Untangling the future of journalism is always a tricky event, since so much of it depends upon the business strategies behind the publishers that print it. There’s no clear cause and effect between whether ‘good’ journalism – in this sense, journalism that serves an audience – necessarily leads to a solid business strategy or whether the reverse is true, that a solid business strategy enables good journalistic output.
At the Westminster Media Forum‘s seminar on “The future of news: partnerships, engagement and diversity”, key industry figures from the BBC, the Guardian, Local World, the NUJ and Google among others debated what the form of news is likely to be in the coming years. The discussion spanned the devaluation of journalism, collaborations between companies and threats to the ecosystem.
Since the discussions were so wide-ranging, we’ve pulled out five key lessons to help frame the debates.
1. Innovation isn’t easy
With so many companies pinning their hopes on innovating their way out of financial hardships, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that innovation takes different forms depending on the size of your business – and is exceptionally hard to achieve regardless of scale.
Madhav Chinnappa is head of strategic relations, news and publishers for Google EMEA. He was credited as being behind the Digital News Initiative. Working in partnership with the Financial Times and the Guardian in the UK as well as Les Echos, NRC Media, El Pais, La Stampa, Faz and Die Zeit, the initiative’s aim is to make £107 million worth of grants available to any journalistic organisation that demonstrates innovation in the field. But Chinnappa believes that’s easier said than done:
“I must admit, personally, when I look across the news ecosystem I’m not sure I see a lot of innovation. I think there are a few reasons why innovation is hard, and it really boils down to that one simple point. It’s hard to define what innovation is. What’s innovative for a small news organisation is not going to be innovative for a BBC or Sky.”
So when it comes to innovation, what’s good for the goose might not necessarily be good for the gander. As an example, he pointed out that in a lot of ways regional media companies worldwide have a lot more in common with one another than they do with the national brands whose strategies they occasionally attempt to ape, without the scale that allows those strategies to function:
“I have a personal view that local and regional media is fundamentally different from national media. We seem to mix up the two quite a lot. The local media in the UK has more in common with the local media in France or Spain than it actually does with the national media. Innovation is very hard to measure.”
2. Journalism is (currently) indivisible from a successful media strategy
At the Global Editors Network summit in Barcelona, the CEO of Local World David Montgomery outlined his plans for the local news business. One of his comments – that the business doesn’t depend upon “the random and pointless business of journalism” – evidently struck a nerve, since Local World’s representative at the Westmister Media Forum event was asked whether that was a viable strategy.
In response, Local World’s head of programmatic Amir Malik explained that Local World is likely to rely upon the skills of journalists for a while yet, saying:
“Programmatic and our local news sales strategy is definitely, in terms of advertising, is definitely something we want to automate. I think there’s a lot of misreading of that intention. It’s not to rob local media of its kind of heart and soul, but to improve upon the weaknesses being strategically in terms of managing an enterprise the size of Local World but also in terms of producing content that is reliable.”
But while Local World is still paying lip-service to the idea of ‘good journalism’, it was evident from the content of the day that what constitutes ‘good journalism’ isn’t universally accepted, even at the institutions that nominally teach it.
3. Journalists’ skills are lagging behind business trends
Francois Nel, visiting academic fellow at Reuters Institute Study of Journalism, believes that the journalism schools are falling further behind the needs of the industry when it comes to teaching young journalists what is required of them in 2015. Noting that the number of undergraduates on journalism courses has increased steadily, he said:
“At first the number of courses grew slowly, primarily because in its early days the NCTJ sought to control entry into the field of journalism and to engineer a match between the vacancies of younger papers and the number of undergraduates in training. However, the NCTJ no longer plays that role. Its role… as the arbiter of the quality of journalism education has also been defused with the emergence of specialised broadcasting and magazine routes.
“Journalism training… is entrenched in the 20th Century system that has a simple goal: to provide junior employees in the news industry. Journalism courses at UK universities are fully rooted in the industry’s expansion in the 1960s.”
It’s our contention that journalists should understand the business models of the organisations for which they work and immerse themselves in discussions around their viability. And as part of that, it’s important to recognise that…
4. Ad-blocking is the terror de jour
Despite there not being a dedicated session to discuss ad-blocking, it reared its head a number of times during the discussion. But despite the consternation of the audience, many of the panellists over the course of the day have faith in the industry to get to grips with ad-blocking – even if that faith was based on the idea that the industry will have to adapt.
Amir Malik said:
“I think there will always be ad-blockers. Although there will be a highest concentration of ad blockers in the next few months I’m confident there will be workarounds. The way that we keep our newspaper alive is through the advertising and the revenue that draws in so the impetus to cure that situation will be massive.”
The Guardian’s international director Tony Dancker, concurred, saying:
“We all… have an interest in solving this problem, and we have to get at the root cause of what’s driving ad-blocking behaviour. Is it speed, in which case let’s solve that problem. Is it bad ad practice in which case let’s solve that problem. Let’s get underneath why so many people find it worthwhile to install ad blockers and let’s try to do the best we can to make sure advertising on our sites is as compelling and non-annoying as it can be.”
Ultimately, then, while the future of journalism is far from certain – and the role of journalists within media organisations more uncertain still – many key industry figures are confident that news publishers are elastic enough to adapt to the changes as they arrive.