The list of breakthrough interfaces for reading news on smartphones is a short one. Instapaper is arguably the pioneer in this area, with its focus on a simple reading experience. Vox Media’s SB Nation iPhone app cleverly grouped news updates about the same topic (Vox tweaked that design in its current web app approach.) But many mobile news apps and sites are little more than re-skinned RSS readers, and surprisingly few publishers even bother to format their email newsletters for easy reading on iPhones and BlackBerries. When we were creating Quartz earlier this year, we needed to look for inspiration to non-news applications, such as the Clear to-do list app — it’s hard to find boldness and creativity in the news industry’s smartphone products.
Recent arrivals such as Circa have been bolder in their efforts to tailor content and design architecture to the smartphone. It’s certain that 2013 will bring an acceleration of efforts to reinvent the smartphone interface for news.
The reason is that nearly all of the growth in Internet usage around the world for the foreseeable future will come on mobile devices. Roughly two billion people have access to the Internet today, with over one billion more in the developing world expected to come online — primarily using phones — without much delay.
Given the rapid growth of smartphone usage elsewhere, it’s very possible — if not likely — that the most interesting consumer interfaces for reading news develop outside of the U.S. Look for new formats for content and improved integration of photographs and interactive graphics. More content specifically for mobile will come. Better touch- and place- and motion-optimized interfaces are likely. Comments and sharing have the potential for radical breakthroughs. It’s possible that the media will need to look to non-media products to identify improvements they can apply.
Most news publications have to date prioritized native iOS mobile applications over their mobile websites.
Responsive HTML5 approaches to building web apps rather than native apps can be technically difficult and frustrating for consumers when they don’t work right. Mark Zuckerberg is among those who have raised questions about HTML5.
But all too often creators of native news apps run into even more fatal challenges. As Jason Pontin recounted, Technology Review spent well over $124,000 on iOS and Android apps whose user base never justified the effort. Among the limitations of News Corp.’s now-defunct The Daily was its requirement that users download an iPad app to access its full functionality.
In contrast, an HTML5 web app allows a publisher to be fully part of the open, social web. It can minimize any friction holding back the sharing of content and that content’s successful travel through the social media slipstream. With Quartz’s web app, we have no paywalls, no application downloads, no separate article page urls for each device a reader is using.
Native apps have advantages for computing-intensive and image-heavy offerings such as video games, but that’s generally not needed for news sites. And web apps’ performance should get better in the coming year, thanks to improvements in the mobile and tablet hardware they’re running on.
Clearly, more publishers will reconsider their native app focus in 2013 in favor of HTML5.
Most news sites have a love/hate relationship with their comment sections. They love the traffic and reader engagement it represents. They’re embarrassed by the vitriol and name-calling that often dominate. And they have no idea how to structure comments to make any sense of them for readers.
Gawker Media’s Nick Denton is among those who have made admirable efforts to improve commenting, and Nick has rightly proclaimed that comments on their own can represent as high-quality content as any article. But most of the best discussion takes place off publishers’ sites, on Twitter, Facebook and in private emails. This is a reality that won’t be fully addressed in 2013, if ever.
The Wall Street Journal is a leader in generating content and translating its English articles for local-language websites in Asia and Europe. Few other American news organizations have the financial resources to tackle that opportunity.
Will Google or others achieve sufficient advances in machine translation for newsrooms to launch mostly automated local-language versions of their websites? Will improved machine translation allow journalists to accurately gather ideas and reporting from sources in languages they don’t speak? I hope that happens in 2013 — but for this prediction I’m not holding my breath.
I know people have been saying for years that we’re in a weird “transitional” period, but every day it feels increasingly true to me. The web has been mainstream for about 15 years now, and in the first five years of that we saw traditional businesses like television and newspapers and music succumb to the disruption of the Internet. Later, we saw Web 2.0 become a buzzword and various services sprung up to further the disruption among existing Internet industries.
What I’m noticing now is the feeling that the disruptors are beginning to be disrupted themselves. Many of the companies labeled Web 2.0 in the mid-2000s are either no longer with us (Friendster, Bloglines, etc.) or were long ago sold off and subsumed into larger companies. The rise of blogs in the early 2000s seems to be following an opposite trajectory in the early 2010s. Social media/software is taking over not just blogging, but search, and events, and existing location-based startups. Even the giants of the social space aren’t showing signs of blockbuster success beyond their registered user numbers (Facebook is struggling with revenue and its stock price, Twitter is slapping ads on everything and hoping for the best).
Everyone is rushing to iOS and Android development as the wave of the future, and it’s true that mobile is going to keep getting bigger — but at the same time there aren’t proven models beyond a few blockbuster successes (e.g. Angry Birds). I’m seeing people pouring lots of money into mobile apps (they seem to start at $50K and go upwards fast) while big splashy projects like The Daily are closing up shop.
I look into my crystal ball and I don’t see very many winners or breakout trends that I would bet on. What I do see are a heck of a lot of existing industries declining further, as well as the first and second wave of Internet disruptors fading away, as the pace of change picks up and one startup after another outdoes a competitor and exists for a brief period in the limelight before they begin their descent into the scrapheap.
TL;DR version: Hey Internet, We’re Craigslisting Ourselves Now.
My (newspaper-centric) predictions for 2012 in a nutshell:
Let’s look at each of these in detail.
I’ve been suggesting since 2008 that to transition from a print-centric business model to a digital-centric one, newspapers need to go through an essential and strategic transition: cut print publication from six or seven days a week to two or three days. And when they do this, the printed product should be understood as a niche byproduct of a news organization that understands itself as being above all a digital-first enterprise.
In 2008, the financial and technological environment had not yet created much urgency around this question. But the industry has now experienced 25 consecutive quarters of advertising revenue declines. Print readership has declined to the point that only 23 percent of US adults “read a printed newspaper yesterday.” The industry has reacted with multiple rounds of cost-cutting, managing to preserve a semblance of its high historic profit margins in the process — and thus further postponing the day of reckoning. For example, at the McClatchy Company, which is a pure newspaper play and good stand-in for the industry as a whole, the cash flow margin (EBITDA) in 2011 was still 25.4 percent, and it is on track to match that in 2012.
A company making that kind of EBITDA doesn’t have a big incentive to reinvent itself, which is why we haven’t seen many frequency reductions at newspapers. But one company — Advance Publications — has been moving aggressively to cut frequency at its newspapers, usually from seven days to three. Its first experiment was in 2009 in Ann Arbor, Mich., where it replaced a seven-day paper with a rebranded twice-weekly, and its most notable conversion was the New Orleans Times-Picayune in October this year. Advance has also thrown the frequency switch in Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile, Ala., and at its eight Booth newspapers in Michigan including Grand Rapids and Flint. It has announced plans to cut frequency in Harrisburg, Pa. and Syracuse, N.Y., and is in a decision process for similar cuts in Cleveland and possibly Portland, Ore. All together, this represents more than half the dailies owned by Advance.
Elsewhere, in Detroit the jointly-operated Free Press and Detroit News moved to 3-day home delivery in 2009 while still printing newsstand editions on the other days; a handful of newspapers have dropped one or two days from their weekly schedule, and in Canada, Postmedia’s Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen dropped Sunday editions this year.
But despite the continuation of healthy profit margins, I’m convinced that moves of this type are being contemplated in every newspaper company’s executive suite, and that the prime mover in these discussion is the seismic shift in readership habits brought about by tablets.
The newspaper moguls are digesting a slew of recent findings from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism: Currently about a quarter of US adults own a tablet, and nearly half own a smartphone. More than half own at least one or the other. About two-thirds of tablet and smartphone owners get news on their gadgets, with 37 percent of tablet owners getting news on it every day. And there’s much less age-related skew in this than you might imagine: 32 percent of 65+ tablet owners go to it daily for news. Moreover, Pew found that many tablet owners (31 percent) report that they spend more time with news since acquiring their device, and they report spending an average of 51 minutes — daily — consuming news their tablet (54 minutes for those who own both a tablet and a smartphone). That’s an astounding finding. Imagine what this does to the ability to sell a printed newspaper when tablet penetration triples and begins to approach 80 percent — which it is certain to do as it follows historic adoption curves for everything from AM radios to cellphones. The advertising dollars are following the eyeballs to mobile platforms.
Publishers are doing their best to hide the fact, but the zooming tablet trends are clobbering what’s left of printed newspaper subscription and single-copy sales levels, which had already been dropping at an accelerating rate since peaking in the mid-1980s. This downtrend is no longer regularly reported every six months as new “ABC FasFax” reports come out, because by lumping together the reporting for print and digital editions in the last few years, newspaper owners have engineered Audit Bureau of Circulations reporting so as to obscure the print declines. It takes a little digging now to find the print decline numbers. Alan Mutter, the Newsosaur, ran the numbers last spring when ABC reported a total print/digital combined gain of 0.7 percent, and found that in contrast to the total circulation, at the top 25 dailies, print circulation had plummeted 7.3 percent year-over-year during the six months ending March 31. I’ve rerun those numbers for the fall reporting period, and found a similar 7.9 percent decline at the top 25 dailies (Mon.-Fri.) for the six months ending Sept. 31.
Folks, I know I’m laying on a lot of statistics here, but the point is that numbers like that are not the hallmark of a sustainable business model. That’s why the Newhouse family is systematically converting their Advance Publications newspapers into two- and three-day print operations. And that’s why the rest of the industry is trying to figure out when, not if, they should follow suit. As noted, count on a lot of conversions during 2013 and an avalanche during 2014 and 2015.
It has been interesting to follow the arc of the conversation around paywalls since 2009, when Walter Isaacson urged their adoption in a Time Magazine cover story and Steve Brill launched an outfit to make them widely possible. Both of them endured considerable derision from the journoblogosphere, and indeed, adoption was cautious. Currently, some 400 papers have a paywall of some kind (which means about 1,200 are still free), with more set to impose them in 2013. That it has taken four years to get that far is an indication of the resistance to change that still permeates newspaper organizations, but you can also see how how attitudes have evolved when various analysts jump on The Washington Post for not having a paywall yet.
But. Can we really imagine a future, a few years out, where all of America’s newspapers have paywalls on websites and subscription-based apps on tablets and smartphones? Can those newspapers retain any semblance of leadership in their communities? Won’t they simply be yielding the field to Patch.com, the Huffington Post, local independent news sites and topical news sites of all stripes? Is there really nothing better than the rather simplistic metered paywall, in which you get 5, 10, or 15 stories every month, and then a pop-up that keeps you away until the first of the next month?
Well, yes, there is. The alternative is a membership model, which is far more attuned to addressing the needs of readers than any paywall. It’s nothing new — public radio and television have been doing it for decades. The Texas Tribune has very consciously followed that model with a range of membership tiers that offer monthly newsletters, online recognition, invites to receptions, “conversation series” events, and even reserved parking for events. If this works for the Austin nonprofit (and for others like MinnPost) why shouldn’t it work for for-profit local news sites?
