure that with­out in­vad­ing any­one’s pri­vacy to be able to say “We can de­liver 10,000 or 100,000 read­ers who look like this, and are in­clined to buy these kinds of prod­ucts and ser­vices at this time of the day or month.” Ad­ver­tis­ers will pay for that. Give a bet­ter en­gage­ment for the ad­ver­tis­ers, so the ad­ver­tis­ing isn’t an em­bar­rass­ment or some­thing you want to hide be­hind or block it. Most of us, as con­sumers, want to deal with ad­ver­tis­ers. We want to know what a car com­pany has to of­fer or a va­ca­tion com­pany or an air­line has to of­fer, but we want some­thing cool from the ad­ver­tiser. The ad­ver­tiser wants to give some­thing cool and tra­di­tional news chan­nels are a great way to de­liver that. Pub­lish­ers need to think more pro­gres­sively on be­half of the ad­ver­tiser to give that data and give that en­gage­ment to the ad­ver­tiser; the ad­ver­tiser in re­turn, I be­lieve, will pay more.

SO­CIAL ME­DIA – WON­DER­FUL OR DAN­GER­OUS?

NM Are head­lines, news snip­pets and so­cial me­dia mak­ing us, as the au­di­ence, as the read­ers, less in­formed, or on the other hand, giv­ing us a much wider view of events?

JS If I’m al­lowed to say both, my an­swer is both. I don’t know about your so­cial me­dia con­sump­tion, but I’m al­ways amazed when I go through Twit­ter and LinkedIn ac­tively dur­ing the day and learn a lot just from the head­lines. I can just, in a taxi or in an el­e­va­tor, go “Okay, this has hap­pened.” That’s great. But I of­ten pause and think “Wait a sec­ond; what do I re­ally know about this topic? Should I be­lieve that head­line; do I re­mem­ber where that head­line came from? Was it The New York

Times or some­one I’ve never met who I hap­pen to fol­low on Twit­ter?”

As news con­sumers, I think we have to con­tin­u­ously re­mind our­selves that this feast of in­for­ma­tion that we’re get­ting, es­pe­cially through so­cial me­dia, is both won­der­ful and dan­ger­ous. This is an im­por­tant is­sue, es­pe­cially for younger news con­sumers to come to grips with, that you have to be dis­cern­ing. Be care­ful what you read, what you re­fer, what you ac­cept when it’s re­ferred to you. This is a good chal­lenge in a democ­racy, but we all have to be aware. I think it’s both won­der­ful, what we’re get­ting through so­cial me­dia, and those snip­pets and those head­lines. It’s great dis­cov­ery but with dan­gers and a lot of caveats that go with that.

FROM JOUR­NAL­ISM-CEN­TRIC TO READER-CEN­TRIC

NM How can pub­lish­ers make their me­dia prop­er­ties more en­gag­ing for read­ers? That kind of leads to the whole point that you just said, in terms of the ed­i­to­rial and the ad­ver­tis­ing, so putting the reader at the cen­ter of it, how can they make it more en­gag­ing?

JS Ex­actly that, putting the reader at the cen­ter of it. It sounds so ob­vi­ous, but that’s not what news or­ga­ni­za­tions did for gen­er­a­tions. I tried to ex­plore a bit of that cul­ture in my book; I was part of this. We cre­ated news that was re­ally im­por­tant, that we be­lieved in, but it was of­ten jour­nal­ism-cen­tric, and not au­di­ence-cen­tric. One of the great shifts in the dig­i­tal ecosys­tem is that there’s all sorts of new providers, of not only me­dia, but of all sorts of goods and ser­vices that are au­di­ence-cen­tric. One of the great ex­am­ples of this is Net­flix, which still pro­vides old fash­ioned movies, and TV shows and video con­tent, but does it in an en­tirely au­di­ence-cen­tric way. The pro­duc­ers of that con­tent may not like it, but the con­sumers love it. What news pub­lish­ers have to learn from that is that there needs to be an ex­pe­ri­ence.

News needs to be au­di­ence-cen­tric, which means, among other things, en­sur­ing that your con­tent is in­ter­ac­tive, that con­sumers can play with it, can con­trib­ute to it, can share it, ob­vi­ously. It’s not a mono­logue; it’s a di­a­logue to en­sure that the ex­pe­ri­ence al­lows for read­ers to in­ter­act with other au­di­ence mem­bers, so it’s more au­di­ence-cen­tric than jour­nal­ist-cen­tric.

