Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The future of the news in the digital era - Financial Times

David Seaton's News Links
This is a must read. Brave New World stuff. The creation of an underclass with no idea of what's happening in the world. A "democracy" tailor made for Karl Rove. Follow the link and read it all. DS

For some people, this revolution in the way that people relate to the news is seriously threatening - a potential danger not just to traditional media organisations but even – as I will suggest later - to the very basis of our democracy. For others, it represents freedom: a decisive break away from the old media oligopoly into a world of unlimited information and free access to ideas.(...) I’d like to address three questions. Was the Economist right to lead its front page last month with the question: Who killed the newspaper? Or do print newspapers still have a future in this digital world? Second, what if any are the broader political consequences of this radical shift in the way that most of us learn about what’s happening? And third, can we rely on market forces to deliver an informed citizenry in the future? Or is there a risk that we will see a growing underclass of people who are totally ignorant of what’s going on in the world?(...) Why all the gloom? The answer is that advertising volumes and copy sales, the lifeblood of the industry, are both under threat. The decline in circulation was masked for many years by rising advertising rates. From 1975 to 1990, they rose by 253 per cent in the US, compared with a 141 per cent increase in the consumer price index. But charging more to advertisers for delivering a smaller audience is not a sustainable strategy, especially when the whole advertising proposition is being challenged by new media. (...) McKinsey has estimated that between 2001 and 2004, online players like Monster and captured around 5 per cent of the newspapers’ US market share. Then came two killer competitors. One was Craigslist, whose online classified listings are absolutely free except for job recruitment in some big cities. The maddening thing about founder Craig Newmark, so far as old-style publishers are concerned, is that he doesn’t seem to be very interested in making money. Craigslist is now active in 190 cities in 35 countries, giving free and instant audiences to people who want to rent a house, sell a car, buy a ticket, find a partner (...)A much bigger threat comes from the search engine. Newspaper and broadcast advertising is notoriously inefficient: as someone once said: “Half my advertising is wasted: the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Search engines offer the promise of dramatic improvements in the efficiency of advertising, by providing a direct link between advertisers and potential customers who have already shown an interest in their products or services.(...) A survey this summer by the Pew Research Center showed how news often takes a back seat to other daily activities for young Americans. For instance, 40 per cent of those under 30 had watched a movie at home the previous day, far more than read a newspaper, listened to radio news or went on line for news. The most alarming figure was this. A quarter of all Americans with a high school education or less had taken in no news of any kind on the previous day, whether from television, newspapers, radio or the internet. For college graduates, by contrast, the proportion fell to 11 per cent.(...) Only 4 million of those aged 18 to 24 years old cast their vote in the 1998 midterm elections. By contrast, 24 million votes were cast, mainly by young people, in the 2003 final of American Idol, the reality talent show. It’s not at all clear to me how market forces, left to themselves, will help to resolve this digital divide. What commercial interest would a news publisher have in seeking to engage a relatively unsophisticated and uninterested young person into what’s happening in the world? And as economic forces increasingly shape editorial judgments, how will we be able to develop a properly informed citizenry? I think this is an alarming prospect. READ MORE

1 comment:

Jeff Crigler said...

Traditional newspapers may not be with us in, say, 30 years--at least not in any form we'd recognize as a "newspaper" now. But newspaper companies, most of which are already successful multimedia publishers, will. Between the web and e-ink, mobile devices and things we haven't thought of yet, they'll produce a range of products that will be to today's newspapers what today's newspapers, with their color photography and their easy-to-typeset pages, are to the pamphlets and broadsheets of the 18th century.

The democracy question, now, that's a different thing. There is a real risk, and there are huge social and political implications in how journalism and journalism audiences evolve. Fundamentally, they come down to how we'll live up to the traditions of the political systems we've inherited.

As newsgathering and news-delivery systems change, will we demand information that informs us as citizens? Will we demand what we need in order to make reasoned and reasonable choices in a shrinking, increasingly complicated world? Or will we gravitate to information that simply reinforces our preconceived notions and appetites?

I'm very much afraid the trends are heading in the latter direction, what with the echo chamber(s) we've created for ourselves. Partisan blogs and RSS feeds and content aggregators are the talk radio of the online world; they let an increasingly isolated news consumer silo only what she wants to read into her BlackBerry so she can dittohead to and from work on the subway without ever letting a broader perspective intrude.

Even community-generated content comes with risks: Are we talking only to a like-minded community, or to the wider world? It's our job as we create the news companies of the next decades to mix our enthusiasm for innovation with a sense of service and a sense of mission. Profits are a reality we can't ever lose sight of, not in this world--but a philosophy of some kind, it seems to me, is equally essential.