The News Business in Transition: Forces Shaping the Future (Oct. 31 - Nov. 1, 2002), a conference hosted by New Directions for News, attempted to explore the critical forces shaping news, transitions in the business of news, and the changing role of news in a global, interconnected society.
A diverse and passionate group of news executives, business leaders, economists, sociologists, technologists, researchers and policy makers descended on Austin prepared to tackle such questions. Here’s a summary of what we saw as the most valuable ideas presented.
The Epoch of Uncertainty
The conference opened with an hour of presentation and discussion with futurist Watts Wacker, co-author of The Deviant’s Advantage, The Visionary’s Handbook, The 500-Year Delta.
Watts set the backdrop for the conference as he described how we are moving from our fourth culture, the Information Society, to our fifth culture, The Epoch of Uncertainty. This new age, he said, is defined by paradox, enlightened anxiety and the abolition of context.
We are now beginning to lead the “media-centric life,” where all of our information is mediated, coming to us second or third hand. Media, he said, is how we define our relationships.
Among the challenges he noted for media:
• There is an increasing pressure to quantify in a world that’s unmeasurable.
• Probability sampling is no longer possible. There are no more dominant issues. We now live in the era of the “instavidual” — where people defined themselves with an ever changing “chameleonic identity.”
• There is an increasing fusion of fact and fiction.
Watts was excellent speaker — clever, funny and informative. In the discussion that followed, the most interesting question put to him was: How does uncertainty and paradox affect credibility? “Credibility as it has been viewed before is dead. Knowing what other people think news means, in many layers, is important.” We are comforted by a “proliferation of perspective” in this new epoch, he said. Can anyone say, the growing rise of weblogs, forums and collaborative publishing?
He also made mention of how “asymmetrical thinking” will drive the future. But we didn’t have enough time to really explore that concept. So far, all we’ve been able to find on this was in the military.
The Elements of Digital Storytelling
Nora Paul, Director of the Institute for New Media Studies and University of Minnesota PhD candidate Christina Fiebich presented an overview of their digital storytelling research, which attempts to establish a vocabulary for stories in this emerging form. Here’s what they see at the five elements:
1. Relationship: between the content and the user of the content
2. Action: movement of the content or required on the part of the user
3. Context: placement of the content in relation to other materials
4. Media: the forms of media used in the content set
5. Communication: interaction between the creator and/or the user(s)
It will be most interesting to see this research evolve, because it’s critical to the discourse of journalism in this new medium. Here’s a link to their existing research site, but Paul & Fiebich showed examples at the conference of a deeper, collaborative forthcoming site. For more information, read this nice write up of the project by Leah Gentry on the API site.
Teens are news-involved
Grant McDonald, a branding specialist with North Castle Partners, was brought to the conference to talk about how teens view and interact with news. Of course, newspapers are particularly terrified that younger folks don’t use their products.
Grant’s dog-and-pony was what they needed to hear. News is social currency in the teen world. They use it to: connect with others, gain social status, increase self-steem and to position themselves in their environment. Teens create social currency through something Grant’s company calls “basic instincts.” A news brand must tap these basic instincts, if they want to connect with teens. Trouble is that most newspapers haven’t done a particularly good job at branding news. “Teens embrace branded news,” Grant said, serving up Channel One, ESPN, Seventeen, The Source and NickNews as examples.
Perhaps equally interesting, was Grant’s emphatic statement: “Teens love to participate.” And while this didn’t seem to connect with much of the audience, we were drawn to this statement. News media are often anti-participation. Too much spinach journalism and not enough discussion. Perhaps if new media truly want to attract a younger audience they must show a willingness to have a condescension-free discussion with this group of people.
Evidence to this order was revealed when conference leader Dale Peskin asked a local University of Texas student to come listen to the audience pitch potential news products that might attract him. The pitches were embarrassing, loaded with “get chicks” and “drug culture” patronizing. At one point, the student told everyone to cut it out — “That’s not all I’m about.”
The roundtable on innovation in business models was a bit scattered. But there was some good take home nuggets. Betty Sue Flowers, Director of the LBJ Presidential Library and consultant in the Global Business Network, was sharp in this session. She said that the audience simply wants a more “intimate relationship with the storyteller.”
Peter Krasilovsky, Senior Partner and Vice President of Consulting at the Borrell Associates offered up a few ideas of what news media might do cope with the Internet’s disruption of their business.
• Figure out who are the customers: Few media companies are implementing effective tracking systems.
• Explore niche services: Get more specific with a target audience
• Explore peripheral involvement: Such as elearning
Opportunities and obstacles
One of the cooler things about this conference was that two of the attendees were asked to summarize the two days of discussion and present a portrait of the transition news media must undertake. Design guru Roger Black and Betty Sue Flowers were both apt in this role.
Roger’s summary focused not on the news business, but on the newspaper business, which seemed appropriate considering that most of the audience was from newspapers. Here what he sees as the transition:
Problems facing newspapers
• Nomenclature: There’s a problem with the term news media
• Generational: Focus on demographics, ever-changing diversity and growing role of tribalism have confounded our definition of news, as well as the definition of the norm. Our world is too complex for a norm.
• Granular society: There are no predominant movements anymore.
• Inertia: Industry is resistant to change.
• Roles are frozen: Journalism is frozen.
• Design is viewed as non-essential: Over-reliance on words in newspapers.
Opportunities for newspapers
• Show the reader, a la Cosmopolitan’s mythical reader covers.
• Redefine news: Roger’s definition of news “random interesting stuff that you didn’t expect to read about”
• Narrative is in the mind of the reader. “We supply the pieces that map to the reader’s narrative.” If readers see themselves in the paper, they will want a deeper, rich narrative.
• Regain the spirit of ‘journal’-ism. Go back to the roots of journals.
• People have a need to know. But there’s not enough “news” in the paper.
• See the newspaper as a prop.
Four ideas that Roger would do at a newspaper
1. The High-End Journal - argument, opinionated, elitist and text-driven
2. The Immigrant Mirror - a guide to America
3. The Granular Mail - a BBS of cultural reports
4. The Popular Record - a daily magazine of fashion and entertainment world.
Betty Sue Flowers took a completely different approach to summarizing the conference. Actually, she didn’t summarize the discussion but elegantly diagramed what she saw as the current identity crisis for the news industry. According to Betty Sue, what’s keeping news executives from making the great leap forward is a problem with their story. They’re not sure what it is.
Originally, Betty Sue said, journalists had served the myth of democratic enlightenment. This was their story, to inform the democracy. However, journalism is serving a new myth of economics while believing they can still serve the democratic good. The question that needs to be addressed first, according to Betty Sue, is: “What business model will you allow you to keep your ethic?”
As a closing thought, Betty Sue called for journalists to focus on what they do best. “You’re not experts, you’re storytellers,” she said.
Update 11.05.02 - We’ve updated Betty Sue’s graphic for clarification.