And consider this: In the membership model, the news organization can know far more about individual subscribers than they do in a simple paywall model — ranging from detailed socioeconomic metrics to topical interests and buying habits. This in turn allows them to deliver more targeted advertising and offers, both in print and online, at higher CPMs.
Among newspapers, one pioneer on this front is the New London (Conn.) Day, which launched a membership model in Sept. 2011 and is a partner in the development of a “data-driven audience management system” with Leap Media Partners LLC, and is now lining up additional newspapers to follow the same model.
At The Day, there’s a tiered set of membership options, all of which include enrollment in the paper’s The Day Passport “membership rewards” program. Membership has its privileges, including discounts on events and services, chances to win gift cards and tickets, and (occasionally) invitations to special events.
But these membership arrangements, in my view, are just scratching the surface. Look at it this way: As a member of a community, you have certain needs. Those needs include news (knowing what’s going on), connections (to shops, restaurants, and service providers), as well as entrée (mixing and mingling in the right places). The Texas Tribune, The Day, MinnPost, and others are offering packages including those ingredients. But there’s even more to being a member of a community than that. You need recommendations and answers to questions; you want curation in the form of best bets; you want to connect socially with neighbors; you want to spend wisely and locally; you need things delivered and stored; you have personal needs ranging from exercise to art lessons. Those are your “jobs to be done,” and smart publishers can help you with them.
As Michael Skoler suggested a couple of years ago in Nieman Reports, when paywall thinking gives way to membership thinking, the business model becomes community rather than audience. “To harness this model,” Skoler wrote, “news organizations need to think of themselves first as gathering, supporting, and empowering people to be active in a community with shared values, and not primarily as creators of news that people will consume.”
Community as a business model is not a new idea. A few decades ago, some publishers (and some readers) liked to talk about their papers as “community glue.” And indeed, just about all the threads of a community connected via the printed newspaper — politics, religion, commerce, education, health, entertainment, sports, births, and deaths. Now that model is fragmented, the newspaper’s reach and connectivity is diminished. The glue has dried up. The membership approach offers a way to begin to bring the threads back together in a viable enterprise, or perhaps a network of enterprises.
Outside of print-only local newspaper readers who don’t watch TV news, does anybody still get most of their news in one place? Nearly everyone who gets news online is used to skipping from source to source, especially when hunting for more details on a breaking story. News comes to us — we don’t go to the news anymore — and it comes to us from multiple directions: social networks, blogs, aggregators, news organizations of all kinds.
So as the ecosystem around news evolves toward a membership model that solves “jobs to be done” problems for consumers, doesn’t it make sense for one of those jobs to be access to lots of news, from multiple sources, with a single sign-on — sort of an E-ZPass for news? Imagine signing into your trusted local or regional news site or app, and then having access, without any further tollbooths, to a network of news sources. This network could be one of your own choosing, or one assembled by that local news organization. In it, you’d find local and regional news sources, national and international news sources, and topical news of various kinds — sports, travel, food and wine, gardening, design, finance — whatever you select, or whatever the network infers from your behavior is interesting to you.
Disclosure: I’m a partner in CircLabs, a back-burner startup (with an out-of-date website) that aspires to supply services to such a network and is currently developing a demonstration project under a contract with the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Lab.
This can be accomplished through limited, defined, cooperative networks established by individual agreements, or by a grand, global collaborative agreement among news creators. Somewhere in the background, there’s a settlement system that allocates subscription and advertising dollars among the content suppliers (as described in my Nieman Lab suggestion for an “ASCAP for news,” (a business model to which the AP spinoff NewsRight could still make a smart pivot).
Some industry execs (like MediaNews chair Dean Singleton) have long held that the future of the newspaper is consolidation. But even with major newspaper properties selling for negligible sums (essentially the value of the real estate they own, or less), there hasn’t been much movement in that direction, nor is it clear that at the end of the day, consolidation offers any solution to the long nightmare of declining readership and advertising. Ultimately, consolidation is just a mop-up strategy — one that simply squeezes out the final remaining profits before the lights are turned out.
Given the depths to which newspapers have declined, and their overall lack of entrepreneurial spirit and investable resources, perhaps a mop-up is the only realistic thing left. But at least in some quarters, there’s hope that a collaborative strategy of networked access to content, along with the membership approach, could pay off.
Apple. Okay, fine, you finally get your iTV in 2013. It won’t “disrupt television” in the way that annoying quasi-pundits predict, but it will create new tantalizing screen experiences. Just as an iPhone is only nominally a phone, iTV will only occasionally be a television. Through gaming, voice and gesture inputs, and video communications, it will create new social experiences for group interaction. By the end of the year, you start to see iTVs in unexpected places — restaurants, karaoke clubs, airports. More than a television, it becomes a “social screen,” causing the app economy to erupt with innovation again. On the downside, people start using the phrase “the app economy” again.
“Homeland.” In a horrific moment of vengeance, writers from the show are inexplicably taken hostage by their Twitter followers. The Twitter terrorists demand rewrites of the show, which Showtime eventually succumbs to, but only after Carrie completely loses her shit.
Netflix. After all that cord-cutting bombast about unbundling HBO from subscription cable, someone observes that Netflix is adopting that exact strategy: A high-quality cable network minus cables. “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development” shockingly become must-see-tv. Steve Holt!
Rupert Murdoch. “Bloody hell,” tweets @rupertmurdoch, while announcing he’s stepping down from News Corp. Rather than hand the company down to one of his kids, Murdoch executes a complicated land-for-news swap with Ted Turner, who become the new CEO of News Corp. while Murdoch retires to Turner’s ranch in Montana. While Turner tinkers with Fox News, someone shows Murdoch the new Apple iTV and, in a dream, he becomes inspired to relaunch The Daily as an interactive cable news network. “HAS RUPERT MURDOCH NEVER HEARD OF CURRENT TV?” screeches a headline from Business Insider.
Online publishing. We continue to see the surprising emergence of broad lifestyle brands springing forth from vertical categories. Like the way Grantland is ostensibly about sports but is really about a broader pop ideology, or the way The Verge is seemingly about gadgets but is really about a lifestyle, or the way that BuzzFeed seems like it’s about everything but is actually only about everything on the Internet. In a think piece for this publication, this very pundit clumsily tries to call the publishing trend “the magazinification of verticals.” But then Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic, mysteriously dubs it “Donnie Darko Social,” which sticks because it sounds cool.
Consumer web. Finally, some new consumer web products are released that don’t rely on massive overvaluations (Tumblr, Twitter), problematic buyouts (Instagram, Skype), or contorted native advertising schemes (Facebook, Foursquare). Instead, a bunch of small- and medium-sized companies emerge whose services — hang on, this one is radical! — people are willing to pay for. It’s a miracle: People pay for things they love.
Twitter. While the chatter about disavowing the open web will go unrecognized by its peers, Twitter, a company that actually has a conscience, continues the internal battle to federalize their platform without pissing people off. Luckily for them, every other over-capitalized social media company pisses off their users more, so they win by default.
“Silicon Alley.” Bravo announces “Silicon Alley,” a new reality show about the NYC tech scene. Nielsen reports 49 total viewers, all of whom recently moved from San Francisco to New York to launch fashion startups.
“Amphetamine Logic.” On the same day, Bravo also announces a new show starring Cat Marnell. But rather than condensing her juicy life into one hour of pseudo-reality per week, they instead just hand over the whole network to livestream her entire life, 24/7. When asked about the reasoning, Andy Cohen cites what MTV2 did with Courtney Love a decade ago. Bravo vows to keep the show on until Marnell falls asleep. She last 27 days.
The New York Times. The Old Gray Lady adopts a form of so-called native advertising in which people pay for space to write op-ed pieces. Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times’ ombudswoman, has a seizure reminiscent of Claire Danes Cryface.
Tumblr. Absolutely nothing. It ends 2013 looking the same as it did in 2008.
Google. Google Glass is here! But yeah, it bombs. “[Something, something] Microsoft [something, something],” writes Anil Dash in Wired. Meanwhile, Google Fiber begins creeping into public consciousness, and by the end of the year, there’s a public outcry to get the service in more cities — but it takes a half decade to roll out to most of America.
Lena Dunham. Among her many known accomplishments, we also see: a McSweeneys-published graphic novel titled Boxed; an advice column in Glamour called “About a Girl”; a high-end line of low-thread-count sheets in Target called “Bedded”; something at Sephora called “Ick”; and an impromptu mic-dropping karaoke rap that Taylor Swift incorporates into her next album, Boys Are Dumb.
Foursquare. Nope, Apple doesn’t buy it, but they become long-term partners in data exchange and product integration, thereby alleviating monetization concerns for a couple years. Everyone is happy that Facebook doesn’t buy it and therefore destroy it. Meanwhile, Michael Bloomberg claims that holding the Foursquare mayorship of Gracie Mansion entitles him to a fourth term. A SurveyMonkey poll of New Yorkers agrees.
Yahoo. The things you expect to happen — announcing major new products, buying large startups, releasing major redesigns — don’t happen. Instead, Marissa Mayer implements incremental tweaking from the inside, which surprisingly works, and the stock climbs 30 percent by the end of the year. “It all makes sense,” observes Kara Swisher, who has run out of memos to leak. “It’s the Google Way.”
Aol. After Aol’s stock price doubles again (as it did in 2012), an “investigative report” co-authored by jealousy-engorged reporters at Business Insider and Forbes tries to determine why. They best reason anyone can supply is changing the name from AOL to Aol.
BuzzFeed. The publishing empire that seems impervious to criticism finally starts to show cracks after Jonah Peretti buys The Onion and The New York Times on the same day.
YouTube. It’s still, sadly, not the year that YouTube creates a breakthrough hit that enters in public consciousness. They continue to fund niche shows, which report incremental growth, but no one really notices. Finally, in 2014, it begins to experiment with high-quality programming, after first trying to buy HBO.
Hulu. Sad days ahead. Without the support of its owner to break free, and without the capital to innovate itself out the box, Amazon finally buys it for cheap, mostly as a massive licensing deal to combat iTV.
Gawker Media. Nick Denton releases a major standalone technology product based upon its commenting system, Kinja. When it flops, an anonymous commenter from inside the house says, “Nick has gone soft. His heart just wasn’t in it.” He fires everyone and moves to a Hungarian expat enclave in Nairobi with Nate Silver.
Facebook. On December 31, 2013, the stock closes at an all-time high of $38.01, exactly one penny above its opening day price. “Victory,” writes @peterthiel in his first tweet ever. It is quickly retweeted by @sparker, adding “w00t.”
Newsrooms have come a long way since the time they were just wooden desks with typewriters on top, booze in the drawers, and reporters and editors rushing around deciding what the populace should read. In 2013, it will be increasingly clear that the newsroom will not be a staging area for the day’s news, as it has been for a century, where the day’s events are hunted down and wrangled into well-defined paragraphs, with the occasional graphic or sound file to go along.