As you pointed out, ad­ver­tis­ing is part of the ex­pe­ri­ence, be­cause con­sumers ac­tu­ally like ad­ver­tis­ing. It’s not an in­con­ve­nience. I’m fas­ci­nated to see a lot of new dig­i­tal ex­pe­ri­ences that still present ad­ver­tis­ing in kind of an old fash­ioned way, as if it’s some­thing that has to be there, but I feel like the pub­lisher is al­most em­bar­rassed by it. As a con­sumer, I wanted to play with the ad; I want to learn from it. I ac­tu­ally may share the ad with my friends, or do some­thing with it. That’s a step that pub­lish­ers still, by and large, have to make.

"FOR GEN­ER­A­TIONS NEWS PUB­LISH­ERS CRE­ATED NEWS THAT WAS RE­ALLY IM­POR­TANT, THAT WE BE­LIEVED IN, BUT IT WAS OF­TEN JOUR­NAL­ISM-CEN­TRIC, NOT AU­DI­ENCE-CEN­TRIC TO­DAY NEWS NEEDS TO BE AU­DI­ENCE-CEN­TRIC. IT'S NOT A MONO­LOGUE, IT'S A DI­A­LOGUE TO EN­SURE THAT THE EX­PE­RI­ENCE AL­LOWS FOR READ­ERS TO IN­TER­ACT WITH OTH­ERS"

NM There is an el­e­ment called the “Vogue Ef­fect” – ad­ver­tis­ing that ap­pears in glossy mag­a­zines and how when you buy or you get ac­cess to it, to a glossy, you’re en­joy­ing that in­ter­ac­tion with the ad­ver­tis­ing. You ex­pect the ad­ver­tis­ing to be there and you’re ac­tu­ally en­joy­ing the in­for­ma­tion that it pro­vides to you. The items may cost more than you can af­ford, but that feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion that you get from flip­ping through the pages in is some­thing that news­pa­per pub­lish­ers can re­ally learn from.

JS Ab­so­lutely. You see that in some of the new tablet prod­ucts, plat­forms that news pub­lish­ers are cre­at­ing. There’s an en­hanced ad­ver­tis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that is joy­ful and en­gag­ing for the reader. I think peo­ple are will­ing to spend more time with an app if there is deeply en­gag­ing and de­light­ful ad­ver­tis­ing, than they would oth­er­wise.

NM In your book you went through a num­ber of in­stances,

his­tor­i­cally, where the news

pa­per pub­lish­ers, or the me­dia in gen­eral, have missed on some great op­por­tu­ni­ties. You re­fer to the in­fa­mous memo to The Wash­ing­ton Post own­ers in 1993 I be­lieve. At the end of the day, your book is fairly op­ti­mistic in terms of the fu­ture of se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism, if cer­tain things are done, cer­tain con­di­tions are met. One of our read­ers wants to know, “Will tra­di­tional pub­lish­ers sur­vive?”

JS That’s a pro­found ques­tion. Yes, is my an­swer, but not all of them. In the con­clu­sion of my book I ar­gue that one of the things pub­lish­ers need to think through is the cap­i­tal struc­ture of their com­pa­nies. I don’t think me­dia right now lends it­self to pub­lic mar­ket own­er­ship very nicely, be­cause the bat­tle to fig­ure out the new busi­ness model is still go­ing to take time. I think it could be another decade of slog­ging for me­dia com­pa­nies. Maybe it’ll come sooner; I hope so, for pub­lish­ers. In­vestors and own­ers of me­dia need to think in 10-year in­cre­ments, and pub­lic mar­kets just aren’t set up for that. I think one of the most press­ing chal­lenges for pub­lish­ers is to en­sure they have what’s called “pa­tient cap­i­tal” – money be­hind them that al­lows them to ex­per­i­ment and in­vest and wait five to ten years for a new model to emerge.

There is ar­guably too many pub­lish­ers as well in some parts of the world; some of them have gone away and oth­ers will go away. It’s not like there’ll be a vac­uum in their place. There are all sorts of new news providers; we may not call them pub­lish­ers, but con­tent or­ga­ni­za­tions are emerg­ing that will fill that void very quickly. We, as con­sumers, will ben­e­fit from that.

NM Thank you so much John. If you agree with John’s opin­ion that the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion has started a bolder age in me­dia and democ­racy, please visit John’s Chan­nel on PressReader and sup­port it.

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