The Future of the News

Young reporters covering the mayor’s race in Boston.

Since at least the mid 1990s, when news organizations first began understanding that it was in their interest to at least have a website, even if they didn’t know exactly what to do with one, there have been those predicting the end of journalism.

The news from inside traditional newsrooms seems to confirm a downward trend. There are fewer newspapers and there are more ghost papers — the term used to describe once significant local brands that are now little more than a neon sign on the side of a historic downtown building that insists on declaring that the people working inside are the watchdogs of the community.

At the start of the last century, radio emerged as the first form of new media to challenge the supremacy of newspapers. Until the 1980s, radio was still a force in local journalism. Now, with few notable exceptions, radio is no longer the power it was in breaking news.

A few weeks ago, a new study said local television stations are having trouble hiring reporters and photographers, chiefly because local television news is also dying out. Fewer people are willing to make an appointment to sit for thirty minutes to watch a local newscast. This means revenues are down, which means salaries are lower, which means young people interested in a career in journalism are looking for opportunities elsewhere, and most likely in non-traditional settings with non-traditional approaches.

The news about the news is bleak, but only if you are concerned about how news is delivered, because while those traditional news sources are slowly going the way of radio, it is also true there is more information available to us than ever. The main challenges are how that information is most effectively and profitably delivered and how we as consumers can measure its reliability.

From the consumer point of view three delivery methods seem to be preferred and may therefore hold promise.

  • Digitally delivered newsletters
  • Podcasts
  • Streaming video

All three embrace the idea that the consumption of news should be easy to accomplish for the average citizen and that news should be available at all times based on the life schedule of the consumer. In this world; the morning paper, the six o’clock newscast, the weekend public affairs show, and many other traditions of journalism are merely quaint reminders of the past, shouting into the wind.

Interestingly, from a historical perspective, each of these delivery systems relates to earlier forms, but particularly radio. Short writing styles, portable, always nearby, on the scene and live.

Paul Harvey delivered a daily newscast on radio for decades. His audience made an appointment to hear his take on the news in a voice and delivery that was unique. Harvey’s broadcast was a daily newsletter that today might be delivered to your inbox in script form and as a podcast link. His material was gathered largely from the reporting work of others, but assembled by Harvey into an informative and entertaining finished product.

The newsletter, as a means of news delivery, is growing rapidly. Content is being shaped to be read easily on phones. Some newsletters offer a generalist approach to news coverage(especially those linked to legacy news organizations), but many new offerings are meant to appeal to niche audiences. This is not a new concept. Many trade newsletters used to be sent out weekly, or monthly, through the mail. Now, they can be delivered with the frequency of live coverage — if necessary — by email, text, or other digital means.

News web sites, once designed to be a digital recreation of the morning newspaper, are being redesigned to mimic the look of newsletters, or an old fashioned newswire. Axios, a leader in the newsletter journalism movement, is offering instruction on how to adapt newsletter writing style to all business communication. The brevity trend recognizes what it takes to breakthrough the waves of text we receive every day and offers a way to ensure that your messages are viewed as essential reading.

In the early part of the last century, families gathered around the radio to listen to stories, shows and the news. Technology and our apparent need to fill every waking moment engaging with some form of media has led to a resurgence of the old fashioned radio program in the form of podcasts. It used to be said that if you identified yourself as a “consultant” it meant you were out of work. I sometimes wonder if the same can be said for podcasters, because it seems everyone has a podcast.

Some of the most popular podcasts are serialized true stories. It is news based story telling. Others are linked to traditional news organizations and attempt to update the Harvey approach to covering the news of the day. Daily news podcasts today are more reliant on interviews and sound editing(or sound design as it is now called) than on the strength of the host’s voice.

As with newsletters, the key ingredient to the success of podcasts is their portability. If you have a phone you can access a podcast either for the latest information or an entertaining story. You can listen in your car, while waiting for a meeting, or even while you are in a meeting if the podcast content is preferable to the PowerPoint presentation of your colleague.

Legacy news organizations, like the New York Times and The New Yorker, are investing in podcasting. National Public Radio has understandably long embraced the form. The major television and cable networks regularly turn their video offerings into podcasts and re-package them as what amounts to old fashioned radio.

In 1980, when he tried to explain the concept behind an all-news cable television channel, Ted Turner would say, “you’ve heard of all news radio right. Well this is all news television.” And so CNN was born. Both ideas, all news radio and all news television still make sense for certain audiences, but technology is changing the preferred delivery method and as a result we are seeing an increase in the number of streaming news services.

CBSN, ABC News Live, NBC News NOW and soon CNN+ are among the original broadcast and cable news institutions committed to streaming content for viewing on your phone or other device. National and local news outlets regularly stream live events. Some newspapers have hired journalists with television experience to anchor live coverage.

Journalism is far from dead. Information can be delivered raw and unfiltered, as in the case of live events. The biggest concern is how the news is shaped to reach specific audiences based on embedded political beliefs. There have always been efforts made by content creators to appeal to specific audiences by using research to understand and deliver what an audience wants.

The last three decades in journalism has been a search for a new business model. Many legacy institutions have been forced to close. Others have survived, in large part, due to their outsized success over the course of their long history. Some are living off their savings.

As we approach the middle decades of this century it is beginning to look as if journalism is getting closer to finding a new model. It is more nimble. It relies on fewer people to produce a daily product, it is delivered primarily through smart phones and other devices, and it distills news down to the essential information needed to acquire a base understanding of the issues of the day. Instead of offering “all the news that is fit to print” and forcing the consumer to sift through it all, the new journalism(if we want to call it that) points the reader in several directions at once and leaves it to the consumer to decide which path to follow toward a deeper dive.

It is a more efficient delivery model, but it requires the active participation of the audience. It requires citizens to choose to be interested in their world.

For more stories and photo essays visit ThisDecisiveMoment.com

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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.

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