The model for the new journalism, as it develops in 2013, will not be the old journalism, which is still based on the revenue models and layout of a newspaper. Mobile — where readers are growing — has killed that.
Newsrooms will be less about the day’s news — much of which has already been taken out of our hands by the 24-hour, minute-by-minute news cycle — and become more like a war room, or a science lab, where teams of researchers think about how to contextualize, present, illustrate, and spread key information, whether it happened that day or not.
The model will be more like science, or education: Journalists will be paid not for scoops, but for contextualizing information, organizing it in a way that serves the reader, and presenting it in multiple media. A news homepage will — or should — look more like a periodic table, with small boxes of usable information grouped by kind, not by publication date. That will eventually replace the vertical and unwieldy story-by-story format of many current sites, which are ruled mostly by temporal concerns of “what is the news now.” Instead of “news,” journalism will be about “emphasis,” and each journalistic organization will define itself by how it defines “emphasis.” Advertisers, in turn, will have a clearer idea about audience reach.
A relative minority of those teams in newsrooms, by the way, will be “journalists” as they have been defined so far, with a background in newsgathering and reporting. Instead, prominent roles will be played — as they have been already — by interactive departments, social media experts, programmers, video experts, audio experts, and others with technical expertise. A journalist will be, to use a euphemism, “an information worker” or “an idea worker,” so that everyone in newsrooms, from programmers to engineers to copy editors to designers, will have to become trained in how to treat content responsibly. There has already been significant progress toward “multimedia” newsrooms, but in many places the silos are still clear: Journalists dig up information and then the proper interactive, video, or audio folks create a template to suit that information. It hasn’t gone as far as it has yet to go.
Rise of the storytelling sites: 2013 should be an interesting year for online narrative, with Ev Williams’ Medium asking members to post around a prompt and Jonathan Harris’ open-ended Cowbird. One of Cowbird’s many features is the “retelling” — similar to reblogging on Tumblr — and a “serendipity” option that encourages those in the site to wander. News sites haven’t nailed integrating readers’ emotional response to stories yet, so storytelling is the new geo- and may be layered on, then integrated, then ultimately no longer a feature in a few years.
Explainers: Moving beyond mansplaining, explainers prefacing sections and breaking events will include more links to different outlets’ coverage. Timelines will be prettier and less likely to crash a browser. Data journalism will continue to show, not tell stories, perhaps with cheekier names à la NPR’s election Big Board. The desire for interactive graphics with a high human resource cost will continue to stymie leaner news organizations.
We Tumblr for you: Editorial tone remains critical to success on external content platforms; queueing up timely posts for optimal reader sharing and transparency around the identity of hosts/curators/sherpas will hold strong as social strategies to build news brand trust in 2013.
The supercuts of our lives: Is this what listicle content diets roll up into? The interest in Timehop and One Second Everyday app suggests that our tenuous grasp on ephemeral personal data collected on mobile in 2012 still needs to be managed, and that content filters continue to feature either a same-day parameter or same-year goalposts.
In 2013, clustering data points in news may lead further into clustering content in all formats including video on a given topic page. Cable news supercuts will go forth from “The Daily Show” and prosper in truth-telling assists, debunking hoax photos, assertions, and Morgan Freeman quotations.
Cameras and crossposting: Much of 2012 has been about pulling photos out of Instagram (not as easy until the web profiles launched), sorting photos into meaningful sets (try Swirl), and returning to update Flickr contacts, with the launch of a robust mobile app as a holiday gift. For journalism, the Flickr refresh means many more recent photos to pull from within the full spectrum of Creative Commons licenses. In 2013, Instagram will become even more like Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo, as television news screenshots and mugshots mix with picnic tableaux. Stenography aligns with steganography.
Ain’t no party like a GIF party: During the Olympics, GIF guides (especially of the U.S. gymnastics team from The Atlantic’s Elspeth Reeve) were the best way to catch big moments, as NBC’s televised coverage followed a time-delayed, prime-time programming schedule from the “Mad Men” era; even as spoilers, the best GIF medleys were highlight reels that prefigured YouTube clips. During the U.S. elections, GIFs were a way to participate in political memes. The overabundance of political GIFs during debate nights filled Tumblr dashboards (Facebook doesn’t support gifs) and the GIFs that spread widest were a useful gauge of interest in a certain political position or expression. For journalists in 2013, GIFs may continue their annotating march as a tl;dr nod preceding longer features.
Slowed journalism: While slow journalism is a reaction to the accelerated news cycle, the nearer term may see wide journalism, as outlets try to throttle search results by covering every angle of a story. Throttling infrastructure capabilities, super weather storms will continue in 2013, downing servers and upping fail aquaculture of all sizes — to say nothing of repressive governments flipping off the Internet switch when their citizens’ voices conflict with their agenda.
As Anil Dash points out, if a certain global web service is your entire online experience, or even if two or three together are your online world (remember the late June storm that knocked out the Northern Virginia Amazon data center for Instagram, Pinterest, and Heroku?), when those sites go offline, and especially when the outage isn’t related to your local weather, then you are fresh out of Internet. Maybe in 2013, we will finally learn how to play nice.
It’s enough to give even the bravest forecaster triskaidekaphobia trepidation, but let me assert 10 predictions for the year ahead.
The wall-to-wall coverage generated by the Sandy Hook elementary shooting elicited empathy and compassion from even the world’s most jaded and objective journalists, but also evoked some soul searching and uncomfortable analysis from many of us, particularly journalists of color. As I noted in my own coverage of the tragedy, while 26 people were murdered in one day in Newtown, equally tragic are the 26 people shot, and two killed, in one night in Chicago this summer. Those shootings did not elicit similar wall-to-wall, worldwide coverage, and many media critics, as well as those of us in the media who are people of color, have been forced yet again to examine the role that class and race play in who and what we choose to cover and how much we cover what we choose to.
There was much hope generated by the election of the first black president four years ago, with many unrealistically presuming he would solve all of America’s remaining racial ills. While that was not a fair burden to place on President Barack Obama or his administration, it did seem fair to anticipate that coverage of a black president would result in more diversity in the overall subjects we the media cover. Yet despite the fact that gun violence has long been a leading cause of death of young black men, and despite the fact that the president is from a city that has experienced some of the worst gun violence in America in the last year, it still took gun violence affecting a predominantly white community to generate extensive coverage of the topic.
I predict this will change in 2013. The reason? Because with his re-election safely in the rearview, President Obama will no longer feel encumbered by the politics of discussing race and racial issues as he did in his first term. As a result, the media will likely be privy to much more candid discussions of complicated policy issues — many of them having to do with race in some way, such as gun violence, the epidemic of black male unemployment, race-based health disparities, racial profiling, and many others — and as a result it will be more likely to cover them. Additionally, 2013 will mark a historic one for civil rights. Both the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks will be commemorated, ensuring the media revisits our country’s evolution on civil rights and where we stand today. Such coverage will be good not only for journalism, but frankly for our country.
News organizations will focus on monetization of their audience through paid content and premium membership rather than advertising.
Even as online and mobile audiences continue to increase, the value of online advertising will remain stagnant, or even decline. Other organizations will see what The New York Times has done, with their newly announced digital book line, and will consider how they can thoughtfully package and sell their content to audiences in new ways and through new distribution partners or channels.
However, the type of paywalls that Gannett and others have erected (or will soon put into place) will not be recognized as successful by the end of 2013, primarily because they aren’t providing readers with content worth paying for — and at the moment, such paywalls exist only to buy time. While there is another model that shows promise — a reverse paywall, along the lines of what Matthew Ingram suggested in his piece about following the Reddit model — many news organizations will not be able to innovate in such a way, due to decreased investment and lack of patience (and lack of community-mindedness) for such a model to pay off.
Three words: mobile, location, and data.
The mobile device is becoming ubiquitous. The statistics speak volumes:
In 2013, we’ll see:
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, about 74 percent of smartphone owners access location-based information on their phone. Services like Foursquare and Google Maps are just the beginning of what is possible in providing location-aware services that allow mobile phone owners to see how location can provide different meaning and context for daily experiences.
In 2013, we will see more mobile apps with location-aware services. We will see more apps being developed in 2013 that will allow the user to incorporate their location into using the app and getting information — whether that is by zip code, address, or landmark. The developers of these apps most likely will come from outside the news industry — and driven by specific brands and/or products. This will pose a unique challenge to news organizations to innovate in order to keep pace.
Data was the star in 2012 and will continue to be big in 2013. The difference will be the power of mapping data. We have seen the beginnings of how powerful data can be when mapped as part of a story or news coverage ranging from mapping crime data to location (at the street level) to mapping presidential election results to location (at the district, city, state, and national levels). In 2013, we will see:
One of the bellwether “scandals” to hit journalism in 2012 was the dramatic fall of hyperlocal syndicator Journatic, which helps publishers cut costs by streamlining and outsourcing the production of rote local news stories. When NPR’s This American Life took a microscope to Journatic’s practices in late June, the company was revealed to have employed fake bylines on its sister site, Blockshopper — and many news stories for local American newspapers and sites it served were being routed through low-pay freelancers in countries like the Philippines.
In the wake of the story, Journatic lost a number of contracts with newspaper companies like Tribune, Sun-Times Media, Gatehouse, and others, who said that the service wasn’t living up their their standards (Tribune recently resumed working with the company). Meanwhile, journalism moralists wrung their hands about the degraded news product wrought by the Internet age. But the economics of local online journalism have been pointing in the same direction for a long time, and it’s clear that the economic efficiency Journatic espouses is, at least in some part, where journalism is heading in 2013.
While we at Street Fight of course don’t condone Journatic’s fake bylines or the more egregious outsourcing practices brought to light by the scandal, one thing that’s clear is that local journalism, when produced by full-time, professional journalists, is expensive — possibly too expensive to justify the revenues for many kinds of stories. Just ask AOL’s Patch, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its 850-plus local news sites around the country, so far achieving only modest returns.
Meanwhile, the CPM rates and niche pageviews generated by local (and hyperlocal) content aren’t nearly enough to make the numbers compute. Local news organizations no longer have the luxury of throwing skilled reporters at procedural news stories that are only important to niche groups — but that doesn’t mean those stories shouldn’t be produced in some fashion.
The focus on automation and more-efficient online information by companies like Journatic will produce a form of local publishing that is sustainable — online stories that will attract pageviews and provide local information in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be worth the cost to publishers. And what’s more, when the table stakes are handled by outsourced providers such as these, it perhaps leaves publishers with the luxury of spending more editorial time on the kind of quality stories that can help define and strengthen the voice of that site in a community. That seems like a good thing.
Put yourself in the shoes of the audience. This is the real challenge for journalists in 2013.
