The future for media organizations is not all doom and gloom, and there is more opportunity and experimentation happening today than ever before. That was the overall discussion at Digital Journal‘s Future of Media panel discussion last night in Toronto.
In a meaty conversation that sunk its teeth deep into topics of start-up culture, gamification and paywalls, editors and experts discussed why we should be optimistic for legacy media and start-ups experimenting with innovative news projects.
The insightful debate included a wide array of media experts: Jamie Angus, acting head of news at BBC World News; Jon Taylor, senior director of content for Bell Media Digital; Chris Boutet, senior producer for digital media at the National Post; Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOM; and Kathy Vey, editor-in-chief of OpenFile. The discussion was moderated by David Silverberg, managing editor of DigitalJournal.com.
The theme of the night could be summed up by Ingram’s poignant one-liner: “When you’re on Death Row, it’s easy to find religion.” He referred to the important wake-up call many newspapers faced with plummeting ad revenue and an upturned business model.
Boutet of the National Post agreed and said his outlet has adopted a digital-first strategy to allow readers to easily consume online news, while making sure the print product still had strong long-form content. “It needs to start with digital and end in print,” he said.
The conversation often veered into the benefits and dangers of using on-the-ground reporting from citizens in global hot spots. Angus said the BBC had previously ignored social media but now the organization is increasingly incorporating tweets into its reportage. “That could never happen two or three years ago,” he admitted.
Ingram replied, “When Twitter came out, I don’t think anyone would have predicted newspapers would have entire staff devoted to their Twitter account.”
Vey, who runs the collaborative news start-up OpenFile, said she’s optimistic about journalism’s future, considering how many important news start-ups have made an impact in the U.S. She just wishes Canada could better nurture start-ups and entrepreneurs.
The conversation around start-ups took up a better part of the night, with each panelist discussing how a news organization could benefit by having an entrepreneurial approach to media production. Panelists agreed the lean approach without expensive overhead and the willingness to try new things is an important part of determining media’s future.
That said, Boutet, Vey and Ingram agreed entrepreneurial skills are not something journalism students learn in school, and students don’t enter j-school with the goal of graduating, starting their own company and trying to compete with a big newspaper.
Boutet said newsrooms need to create an environment where experimentation is encouraged, and an entrepreneurial mindset helps. He noted how the National Post has designers, programmers, digital media producers and journalists within the same area to facilitate collaboration.
Ingram agreed, saying a news experiment today can happen in an afternoon with $1,500 and a programmer who fires out some code. But that often doesn’t happen because the small numbers and quick turn-around time are not how media executives typically think. “They think in terms of months, not days,” Ingram said.
Some mainstream media outlets are stepping up their online news initiatives and experiments. At the National Post, for instance, the newspaper partnered with GeoPollster to allow people to check-in to venues with Foursquare with their political party affiliation, so a certain restaurant can be Conservative if enough Conservatives check-in to that spot en masse. “We wanted it to be fun,” Boutet said, and many panelists agreed entertaining media projects and “gamification” could benefit news outlets.
Taylor, from the newly minted Bell Media, said the growth of mobile and tablet platforms have also dramatically shifted focus and opened up many new opportunities for media outlets, especially broadcasters. “My job has 100 per cent changed because of those platforms,” he said. “We’re learning with everybody else. It’s constantly evolving.” Taylor said he’s hopeful the rules of the TV game will evolve into a more futuristic model, where it’s not just watching TV on your tablet PC, say, but also being able to swipe something from your tablet onto your TV somehow.
He also spoke about new revenue possibilities for broadcasters, saying there’s “no magic bullet” but that old ideas are becoming new again. “I think the answer is going to be a multitude of things, which include digital sponsorship, we have sponsors we have advertisers,” he said. “In the TV world you can only get so innovative, in the digital space it’s nearly unlimited.”
Taylor said the “This show is brought to you by…” line is something we’ll likely hear more often, but that media organizations have to be careful how they balance sponsorship and production. He said sponsors need to be happy with the presence, but broadcasters have to make sure content is not overly swamped with advertising messages.
Angus agreed that mobile is an integral part of the future of media, noting that rapid adoption of mobile phones in some places such as Africa have replaced more traditional platforms such as radio. Angus said the BBC, and media organizations that reach massive audiences in very rural places, have new challenges because they must think about the medium or platform through which the message is being delivered. In some areas, media is consumed through more than just a newspaper or Internet connection. Angus said organizations who want to reach wide audiences now have to think about how much the end-user will have to pay to consume content via mobile versus other platforms when they decide where to invest and how they want to target new audiences.
On the topic of cost, the panel discussed paywalls and how they fit in the media’s future. The BBC’s Angus and Ingram were at odds on this issue. Angus suggested the paywall experiment by the Times of London and New York Times could be the harbinger of things to come. ”What if they’re right, doesn’t that change things?” he asked. Ingram shook his head and said “But the Times of London lost a lot of pageviews…and now they’re just an expensive newsletter.”
After some debate among panelists, Angus went back to the idea and admitted that while it may not be popular among readers it may be necessary for media outlets. He said if it becomes the norm, it may give media organizations enough of a revenue stream to encourage them to invest in the digital media space.
Boutet didn”t like the idea of a paywall because it’s an ultimatum that does not allow the reader to suggest how much they think content is worth. Telling a reader to pay $10 per month or go away, Boutet believes, is the wrong approach because it’s an all-or-nothing attitude. “What about a pay-what-you-can wall?” he suggested, saying some readers may not want to pay $10 per month but would be willing to pay $5. Having the option to let people price a product themselves provides a news organization with the opportunity to market-test various pricing options and determines what people will pay.
The panelists generally agreed a paywall or pay fence would work with specialty content, such as Wall Street Journal‘s financial news or ESPN.com‘s in-depth sports coverage. Ingram was unsure what metric would be used to measure success, though. “Does it look like 200,000 people paying to read your content, or does it look like millions?”
So what’s in store for the future of media? The panelists all seemed to agree experimentation is important and that the news industry as a whole is in better shape today than it has been over the last few years. That said, there are still a number of questions that need to be answered as far as concrete business models that will take shape.
New technologies such as augmented reality provide some really interesting opportunities to media companies, and mobile phones, apps and tablets are a game-changer for how, when and where people consume content.
The overall tone of the night was optimistic, with panelists agreeing wholeheartedly the future looks much brighter than the past. Media organizations now need to focus on experimentation, and partnering with start-ups is a cost-effective way to innovate new ideas.
The panel also agreed newsrooms need to shed old attitudes and get people to talk to their audience in a two-way conversation via social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, while at the same time remember that every word they say is essentially speaking on behalf of their respective media outlets. What you say, when you say it, and how you say it, are guidelines that media organizations need to quickly decide.
Video from the Future of Media event will be available shortly. Check back next week to see full coverage.