Nobody would ever say that journalism is a perfect discipline. Publishers and individual journalists alike sometimes fail at delivering news that serves the public interest, or at fostering the communities that allow those publishers to exist.
So we thought we’d distill some of the lessons shared by senior journalists at the news:rewired conference in London into five key points that illustrate some of the ways publishers are trying to overcome those failings.
1. Community should be central to business strategies
As the advertising dollar slips out of publishers’ power to control we’re increasingly seeing news organisations turning to their audience directly to support them. Whether that’s through the membership incentives we’re seeing implemented at the Guardian or through crowdfunding models that are working for digital publishers, there’s an acknowledgement that the community that surrounds a news publication can be used to support them – if they’re managed correctly.
Valerio Bassan, journalist and media researcher at UCSC, said:
“To reach our communities, we need to build trust. We can profit through membership programmes or data. There are many ways communities can help us develop a new model for digital journalism.”
The Guardian’s social and communities editor for the UK Laura Oliver explained how despite the recent closure of many comments sections, they’re still a vital part of growing and maintaining those communities:
“Comments are valuable to us when they help us generate an audience who are engaged over time; who feel loyal to the Guardian… read lots of articles every visit.”
She elaborated that, while the Guardian typically receives 60,000 comments per day, the majority of those come from smaller sub-communities that cluster round lifestyle and sports sections:
“A lot of our sport/lifestye coverage is very much based around those communities. Our running blog is very much geared around that audience participation. What we then do with those regular spaces is use it to source ideas for future content.
“It rewards those people who are coming to the site… for us it’s positive reinforcement as well. It allowed us to add a level of liveliness to our stories as well.”
Ashley Muddiman is a research associate for the Engaging News Project. She argues that while many comments sections have a deserved reputation for being ‘toxic’, it doesn’t necessarily follow that publishers should simply shut them off while there’s still things to be done that can remedy them:
“One thing we found is that – we did a field experiment where we had a local news journalist take part in the comments and we found the tone of the comments got better.”
However, she warns that while community is important, it’s vital that news organisations don’t pander to community for the sake of it. Speaking of ways to improve site performance, she said:
“One is just to stop doing news sometimes. Posting pictures of things you know will get clicks; especially local news sites will post pictures of puppies and kittens. Other news organisations have been going partisan, going for a niche of partisan news audiences. It’s hard to find facts that peope can rely upon.”
2. Innovation often comes from examining what doesn’t work any more
Many publishers are pinning their hopes on innovating their way out of falling revenue. That’s easier said than done, however, and it’s often hard to know what innovation even looks like.
But as several speakers at news:rewired made plain, one way of innovating is to look at what your own organisation or wider industry is not doing any more, and why. Isaac Showman, the managing director of Reuters TV, shared some lessons about the failings of the cable industry in the US that Reuters is looking to capitalise on:
“The number of people watching the nightly news have halved over the past decade. The average age of a viewer on Fox news has gone from 55 to just under 70 today. It matters if you care about news because the way TV news is funded – outside the UK – the way than CNN is funded is through carriage fees.
“Cable fees make up the bulk of CNN revenues. We believe we’re heading to a world where cable fees disappear altogether.
“The problem today is that we don’t find out about breaking news from linear TV; we find out about it on Facebook or Twitter.”
That’s not to say that that all innovation is predicated on what’s come before. The rise of virtual reality as a serious proposition for publishers is an entirely new phenomenon, and one that some are taking very seriously indeed. Jessica Yu is global head of visuals at the Wall Street Journal. She explained:
“It’s this moment where there’s this new medium and storytelling platform. Nobody actually has all the answers despite the fact that I’m giving you some. But we don’t know the right way to use this medium at this point.”
3. Changing consumption habits are as much an opportunity as a hindrance
The transition from print to digital hit many publishers hard, and the ‘year of mobile’ which we’ve existed in for at least half a decade now is set to hit them even harder. Publishers have often failed to adapt to their audience’s changing consumption habits and it’s hit them where it hurts – in their wallets.
Hanna Kouri is channel director for ISTV (Sanoma Media) in the Netherlands. She believes that even the transition to mobile can be an opportunity for legacy media companies who aren’t afraid to experiment:
“When I started around 20 percent of our video plays came from mobile… now it’s half. The younger generations now are skipping desktops and going to mobile. We didn’t have any people who knew how to do TV… The biggest mistake that usually newspapers do is imitating TV and doing it online.
“In the end, it’s all going to be on mobile.”
4. You have to become a fixture of your audience’s day
In her keynote speech, Emily Bell, director of Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, explained that the advent of mobile publishing enabled third parties like Facebook and Snapchat to steal in and usurp the position as news distributors from publishers. As a result, she argues that if publishers want to remain relevant to an audience increasingly getting its news from those third parties, they have to exist in the same space as them:
“If you’re not in the top 4 or 5 apps on someone’s phone, you’re not going to be used heavily”, and “if you don’t have mobile alerts, you’re basically not in the mobile news game.”
However, as a direct result of that, it requires that publishers give up their coveted power over the distribution of news and the ability to define the context in which that news is consumed. Bell warns that publishers need to seriously consider the results of that before jumping into bed with those third parties:
“We’ll all be able to know are whether we’re making more money. The dilemma of ‘how do we deal with the frenemies’ will devolve into two parts. If it is financially advantageous for publishers they will just do it, I have no doubt about that.
“But what about values of journalism that are not about reach and revenue? I think they [Facebook et al.] genuinely believe they can do a better job of publishing than the publishing industry has done. [But] their core purpose is not journalism.”