I’m not sure if journalists will do it or not, so this is not exactly a prediction. I do know it’s necessary. It’s more necessary than a business model, because if no one wants what you’re selling, you won’t be able to sell anything.
It’s not the people who come to the newspaper website every morning that journalists need to worry about. They’re coming no matter what. And it’s not the people who already subscribe to Nicholas Kristof on Facebook or Anderson Cooper on Twitter. The news junkies will seek out the news, even on a slow news day.
If you talk to people with no connection to the journalism business, they’ll usually tell you they get news online.
They’re not lying.
But they don’t take the same approach to news that a news junkie takes. They’re not trying to stay up to date on Syria, or the fiscal cliff. They may be following closely everything relevant to their fantasy football. Lots of college students regularly check sites such as IGN for news about video games. These are their newsgathering behaviors.
If you’re a journalist and you’re sneering right now, this is what I’m talking about. Put yourself in the shoes of the audience. Syria is far away, and the fiscal cliff is something over which the average citizen has no control.
Then consider that for a few days in mid-December 2012, people all over the world searched for news about a small town in Connecticut where more than two dozen human beings, most of them children, were shot and killed in an elementary school.
We know that both Google and social networks bring people to news sites. We all follow links that sound interesting or that promise to amuse us. When we search, we have all kinds of reasons, including to find information about something we heard teased on TV for the 11 o’clock news.
And then what? Put yourself in the shoes of the audience.
When people arrive at that page, if it’s on a traditional news site (mobile or web), what other kinds of content are available to them? Will they find themselves getting lured in to some other interesting stories? Usually, no. The content they came for will be surrounded by repulsive ads and lists of random “latest news” headlines.
I’ve been thinking a lot about single-article sales and small Internet publications and subcompact publishing. If an article page was a place that did not offer us 300 navigation choices and 25 butt-ugly ads, but instead provided several appealing doorways to a diverse selection of high-quality content, what would be the result?
What if instead of that hideous local real estate ad, there was a gorgeous photo, and clicking it took us to a wonderful photojournalism story? And what if the photo story was a teaser for a longer story (with more great photos) that you could download (in multiple formats) for a dollar?
Put yourself in the shoes of the audience.
When the judges and juries sit down in early 2014 to review the journalism entries for the Pulitzer Prize, they’ll be awash with some of the highest caliber submissions in decades. It is this author’s humble opinion that 2013 will be remembered as the year investigative and beat reporting makes a comeback.
This past year, I had the privilege of studying with Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen. We tried to apply his theories of disruption to the media industry. We outlined our research in the Nieman Reports article “Breaking News.”
I’m bullish on high-quality journalism because, as the dust settles, we’ll see traditional news organizations move further up-market, investing in the kind of journalism and story telling people will pay for. We’ll also see disruptive news organizations further establish themselves as forces to be reckoned with, moving into the space abandoned by those news organizations that have cut back on in-depth reporting.
Let’s start with the traditional news organizations.
What began as a trickle with The New York Times instituting their metered-model paywall in March 2011 turned into a flood in 2012. More than 300 newspapers in the United States now charge for online content. That number has doubled in just one year.
What these news organizations are realizing is that you can’t charge for content that is available elsewhere for free. For these pay models to work, traditional news organizations need to make sure that they are satisfying the jobs that audiences, through their subscriptions, effectively hire news organizations to fulfill. At a most basic level, this means providing what Jim Moroney from The Dallas Morning News calls PICA: perspective, interpretation, context, and analysis.
In 2013, when the initial subscription results from all those paywalls comes in, those news organizations will recognize that they have no choice but to produce high-end journalism that stands out above the crowd. They’ll need to better satisfy their audiences’ jobs-to-be-done, and that means investing in high quality, in-depth reporting.
Now let’s turn to the disruptors.
They’ve been riding high for several years. It’s easy to cheaply aggregate and curate original journalism when others are investing in the resources necessary to generate those pageviews. But the days of “link bait” are coming to an end.
The disruptors have themselves been disrupted. A cursory Google search on the news story of your choice shows that virtually every media organization is now in the curation game. The challenge for these aggregators is that drastic cutbacks in many of those traditional newsrooms mean they can no longer rely on traditional newsrooms to do the heavy lifting. In order to stand out, the disruptors now need to invest in some original reporting of their own.
We’ve already seen this happen with The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Gawker. They’ve launched impressive original content verticals, not because they’ve wanted to (although no doubt their intentions are noble), but because they’ve had to fill the vacuum left by diminishing providers of original content. Disruption theory argues that they’ll continue to move up market. They have no choice because as they grow, they need to further increase their audiences.
2013 will be a unique snapshot in time: the incumbents, fighting to stave off the disruptors, will invest in original journalism, and the disruptors, fighting to increase their market share, will also invest in original journalism. This is great news for all of us.
Making predictions is a dangerous game, especially in a world where an article will live on for all to see. But my prediction is based on a theory, an underlying understanding of what causes what and why. Understanding Christensen’s theories and how they apply to journalism is about as close to predicting the future as one can get. For example, those familiar with how the automobile industry was disrupted by low-end manufacturers like Toyota, and recently, Hyundai and Kia, know that what happened was exactly what Christensen predicted. Here’s hoping that these theories apply equally as well to journalism. If they do, 2013 will be the next great year for all of us.
All last weekend, the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has played out on what feels like every news outlet. The faces of the dead, their stories, their lives seem to be everywhere. Also ubiquitous: the questions of what happens next. How do we heal? How do we prevent this from happening again? What can we do?
The depth of our sadness is equal to our need to prevent these tragedies. Whether our preferred solutions are gun control, accessible mental health treatment, improved school security, or something else, it’s clear that right now, across the United States, we are having these conversations with our friends, families, and communities.
It’s a positive sign that the media is paying attention and participating in these conversations, too. In less than a week, we’ve seen polling from The Washington Post, poll analysis from The Huffington Post, a mass shootings map and timeline from Mother Jones, a state-by-state breakdown of gun control from The Globe and Mail, facts on mass shootings from The Washington Post’s WonkBlog, and sensitive, deep reporting from the Christian Science Monitor including ways to helpand an attempt to find answers.
These are examples of what the birth of mainstream “solutions journalism” looks like from the ground floor of crisis. It’s reporting that seeks to build context and community around a politically and emotionally charged subject. It is journalism that engages in meaningful conversation.
My prediction for 2013: What we learn from our approach to the Sandy Hook shooting will inform our approach to many key social issues on the front burner in 2013: immigration, healthcare, and now gun control.
Solutions journalism typically refers to reporting that focuses on solutions to community problems, offering up ideas for change. When done right, it does more than turn a beat’s focus to the betterment of the future. It builds community by sharing the tools necessary to have a conversation and creating an open space for that conversation to happen, much as we’re beginning to see in coverage of Sandy Hook.
What could a solutions journalism response, grounded in context and community-based reporting, to major issues of 2013 look like? It would rely on four criteria:
Reporting. Community building. Commitment. Smarter applications of these traditional reporting techniques have the ability to cement solutions journalism into the mainstream, and to transform the ways we cover some of the most serious issues in the coming year.
More importantly, this contextual, community-centric approach has the ability to raise the level of conversation and build understanding and consensus around volatile subjects. It’s important for the community of Sandy Hook Elementary. And it’s important for building an engaged democracy.
The approach that large traditional news organizations take in breaking news needs to be re-thought in the age of social media. Hurricane Sandy provided an example of how resources are often wasted by journalism organizations during breaking-news events while also demonstrating how vital authenticating coverage can be.
There were reporters standing on various shorelines letting us know that there was is a hurricane making landfall. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of YouTube videos were being uploaded and Twitter was a frenzy of micro-updates on the situation. Obviously, not all of this content was reliable, but these reports create a vibrant, real-time environment of news that mattered to people in a way that even a collection of large organizations could not accomplish.
What is needed are newsrooms that can filter, verify, curate, and amplify social media for their audiences, in addition to journalists reporting in enterprising and contextual ways. Andy Carvin at NPR excelled at this during coverage of the Middle East and I think we should and will see more of it in 2013.
We live in a time of unprecedented access to entertainment, news, information — even to each other. But that access requires navigating a digital labyrinth, with toll booths, hidden doors, gates that only open in one direction, false exits, and misleading turns — along with some clear paths and dazzling topiary. I wish I could say that will get easier in 2013. It won’t. And if there’s one prediction I feel safe in making, clarity isn’t even in our mid-range future. Why? Three reasons:
Or more bluntly, the need to make it. That applies to traditional media businesses, Internet powerhouses, and nimble startups alike. (On the most basic level, the folks who produce cat videos and sunset photos still have to get devices and someone has to pay for or subsidize storage and distribution.) Nearly all rely on advertising, subscriptions, sales, licensing/syndication, or a mix of those to make money with some other revenue sources sprinkled in. How they manage those revenue streams governs much of what we can access.
That is not new to the digital age; relatively few cable networks are fully distributed, for instance, and programming packages were sold at different levels long before we started watching TV on cellphones. Studios made exclusive deals with premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Starz. Wire services were for members and clients. But digital makes it different by opening options for consumers, creators, and distributors across devices and platforms. As any regular reader here knows, the increasing reliance on digital also changes the economic structure, as people shift access points.
Traditional players like The New York Times or the part of CBS that makes the most money have to balance between getting as much income as possible from their legacy media for as long as possible with finding ways both to make the most from digital and make up for the gap. That takes us to rights deals that may block access for a day, a week, or to everyone except subscribers to certain services. It means paying for access after 10 or 20 articles, finding other ways in, changing news providers, or perhaps answering a question to read an article. We can pay to watch out-of-market MLB.com games at home; we can watch all the play at Wimbledon from anywhere in the U.S. if we pay a provider who has a deal with ESPN and have the right apps on the right devices.
The “get an audience first, money will follow” startups add to the uncertainty, especially when the ways that money might be made aren’t spelled out well from the start. In the most recent public example, a number of Instagram users deleted their accounts rather than accept terms of service related to possible future advertising plans, leaving in their wake myriad broken links and gaps. Features, products, and entire companies disappear when reality doesn’t make enough money to match the audience or fulfill the funding — leaving disappointed, sometimes disoriented users behind. Pivots leave divots to trip over.
Without money to produce, store, or distribute, content has a hard time surviving and good content has a harder time getting made at all. One of the biggest pluses of 2012 has been the use of crowdfunding for a wide range of niche projects, from Plympton’s serial books to Read Matter’s longform science writing and a lot of video. In 2013, we’ll get a better sense of how crowdfunding is faring, as well as the beyond-Kickstarter viability for those tapping in.
A lot of content is available in digital format. A lot isn’t. My 12-year-old niece wanted to read To Kill a Mockingbird on her Nook or her mom’s Kindle. Companion story guides can be downloaded, but the actual Harper Lee classic isn’t available in digital — legally. She stuck with the paperback. Some of this is the whim of the author: Ray Bradbury withheld permission to digitize most of his work until just before his death earlier this year; now HarperCollins is producing a digital backlist. His editor at HarperCollins, Jennifer Brehl, told me soon after his death she’d urged him “to step boldly into the future” and he finally agreed. All of the books will be available to libraries, even if the publisher’s policy for other authors and titles doesn’t match. Some rights are too difficult to obtain retroactively (“China Beach” isn’t on legal DVDs yet let alone streaming).
Even when books, movies, or songs are digitized, availability isn’t guaranteed. A movie Netflix offers today might be out of the rotation next month, based on the studio deal. A publisher might only allow some libraries to get some titles or allow lending only in certain device-linked formats. Titles might be exclusive to Amazon or Nook. You can make MP3s out of Beatles CDs, but you can only buy the songs digitally through iTunes. You can share an article from a news site, but not everything in its app. The CBS-Vevo concert series “Live on Letterman” can be watched live through Google Chrome on a PC, but not through Google Chrome on Google TV. Pay in the U.S., and you might not be able to watch in Germany. Trying to insure offline access to cloud-based media or that downloads will play can be like playing a shell game, sometimes without anything in the shells. Forget to sync? It could be a long, silent plane ride.
Tech advances make it easier for us to get anything anywhere — but also easier to control what we can get, when, and how, unless you are more into hacking than the average consumer. Tech decisions like blocking Flash from an operating system or skipping walled-garden apps for browser-based HTML5 change who can get access and how or what is available where. The single most important decision News Corp. made in launching The Daily was to plant it in the walled garden of iOS. Nearly everything else — the cost, the early delivery problems, the lack of the right kind of exposure, and ultimately, its demise — stemmed from that.
One way for consumers to get through the labyrinth is to find an ecosystem and stick with it, accepting the limitations from the start and knowing that more are coming. It’s reductive but alluring. You can play device and subscription roulette, hoping that the mix you pull together covers allow the options you care about.
You may get satisfaction but you probably won’t get everything you want where you want it — even if you’re willing to pay — in 2013.
The coming year will feature a surge in evidence-based journalism.
A high point of this month’s NewsFoo gathering of journalists and technologists was a call to quality by a prominent non-journalist. Asked what advice he had for the craft, Harper Reed, chief technology officer for the Obama campaign, said “Fucking do math.”
In 2013, journalists will start seriously doing math. This isn’t just about the embarrassments of the 2012 election campaign, when so many top media pundits — not just politicians — went with their gut instead of the numbers and looked like idiots on Election Day. Nate Silver’s solid statistical analyses demonstrated more than the value of numbers, however. This was about evidence.
Caring about evidence will mean several things. In doing the math, journalists will tell their audiences what the data show on a given topic, and explain nuances such as relative risk. For example, when reporting a medical finding allegedly showing a correlation between some new pharmaceutical and higher incidences of rare cancers, they’ll note that the odds of any single person getting the disease were vanishingly small in the first place — and they’ll dig hard to find out whether a drug company that stands to gain from this finding also paid for the study.
Local TV news programs will stop leading every show with violent crime and explain to their audiences that, actually, the crime rate has been plummeting in most places for several decades. And articles about climate change (assuming it returns to the public agenda) will note the overwhelming scientific consensus that (a) the planet is getting warmer, (b) this could have catastrophic consequences, and (c) humans are causing a significant amount of the change. That will lead to another welcome change: Climate change reports won’t feature skeptics nearly as often.
Indeed, journalists in all arenas — politics in particular — will stop quoting “both sides” of issues when one side is lying, or at least they’ll feel obliged to tell their audiences that one side is lying. Their sources will be upset in many cases, but there will be an added benefit here as well: Once it becomes clear that news media plan to hold the powerful accountable, journalists will forfeit their coziness with the powers-that-be in politics, business, and other fields.
The rise of evidence-based journalism will be a breath of fresh air, especially in politics, and will be good for media organizations’ bottom lines, too. As the volume of information rises, the value of any individual piece of information becomes more and more questionable, and the journalists who do the math will have more credibility. When enough news consumers are hopelessly confused — or have been burned by low-quality information — they’ll retreat to quality.
(As always, this reflects my hope more than my expectation. Call me an optimist.)
Next year, I expect to see more people taking a hard look at whether — and when — paywalls really work. We have seen evidence that they generate revenue (but not nearly enough) at the biggest sites, but I am not sure what the takeaway is for the local level. The harsh reality that hackfests, news startups without business models, and open source and hacker journalism will not provide any financial opportunity may be more clear, even if all this work leads to more reinvention in journalism.
The long slow bleed of money, advertising, and resources from newspapers will continue, and we will see (in less obvious ways) similar patterns emerge for network news. People are excited about partisan and hyper-involved cable news viewers as revenue streams (and niche viewers), but we need to remember just how small, ultimately, these audiences are in the grand scheme. (Fox News averages about 2 million viewers in prime time versus about 20 million or so for the networks.)
To me, the question about partisanship is deeply concerning as these folks (on both sides) are information-seekers, while the majority of people tend to become most involved when an issue presents itself as relevant to their daily life (think the Connecticut school shooting and gun law debates). These information-seeking behaviors are deeply concerning — especially when we think about a decrease in the availability of quality local news. (If, of course, that news indeed was quality to begin with — a presumption we must question.)
It seems to me that David Carr is always right on, and his most recent column suggests a pattern that we will be increasingly cognizant of: that niche is useful — if not hamstery, and can succeed if it isn’t — because it’s niche. But online advertising is still fleeting, and no amount of social metrics canoodling, in my view, is likely to change that — even for Facebook. I would be delighted to be wrong about this.
Surging interest in “content marketing” among brands will open up important revenue opportunities for people trained as journalists, and reinforce the broad importance of storytelling, writing and multimedia production skills in today’s economy. At this point, even more traditional marketers and small businesses have embraced the need for social media and digital strategies, but I think soon a wider number will join thought leaders in recognizing that just having a Twitter account or blog is not enough — to engage customers you need something interesting and relevant to put there, and that’s not so easy to do. Indeed, an October survey of marketers found that while 92 percent had embraced “social marketing,” their second-biggest concern next to measuring ROI was the difficulty producing a constant stream of fresh content.
It wasn’t long ago when the a phrase like “content marketing” would have made me reach for the nearest trash can, but the simple fact is journalism needs diverse revenue sources, and as Chris Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky point out in the recent Tow Center report on Post-Industrial Journalism, advertising is simply not going to be able to support the news gathering we need going forward. How content marketing fits into the journalism mix exactly I’m not sure, but maybe it offers opportunities for either organizations or individual journalists working as freelancers to (a) subsidize traditional, hard-hitting investigative reporting and/or (b) find ways to tell important stories with brand backing and heaping doses of transparency.
I’m a journalism professor, so I’m biased, but I also think this trend augers well for the sustainability for journalism education. The skills we teach remain not only important but also marketable.
I’d also note that marketers are, like journalists, just on the tip of the iceberg in terms of really embracing mobile strategies, and there will be opportunities for more and better content creation in that realm going forward as well.
It’s not news that news organizations are beginning to shift some of their attention away from pageviews and toward building an engaged and loyal audience. But based on my research with Jonathan Groves of Drury University, I think 2013 and coming years will see an increased awareness among journalists that they must not only give their readers news where and when and how they want it, but also build a community around it with a sustained commitment to a more participatory style of journalism.
This prescription has been widely discussed, but as other researchers have also documented, there remains widespread resistance in newsrooms to a more active audience. Truly participatory journalism is difficult, time-consuming, and messy, but organizations seeking engagement can’t rely on the production and distribution of great content or the capricious whims of search-driven traffic alone.
Where others look to Mary Meeker or a bunch of supposedly digitally savvy journalists to understand the future of technology and its impact on our culture, I look to my mother. Three years ago, she joined Facebook. After the inevitable there-goes-the-neighborhood jokes (no doubt the same ones made behind my back a few years earlier, when they let in professionals like me with dot-com email addresses), I came to understand that online social networks are not separate from real life. They are part of it.
This month, my mother finally ditched her “feature phone” for an iPhone 4S. Usually I buy her books for Hanukkah, but that stopped when she got herself a Kindle — so this year I offered to set up the phone, load it with apps, and show her how to use them. So 2013 will be the year when my mother starts to get news on her phone. By extension, the public is no longer seeing mobile devices as novelties: They are becoming a normal, convenient, and unsurprising tool for getting information and analysis, so much so that this sentence might seem too obvious to type in 12 months’ time.
If the previous sentence already seems obvious, remember that you are a Nieman Lab reader and your voracious mobile news consumption routine (or mine: Tweetbot; the occasional New York Times notification for breaking news; ScoreCenter for Knicks scores and trades; Downcast for listening to On the Media while I run; a handful of email newsletters; Instapaper for things I find there and on Twitter) probably isn’t a good template for my mother, at least not now. When I showed my parents the YouTube video of the substation explosion that knocked out their power when Sandy came through, I did it on my iPhone and it was almost like doing a magic trick. She does not recoil in skeumorphobic horror at the thought of a wood-shelved rendering of a Newsstand; she wants to know what it’s for.
She wasn’t looking for news when she bought a smartphone. She thinks of it as a better cameraphone and address book that has a calendar and email. Plus there are apps, and those will be the gateway to her mobile news experience. She’s got NPR on every radio in the house, so we’ll download that one. Then there are the apps from print titles that I know she trusts (The New York Times, The New Yorker, Consumer Reports), where I see to it that her subscriptions get connected. I will get her a free trial subscription to The Awl: Weekend Companion, a new app published by my new company, because she would like pieces such as the one on crossword economics — but if family loyalty is the only thing keeping her getting it, there are forthcoming 29th Street Publishing titles that I’m sure will fit her interests. I will show her how to bookmark web sites as tiles on her home screen, and I will nudge her toward time-shifted reading and podcasting, but I know she has a lot of other things to read and listen to, and habits are hard to change, until they do.
I can’t sit over her shoulder all of the time, so mostly she’ll be on her own. Over the course of the year, her friends and my sister and I will send text messages and emails with links in them, and those will lead her in new directions. And then something big will happen — I hope not too catastrophic, but there’s always something — and that event will cause further change, even if cellphone service is disrupted for a while.
I don’t know what my mother will be doing with her phone a year from now. All I know is it will have become part of her, and those of us who gather information, tell stories that help make sense of it, and deliver them to her and to the rest of the public have to be there.
Every content producer hopes to publish a story that has a killer headline and is produced so well that that a consumer can’t help but to engage with it and share it with others. In the second half of 2012, some publishers began publishing exceptional — though sponsored — content. It was a seamless experience and every bit as good as what consumers might find elsewhere on that same website, though it was clearly written for or produced by a paid advertiser. See BuzzFeed, Gawker, and Forbes BrandVoice. To be sure, a successful strategy requires a dedicated in-house team to write copy and package content that reflects the same voice, ethos, and design as the site.
In 2013, many organizations will focus on aggregation to produce more content for their channels with fewer staff resources. NewsCred, Percolate, and Magnify are just a few of the existing startups promising to provide rich content for websites, while dozens more are launching Q1/Q2. A successful aggregation strategy must rely on editorial curation rather than algorithm alone. And it should dutifully credit those from whom an idea originated. I recommend reading The Curator’s Code for insights on how best to credit aggregated content.
During the 2012 campaign and election, some verification initiatives, such as MIT’s SuperPACApp, showed how critical information could be revealed in real time. With a proliferation of social networks, new websites, and a faster-than-ever news cycle, consumers are having difficulty discerning which stories can be trusted. At the same time, they are motivated to look for credible information and to learn more about the sources behind the content they consume.
From iris scans to eye-tracking cameras, 2013 will be the year of the eyeball. New startups already have prototypes that can identify us by simply scanning our eyes. Some police jurisdictions in the U.S. have already deployed similar technology, while other companies are creating personal security systems (software that unlocks a mobile phone only after positive authentication via an iris scan). Researchers in Copenhagen have developed an eye-controlled tablet for anyone to use. After passing an infrared light to the user, a smartphone or tablet’s camera can be operated by moving the eye. This system promises to help those with disabilities. It will also aid night owls read silently next to their sleeping partners.
Many people spend countless hours browsing for recipes online. Once they send a recipe to their tablet or smartphone and they’re in the kitchen cooking, home chefs face a universal problem: How can they scroll through the instructions without dirtying the screen? A few companies launched innovative fixes in the past year, from a single large button intended for the elbow to a modified screen with all of the information in one place. Next year, we should see the integration of gesture-based computing, offering consumers the option to wave their hand over a phone or tablet’s camera to advance to additional screens. We’ve already seen great success with gesture-based games in the Microsoft Kinect and PS3.
I think that one of the most exciting devices launched in 2012 was Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, which offers an E Ink display that works regardless of direct light. E Ink, which is actually the name of a proprietary product rather than the technology itself (think “Kleenex” vs. “tissue”), is powering numerous devices, from ereaders to watches to retail displays. Early in 2013, smart credit cards that can display real-time account information will launch in Asia, while a startup called PopSLATE will begin offering a second E Ink screen that can be attached to the back of a smartphone to double the display capacity. There’s even a concept baseball glove that shows the speed of a fastball and sends pitch signals to the catcher in total secrecy.
In 2012, cellular companies turned us each into invisible hotspots. Next year, many startups will do what previously seemed impossible: transform us each into walking, charging batteries. Early in 2013, the Everpurse will begin shipping its line of battery-powered handbags which include a charging station hidden in a secret compartment. Power Felt, another startup, offers a thermoelectric layer that transforms our body’s natural heat into enough energy to power a mobile phone. Simply slide your modified phone into your pocket and prevent battery depletion. Speaking of pockets: The new Fitbit One is so tiny it easily gets lost in pockets. But it offers big personal data possibilities. This device tracks steps and stairs climbed, vibrates to remind the wearer to get up and walk and synchs wirelessly across phones and computers. There are a number of affordable personal sensors coming to the market that will track energy burned, quality of sleep, and even posture. Information can be saved to a private web page or shared with the outside world for additional motivation.
We are storing more and more information in personal clouds. Between Dropbox, Google, and Evernote, we can easily conduct business, share photos, and maintain our personal calendars without having to own a computer. While we rely more on personal clouds, it will be increasingly important to maintain clean, searchable data and to protect our accounts. In 2013, there will be a new crop of search tools helping us to search through our own cloud-based information. We’ll also see different options to safeguard our sensitive files from unwanted eyes — and to ensure that content isn’t accidentally deleted or corrupted. Demand for both search and protection will increase throughout the year.
Quality will be rewarded in 2013. There will be a renewed focus on longform digital storytelling of the sort you’re already seeing at companies like Vox Media and ProPublica. My boss, Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff, touched on this in a post on LinkedIn titled, “Substance Is Viral: The Rise of High Value Digital Journalism and Storytelling,” and the most important takeaway is that “Consumers want to be proud of what they share.”
Lists and quick takes have a place in 2013, just as 30-minute sitcoms and dramedies will always have a place on television. They make you feel good. But there will always be a demand for a higher level of content that makes you think, react, and reflect on a deeper level. It’s fun to watch shows like “Revenge” and “Vegas,” but they’re not rewarding or challenging the way shows like “Mad Men” or “Homeland” are. This second category of shows inspires real conversation, debate, and introspection, and ultimately, we like to talk about that much more. There is a place for both “Revenge” and “Mad Men” in a 2013 world, and they both matter — but only one will really stay with us.
Twitter personalities are the new morning television anchors. The days of waking up and getting the news from Katie Couric and Matt Lauer on “The Today Show” are long gone. Now the news begins before you turn on the TV, and the delivery mechanism, your smartphone, is the first thing you check when you wake up. Broadcast anchors like Katie and Matt have been replaced by your personally curated go-to Twitter feeds — the people you rely on for the news. Best of all, it’s 24-hour programming. Take someone like Andrew Sullivan who has built a media empire off his name. He has a following that travels with him from his Twitter feed to The Daily Beast to television hits and beyond.
The biggest change in this focus on personalities is that people no longer need establishment news organizations behind them in order to build a following or credibility. It’s not about whom you work for — it’s about who you are and what you’ve built. Social media has given us a new lens into the lives of the people we get our news from, which allows the individual to stand alone. The emotional connection we build with human beings will always be stronger than one with any network or brand logo.
Change is gradual. We see more of certain trends and less of other tendencies over time, punctuated by bursts of innovation. It is these latter bursts that we interpret as change, even though they are not. They present reactions to the long durée of change. For this reason, I checked my crystal ball at the door when I entered academia — I don’t believe in and am not interested in predicting the future. I would rather be surprised.
That disclaimer made, here is what I would like to be surprised by in 2013: The return of sentiment to news reporting, co-creating, curating. Not sentimental news, but news made better, through (yes, algorithmically generated propagation, but not redaction of) sentiment, that drives, directs, informs, and pluralizes news processes and values. Journalists have always struggled with sentiment in reporting, trying to either manage their own emotions against the objectivity dogma of Western journalism or to find meaningful ways to integrate emotion into a story in general.
This is because the balance between emotion and news is delicate. The most masterful journalists, in their most memorable reporting, attain this perfect balance between emotion and information, color and news, the affective and the cognitive. By contrast, the form of news reporting least memorable is frequently characterized by excessive emotion, and the misinformation that excess produces.
Journalists have a rare opportunity to use social media to resolve a longstanding conflict regarding the meaning of emotion in journalism, and to resolve it in ways that evolve beyond subjectivity/objectivity binaries. There is not one recipe that fits all. Different contexts call for different approaches. But, a true balance between sentiment and news can be rendered through social media, and can drive toward avant journalism(s) — that is, hybrid journalism(s) of liminality, pluralization, and disruption.
There is an inherent tension in social software between content discovery and the quality of conversation around that content. Group conversations get worse as groups grow, and groups grow as group discovery improves — if it’s easier to find something, more people will find it. Therefore, the easier time I have finding good conversations, the less likely those conversations are to be any good (e.g. Reddit’s front page vs. subreddits). Paradoxes should be named, so let me know if you have any good ideas.
Let’s look at Twitter through this lens. Twitter began as a space for conversation — a messaging platform. It exhibited characteristics of a “many-to-many” network. Anyone could publish, anyone could follow anyone else, and “discovery” in this context meant discovering people to follow, not content to consume.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen Twitter evolve its focus towards the discovery of content — hiding @mentions from user streams, the #NASCAR page, the Summify acquisition, the new Twitter email, the Discover tab. Today, it looks more like a broadcast medium than a distributed social network. Large groups of users (consumers, really) follow a small number of very large brands. Some of those brands are people (Bieber) and some of those brands are publishers (@cnnbrk). Lots of talking, very little listening.
Why is it in Twitter’s interest to focus their users around a relatively small number of mega-publishers?
First, Twitter needs to reach late adopters with a product that late adopters can understand. It’s much easier to bring people onboard to “a real-time feed of news links from publishers and celebrities that you’ve heard of” than it is to explain “a distributed messaging platform where you follow friends, some people you don’t know, some celebrities, and some brands…where you make lunch plans, share what you had for breakfast, and post your favorite links of the day…where sometimes it’s a chat room and sometimes it’s the nightly news.” Try explaining Twitter to your parents and see what works better. On a unique active user basis, evolving into a more traditional broadcast medium will be a boon for Twitter.
Second, brands (you know, the $$$) don’t know how to join small group conversations. They do, however, know how to shout at large groups of passive media consumers. If Twitter looks more like a broadcast product, then brands will have an easier time fitting Twitter ads into their campaigns (and budgets).
As with any piece of social software, as Twitter evolves from a space for conversation into a space for discovery — prioritizing features that support a one-to-many model at the expense of the many-to-many model — we will see its value as a conversational platform erode.
For lack of a better term, you might call this the “broadcast-ification” of the major social media platforms. I’m picking on Twitter, but it’s happening in different ways across the industry — see LinkedIn Today or Facebook’s asymmetric “Subscribe” feature. These platforms are all evolving towards a more traditional broadcast media model, because it’s more palatable to late adopters and because that’s the environment in which brands know how to communicate and, more importantly, spend.
So 2013 will bring two things: more ad revenue for the major social media platforms, and a massive opportunity for upstarts like Branch, Reddit, Digg (hopefully), and a company or two that doesn’t exist yet, to create spaces where small groups can engage in high quality conversations.
My prediction for 2013 is really more of a wish — for a slow movement in social media.
Over the past two years, newsrooms have finally begun to “get” social media. Reporters are live-tweeting weather events, city council meetings, and combat coverage. Social media producers are sprouting in newsrooms large and small to curate events happening down the block and around the world.
We turn to social media during news events for immediate updates and eyewitness accounts, constantly refreshing and trolling for every possible bit of news and commentary. There isn’t a major event (earthquake, election, bin Laden raid) that we can’t visualize through social trends.
But in our fixation on immediacy, we’re missing opportunities to tell a larger story through social means. At times, we’re even perpetrating rumor for the sake of “real-time” coverage (see: Newtown shootings social media disaster). In both cases, we’re letting readers down.
In 2013, we are going to see more of a backlash against real-time rumor-mongering and a move to mine social channels for more substantive narratives. We’re already seeing glimmers of this approach:
The New York Times maintains a catalogue of eyewitness video from Syria dating back to August. “Watching Syria’s War” goes beyond of-the-moment curation to provide context around raw video and images found from Aleppo to Damascus. The Times provides context for each YouTube clip — what is known, and more importantly what isn’t. It fosters connections between readers and reporters in hopes of advancing the story:
— Liam Stack (@liamstack) December 14, 2012
The beta site Syria Deeply offers another approach to contextualizing citizen video, surfacing trends but mapping them in the context of refugee and fatality counts.
Both of these examples go beyond perfunctory retweeting and social streaming to paint a bigger picture where context is king. I challenge news organizations to think about how a “slow” social media movement could better serve our journalism and our readers in 2013.
2012 was a big year for live video interaction — we got to broadcast our hangouts to the world (thanks Google!) and HuffPost Live debuted. Both have done a brilliant job of showing the potential of video interaction, but uptake among news organizations is mixed and the ease of use still needs to be perfected.
My prediction is that 2013 will be the year that live video interaction with the news becomes de rigeur. By the end of 2013, if you’re a news website that isn’t offering users the chance to watch live video debates and interact in realtime, you’ll be missing out. Readers don’t want to, well, read a debate, or bother typing when they can simply face their webcam or iPhone and go. They’ll want to interact live, face-to-face with each other, and with newsmakers.
Chatroulette is so 2009 — video conversations and debates have grown up, and they’re about to become smarter, more informative, and more selective. Unlike 24-hour news networks who are forced to broadcast live around the clock, online news organizations have the luxury of picking their moments (look to The New York Times’ election night coverage). Over the past year at The Globe and Mail, we’ve had everyone from top politicians to genetic experts participate in live reader Q&As and debates. There are plenty of problems with the technology, but it’s incredible how far it’s come in a short time. It won’t be long now before any foreign correspondent can report live breaking news and interact with readers in realtime.
News organizations have always struggled with how to offer readers meaningful ways to become more than readers — to become part of the live debate, to contribute, to connect. 2013 is going to be a watershed year for turning readers into something much more.
At a conference last year, I said that prognostication is a mug’s game, and I suspect it’s probably true. I’m going to try to limit my damage by sticking to two things that have blossomed in the last year and look likely to continue, and one that I hope in my optimist’s heart to be true.
2012 brought us dozens of news-org-sponsored hack days, the launch of The Data Journalism Handbook, and the arrival of the second year of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellows, who will be bringing their hacker-journalist skills to newsrooms in 2013. Maybe even more importantly, we saw “news apps” teams flourish all over the world: Their investigative journalism and coverage of emergencies and disasters, civic data releases, the 2012 Olympics, and the U.S. elections won richly deserved attention. As the tools of news code get stronger and the community itself gets more chances to show its work and learn from one other, we can expect to see more projects, more efficient approaches, and less overlap between newsrooms, as designers and developers seek to differentiate their teams by making tools and features that offer new insights and richer contexts for news.
The emergence of data journalism and journalistic code is exciting to me not only because it’s a relief to see aggressive hiring anywhere in journalism, but because this work enables active reading, in the sense Bret Victor illustrates on worrydream. When journalists produce narratives with useful interactive components and explorable data sets, readers get the chance to handle, sort, and manipulate information, instead of reading only a single interpretation. Point-of-view is embedded in data journalism and interactive news apps as much as it is in “traditional” reporting, but multiplicity and polyphony are harder to exclude when you offer full access to data and let readers play with math and scenarios themselves. In projects like ProPublica’s reader-sourced investigations, news “consumers” get even closer to the process of parsing and interpreting data.
The mainstreaming of this work allows journalists to tell stories that don’t fit neatly into a traditional narrative frame, and to tell other stories more effectively. The tools of journalism are broadened and deepened.
After years of getting more and more comically horrible, the experience of reading news made enormous progress this year, and I expect to see it improve even more next year. Tablet and smartphone usage has spiked and the sleek design of read-later tools has helped push more news organizations toward visual choices that help mobile and desktop readers alike: responsive design, bigger type, more generous leading, and above all, much less clutter. But to call this a move toward “app-like” design, or to assume that it stops with better layout and typography misses the point: On the web, a good reading experience accomodates active readers, and that’s just as true in apps.
Quieter reading experiences are necessary for immersive reading, but to end there is to give up our burgeoning ability to read together. Real “sharing” isn’t about a row of buttons. It’s about giving active readers the handles they need to use information in the way that makes the most sense to them — via Twitter or Facebook, in emailed links or chunks of copied text, or in info-storing tools like Evernote, Findings, or Kippt. These behaviors require certain affordances whether you’re on the web or in a native app: live text you can copy and paste, unobscured direct links to content, and thoughtful handling of paywall permeability. A shift to slow-downloading, image-based native apps that exercise strict control over sharing is the opposite of good reader experience. In 2013, we’ll see more and more smart news organizations foreground a respect for their readers, and demonstrate it by offering kind interfaces and paid access schemes that don’t break the web. (Sadly, we’re also going to see some organizations continue to go the other way, and continue to lose readers to competitors who offer a better experience.)
Beyond these tightly bounded areas, there is a larger question about the shape of journalism for which I hope 2013 brings interesting answers. In cooking, over-boiling produces bland, textureless food — but a careful simmer concentrates flavor. As the pressures of crashing ad revenues and changing reader habits force news organizations to adapt — and often, to shrink — it’s my hope that our journalistic institutions will manage to distill and protect their animating principles, and that they’ll emerge from the ongoing transformation changed, but more potent.
No, I’m serious. More GIFs. Count on it.
It is one of the great truisms of our time that we live in an age of technological acceleration; the new paradigms keep rolling in, and the intervals between them keep shortening. This acceleration reflects not only the flood of new products, but also our growing willingness to embrace these strange new devices, and put them to use…It took ten years for color TV to go from the fringes to the mainstream; two generations later, it took HDTV just as long to achieve mass succeed.
In fact, if you look at the entirety of the twentieth century, the most important developments in mass, one-to-many communications clock in at the same social innovation rate with an eerie regularity. Call it the 10/10 rule: a decade to build the new platform, and a decade for it to find a mass audience.
Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From:
The Natural History of Innovation, 2010
As I gaze in the coming year’s crystal ball, I suspect that, at this time next year, we will be talking about 2013 being the rise of the robot.
A colleague of mine, Larry Birnbaum, likes to talk about how artificial intelligence has witnessed significant breakthrough in the past couple of years and that its tools are coming into maturity. In 2011, a computer won “Jeopardy” and Google gave us the driverless car, and this year, we began to see significant adoption of Apple’s virtual personal assistant service. Siri’s founder, Dag Kittlaus, made the rounds this year talking about how technology is good enough when its accuracy is around 90–95% — the tipping point from cool and experimental to utility. He has high hopes for the coming year in artificial intelligence development.
If I get my wish, 2013 will produce the ultimate to-do/productivity app that not only tracks my tasks for me, but also completes some of them. It would be the smartest task-tracker robot ever, because it would know which tasks it could (and could not) complete, and it would just do the work for me.
If journalism gets its wish, 2013 will bring tons and tons of robots to the future of news — and I think it just might happen.
Perhaps we will develop and start to see significant adoption of computer systems that do the mundane reporting and writing work for us, like Ben Welsh’s idea of human-assisted reporting. The dream of the ultimate “reporters’ dashboard,” complete with smart notes, data management, analysis and notifications, doesn’t seem all that far off.
Perhaps we will build more, better, stronger robots that write some of our stories for us. In fact, friends of Knight Lab — Narrative Science — have made significant strides in automated story generation since 2010. Each year, there seem to be more and more startups and projects in the market of automating stories through datasets.
Perhaps we will build systems that learn our user’s social media behavior, providing us with more significant understanding of our audience’s desire for news. Perhaps we’ll learn more about how our readers perceive us, based upon the specific words we write. Perhaps we’ll get machine-learning design and publishing systems.
In whatever form they take, it’s darned exciting to think that we are not far off from having armies of robots all around us that collectively make it easier to be a journalist.
While automating journalism in order to save money is not terribly inspirational to me — and I am not the type who gets excited over the novelty of the technology (automating for the sake of automating) — I do think 2013 is primed for tools that make reporting and information gathering easier, removing obstacles to significant journalism work. Computers will never replace journalists, but they sure can make it easier to do our jobs.
Linear projections are always dangerous, but well established and deeply rooted overarching trends are also too often overlooked and forgotten as more exciting new developments attract our attention — so let me highlight five basic features of recent media developments I think will continue to shape the news throughout 2013.
I’m sure there will also be at least one major surprise, potentially a game-changer that bucks these trends. Maybe an easily replicated and scalable model for collaborative, quality, low-cost journalism; maybe a significant shift in willingness to pay as more people wake up to the differences between freely available content and stuff only available at a price; maybe a yet-to-be-foreseen technological shift; or maybe a legal development (on fair use, for example — keep an eye on the French and German attempts to change the terms of trade for online news, and on Google’s attempts to fight these moves).
I’m not predicting either of these latter things — just recognizing that the future usually turns out to be weirder than we think. That said, it’s also built on the past, and the past has a way of repeating itself, especially if we forget it, so let’s keep the basic features of recent years in mind.
Disruptive-innovation guru Clay Christensen exhorts news organizations to focus on the “jobs to be done” in their communities. Help people do them and revenue opportunities will follow. (Especially when consumers didn’t realize they needed those jobs to be done.)
The winners in 2013 will be entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs whose mission is to help get those jobs done: creative individuals who see a gap and fill it, define a niche and commoditize it, re-imagine information and deliver it in smart, new ways — ways that are increasingly easier to monetize than erecting paywalls.
While many legacy news organizations continue to focus on “making money” as their paramount job to be done (a focus on themselves instead of their consumers), media entrepreneurs are stealing bases and hitting home runs all around them. That will continue in force this year.
Media entrepreneurship is happening in a couple ways. Front-end media entrepreneurs are creating news content — from comics-journalism apps and digital voter guides to state watchdog initiatives. Back-end entrepreneurs are building mobile apps, scraping data, and automating tasks. The creativity — believe me, I just helped judge the SXSW News Technology Accelerator entries — is simply breathtaking.
I also just finished teaching the inaugural cohort group in American University’s MA in Media Entrepreneurship program. Nine sharp students had nine great projects — any of which could have been triples for traditional journalism organizations.
In addition to clever ideas for news products and news delivery systems, we will see more creative ideas for journalism collaborations. The opportunities are wide open for connecting silos of information in communities, amplifying good stories that people want to know about and for leveraging resources so that the sum of the efforts is bigger than the individual contributions. They can be metro collaborations, such as the new video-sharing agreement between The Boston Globe and WBZ, or mainstream media organizations working with indie news sites, as is happening with The Seattle Times and The Oregonian in Portland. Someone will crack the nut on revenue sharing.
Journalism schools, such as CUNY, A
The winners this year will be those who see the opportunities right under their noses and act on them.
In 2013, news will continue to be made and reported. Much of it will be bad. Some of it will be good.
In 2013, newspapers and newsmagazines will struggle to make ends meet. Some will go out of business. Some will be acquired. Some will survive into 2014, at which point they will continue to struggle to make ends meet.
In 2013, ad sales will be crucial to the health of the news business, and ad sales will follow a cyclical pattern, tied to the health of the economy. But ad sales won’t be enough, not for general interest publications, anyway, and so we’ll see more experiments with online paywalls and subscription plans.
In 2013, breaking news will be reported immediately through the web, and online forums will provide endless opportunities to discuss the news. But the “atomic unit” of journalism (to borrow a term beloved by news pundits and no one else) will be the story.
I make these obvious observations not to be glib but to point out that many of journalism’s fundamental qualities aren’t changing, or at least aren’t changing all that much. That’s true even when you look at the technological and financial aspects of the news as a business. Searching, aggregating, linking, blogging, craigslisting, photosharing, social networking, microblogging: These things are not new anymore. The big, transformative changes in the industry — the shifts in the habits of readers and advertisers — happened years ago, and since then a kind of uneasy stability has taken hold.
The future is uncertain, yes, but the future has been uncertain for a while now. The basic dynamics of the news business didn’t change much from 2010 to 2011 to 2012, and I suspect they won’t change much in 2013 or, for that matter, in 2014.
For a long time now, “disruption” has been the go-to buzzword in commentary about journalism. Pundits and consultants love to say “disruption” because the word tends to attract money and attention. But the word is starting to ring hollow. Throwing it around today seems more like a way to avoid hard thinking than to engage in it. Maybe 2013 will be the year when we finally stop talking about “disruption.” I hope so, because then we can start giving as much consideration to what endures as to what changes.
Nicholas Carr’s most recent book is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. He blogs at roughtype.com.
Over the past year, the idea of responsive web design has taken hold in a growing number of newsrooms. The Boston Globe launched a paywalled version of the Globe as a responsive experience at the end of 2011. Pay for the Globe online and it’ll work — and look good — on your mobile, your tablet, and your desktop just the same. One URL, three different presentations, making the most of the screen size you’ve got.
In 2012, the BBC, Time, and the Guardian, among others, rolled out responsive sites, while even more outlets added apps and projects that were rigged to fit any browser. Mashable went responsive earlier this month and promptly declared 2013 the Year of Responsive Design.
I think that’s only half right.
For everyone just tuning in, 2013 will be the Year of Responsive Design. For the nimble but not bleeding edge, 2013 will be the Year of Responsive Design. For lumbering, slow-to-adapt, drowning-in-enterprise-bullshit news organizations, maybe 2014 will be the year, but at least they’ll start talking about it in 2013. It just makes too much sense for an online news organization to have URLs that just work no matter what size screen hits it.
But for people living on the edge of technology, I think 2013 will be the year that Responsive Design Starts To Get Weird.
Buckle up, Future of Newsers.
Think it’s hard to adapt your content to mobile, tablet, and desktop? Just wait until you have to ask how this will also look on the smart TV. Or the refrigerator door. Or on the bathroom mirror.
They’re all coming…if they aren’t already here. It doesn’t take much imagination or deep reading of the tech press to know that in 2013 more and more devices will connect to the internet and become another way for people to consume internets.
We’ll see the first versions of Google’s Project Glass in 2013. A set of smart glasses will put the internet on a user’s eyes for the first time. Reaction to early sneak peeks is a mix of mockery and amazement, mostly depending on your propensity for tech lust. We don’t know much about them, other than some tantalizing video, but Google is making them, so it’s a safe bet that Chrome For Your Eyes will be in there. And that means some news organization in 2013 is going to ask: “How does this look jammed right into a user’s eyeballs?”
Others argue that 2013 (like 2012 and 2011) may (finally) be the year of the smart TV. The reason? Apple, by rumor or innuendo, is in the TV business. Without so much as a dubious leak to go on, fans are ready to take out a car loan to buy a TV. And it would be ludicrous to believe that a full-sized Apple TV (as opposed to the hockey-puck-sized appliance they sell now) won’t be connected to the Apple universe, which means iCloud, which means we can hope for Safari on the TV.
Google, on the other hand, has had a smart TV out since 2010, and the 15 of us who own them are interested to see the platform evolve further. I had Android’s Jelly Bean update on my TV before most people had it on their phones, but I still can’t do very much with it. My main beef with Google TV (and it’s as good of a reason as any for why it hasn’t caught on) is that you can use the internet, or you can watch TV. You cannot watch TV while using the internet, or vice versa. There’s a bright line between the two and you can’t cross it. I can tweet from my TV — trust me, it’s less exciting than you think — but I can’t tweet while I’m watching that TV or follow a feed of hashtags about the show I’m watching. So instead of using the 40 inches of HD I’ve got, I’m using my iPad or iPhone as a second screen (I know, first world problems). I want to know what happens when my first screen and second screen are the same screen. We might find out what that’s like in 2013. And, again, some news designer is going to have to wonder how this story is going to look on a 64-inch (or larger) screen hanging in the living room.
In 2012, if you were in the market for a refrigerator and had a cool $3,700 to burn, you could have bought one with a touch screen and a set of apps on board. I’m still mad at my wife for not letting me get one. Why wouldn’t I want to tweet from the fridge? Well, truth be told, tweeting from one in the store was…less than ideal. But stretch your imagination a bit. Take an iPad screen and embed it in your fridge door. Instead of the kid’s artwork hung by magnet, you now have a dynamically updating, touch-reactive screen. Now come to the fridge to grab a soda and get updated on the latest news while you’re at it. Is your content formatted for binge eating?
Reading tech news in 2012, it wasn’t hard to imagine all sorts of flat surfaces in your house becoming screens. Microsoft introduced the Surface, which pained me because what used to be called the Surface — a touch-screen table computer now called the PixelSense — seemed like a fantastic idea. Imagine, instead of passing sections of the paper to your spouse across the breakfast table, you passed browser windows. But with 82-inch touch screens on the market, it’s a matter of time before walls in our houses become giant internet-connected appliances. Or, in my dream home of the future, my bathroom mirror becomes a screen, showing me the weather, the traffic on my commute, my schedule, my inbox, and a feed of news while I brush my teeth in the morning. Nuts, you say? They went on sale in April for a pricey $7,800. Not in your price range? The New York Times R&D Lab hacked one together with an Xbox 360 Kinect and a flatscreen TV in 2011. Smart mirrors aren’t far off. So is your content formatted for shave-time reading?
And I haven’t even gotten around to asking if your content is formatted for your watch.
Now, do I expect all or even any of these to catch on and become the next smartphones? No. Some more than others, but not all. But inexorably, more things in our lives are going to become connected to the internet, capable of displaying news for us when we find ourselves with a moment. And many of those things are going to have bigger, better screens than our tiny smartphones do now. So if I can start a great, long-form story on my coffee table, send it to my bathroom mirror as I brush my teeth before going to bed, and finish it on my iPad before falling asleep, why wouldn’t I?
Is your content ready for that?
For the past six years, various people have made predictions about next year being “The Year of Mobile Fill-in-the-Blank.” In many ways those predictions have been accurate: The growth of smartphone and tablet usage has been off the charts. In other ways, the predictions have fallen short. So I’m going to weigh in with one that feels somewhat safe (and obvious?).
If media companies want to stay in step with their users in 2013 and beyond, they will no longer be able to think of the mobile experience as being downstream from, or an afterthought to, the desktop web experience.
The numbers speak for themselves. In the next 12–18 months, many news organizations will cross the 50 percent threshold where more users are visiting on phones and tablets than on desktop computers and laptops.
In November, 37 percent of all visits to the Times (including to NYTimes.com, our mobile site, and all of our apps) came from phones or tablets. That’s up from 28 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in 2010. When media organizations see numbers like this, they will be forced to decide whether they can continue to put the majority of their digital efforts into the presentation of their desktop report. If you do that, your product, and your journalism, will not be tailored for the majority of your digital readers.
Many news organizations are already starting to think this way. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo was quoted right here earlier in the year describing his thinking on the shift:
Inevitably, as long as mobile was something like five percent of traffic, it was just something you made available on the side. But you start to see, this is going to be half of our audience. We can’t be approaching it in a way that the website is the thing, and we’re making imitations of it — because this thing is losing its primacy. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t until late last year that it hit me at a different level. It hit me as more than a concept. It was really true.
At the Times, we made some big steps forward on this front in 2012. We used the big news events of the year as opportunities for experimentation, beginning the process of trying to make our mobile report more dynamic and not just a downstream feed of articles from our desktop website.
It sounds simple: Put your effort where the majority of your readers are. The reality, of course, is that it’s not simple at all.
First, there are the resource constraints. Most newsrooms put their digital focus on their desktop websites. Shifting manpower to mobile means either doing less somewhere else or hiring a whole new staff. The latter is problematic: Controlling costs is a top priority everywhere, and there is a new platform or device to worry about every other week. What’s the answer? I’m not exactly sure. But I think the shift has to happen, and it needs to be accomplished through a combination of smart automation and directing more human brainpower to mobile.
Second, there are the business-model problems. Figuring out how to monetize an audience on mobile (especially on the phone) is probably not going to be solved by the end of 2013. But there are parallels here with the web in the late ’90s. If news organizations had waited until all the business questions surrounding the Internet were solved before they began to experiment on websites, they would have been in bad shape. Holding back on mobile because of the monetization concerns feels perilous when that’s where the audience is going. I would like to see news organizations lead by coming up with new forms of storytelling, new presentations for our journalism, and new types of advertising, all of which are uniquely suited to mobile devices.
Third, there are a lot of complicated technical challenges. Should you pursue native apps or is it all about the browser? Will HTML5 solve all of our problems? Do you have to be on every new platform or should you just focus on the established ones? Isn’t responsive design the answer to everything? My only prediction on this front is that these questions are also not going to be answered by the end of 2013. Contrary to what some have said, I believe that we’re just at the beginning of an exciting time of experimentation with native app technologies on tablets and phones. That doesn’t mean that HTML5 should be abandoned or that news organizations shouldn’t pursue responsive designs for their websites. I think we have to continue to experiment with all of it. Easier said than done, I realize, in a time when money is short. But putting all of your eggs in one basket at this stage feels dangerous.
Finally, there are a bunch of potentially thorny but also potentially exciting journalistic issues to be addressed. It’s clear that refining the presentation of news for phones and tablets is essential. But it’s less clear whether news organizations need to fundamentally change how they approach the news. At The Times, our audience on smartphones is much younger and more international than our desktop and print audience. Does that mean we should suddenly stop covering New York aggressively or start obsessing over video games? Obviously not. But it could, over time, mean that we need to shift our concept of who our primary audience is. There are also many issues to work out when it comes to covering news events in real time and through social media, which is increasingly going mobile. And how do we deal with the fact that usage patterns on phones, tablets, and standard computers are all different?
Many of these questions have yet to be answered, but one thing is clear. If news organizations want to serve the majority of their users in the best possible way and stay ahead of the game on these issues, they will have to adopt more of a “mobile first” mentality.