Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Five Thoughts on the Future of Journalism

Last night, a Twitter conversation between David Armano (SVP of Edelman Digital), Brian Morrissey (digital editor at AdWeek) and me about the disparity between mainstream media and the social web got me thinking about the future of journalism. Our conversation was sparked by a recent report conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (via this blog post).

The report itself is a good one, however, there was one point that stuck in my craw a little bit (and I think David's as well):

While social media players espouse a different agenda than the mainstream media, blogs still heavily rely on the traditional press -- and primarily just a few outlets within that -- for their information. More than 99% of the stories linked to in blogs came from legacy outlets such as newspapers and broadcast networks. And just four -- the BBC, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post accounted for fully 80% of all links.
While I don't disagree at all with the concept that social media relies heavily on the same four legacy outlets for source material, this doesn't mean that social/new media can't or won't survive without these traditional media outlets. 

What I will concede is that IF traditional media were to die -- something I don't think will ever happen -- we would fair just fine. The biggest shift in my mind would be a need for better filters that would help us collectively sort through the wheat and chaff. This likely is some combination of human curation and a variety of technologies relying on collaborative filtering and natural language search.

With that as a backdrop, here are my five thoughts on the future of journalism.

  1. As traditional advertising dollars continue to shrink, so too will budgets that support traditional advertising. Hopefully this means that rags like the New York Post go away and that gems like NPR and the Christian Science Monitor rise to the top via user support and innovative new sponsorship opportunties.
  2. Following up on an earlier thought, as social media news sources grow and traditional ones shrink, there will be an ever increasing need for curation and technology to help us find and filter. Think Alltop.com with less Guy Kawasaki.
  3. Traditional outlets will do themselves a favor by keeping an eye on the likes of The Austin Statesmen (h/t to Rob Quigley for the work he's leading there),  AdWeek's AdFreak co-created by Mr. Morrissey and Boston.com with its clever use of hashtagged content, regularly updated blogs and complementary video footage.
  4. The need for PR firms and departments to brief/pitch top podcasters, bloggers, video bloggers and micro bloggers will continue to increase. Not saying this is a real "aha" but as a the reliance on the top news bloggers as primary source of information grows bigger, so too will a need to keep these influencers in the loop.
  5. Only a few select organizations will ever be able to charge for their content irrespective of whether or not micropayments ever catch on.
I'm quite sure I'm missing a bunch of hot topics here but this should get some of the creative juices flowing. Where do you see the future of journalism headed? Join the conversation in the comments below.


  1. Nice post. I agree wholeheartedly. We'll see a winnowing of media, without a doubt. It's not only inevitable but a good thing -- just so long as I'm not winnowed, of course.

    I objected to this dubious (and unsupported) point from Mashable: "The study underlines the large disconnect between what mainstream media thinks is “top news” and what social media users consider newsworthy, as well as the different kinds of content and discussion each platform attracts. It also suggests that if traditional news companies want to succeed online — that is, if they want to attract a large number of page views and be relevant to users on the web — they may need to alter their content to match readers’ interests." This is troubles me. Yes, Mashable can keep posting Foursquare stories and HuffingtonPost can do slideshows of Lindsay Lohan not wearing pants. It doesn't take a genius to figure out how to drive page views or mine trending topics. I fear that's missing the point. For one, the page view game is coming to an end. It's pointless and has led to torrents of bad content and even worse user experience. The challenge of media companies is to become audience focused rather than product focused. For too long, they thought they were in the magazine or newspaper business. It's like the old saw of the train cos not realizing they were in the transportation business. Those days are over. We need to figure out how to link our audiences with useful information, experiences and services. News orgs should absolutely take into account what is important to their audiences, but the idea they should mimic what's popular in social media is crazy and simplistic. Does the world need another story on Apple? Another post on Bieber? There must be a way to create trusted, authoritative content that doesn't go down that rabbit hole. There is so much traditional media can learn from newer, more nimble digital upstarts. I don't think social media link-baiting is one of those lessons.

  2. Aaron,
    Love the post, but I think its missing a definition of blogger as you are using it. Just as not all news outlets are equal nor are all bloggers. Many are only to happy to be "me too" content creators, and add nothing but additional volume to the noise. Few act as journalists do, and check their facts, double check them and seek alternate sources. If, by Blogger you really mean Citizen Journalist then we are going to have to see standards of writing, investigation and content creation rise. As a blogger myself I would never do journalists the disservice of their years of education, both academic and in role, by comparing myself to them.
    I do what I can to check facts, I try and make phone calls and email people to get opinion but at the end of the day, it isn't my full-time job. So at the very best my posts are Op-Ed rather than journalistic in nature.
    I do however, think that Human Curated content is the way of the future, I think Search will become increasingly irrelevant. Projects like BlissRead from Alli Worthington's team at Blissdom reinforce that opinion.

  3. Aaron, this is an important topic and while I agree with your overall thinking I do disagree somewhat with points 1 and 4. Not enough space or time here for me to elaborate but here are just a few things for each and perhaps we do another "blog/counter-blog" on the topic.

    Concerning #1

    I don't think this is necessarily about quality since advertising spend has always been about eyeballs and less about the content. I think advertising dollars are shifting dramatically (obviously), but they are going to go to the place that has the eye balls and love him or hate him Murdoch has figured out how to make this work (i.e. New York Post).

    The rise of social media has undoubtedly contributed to the dissolution of quality within magazines and newspapers. It has also created this mentality that information should be short, from various sources and aggregated in one place (see your point #2). This type of mentality serves a New York Post (even a Boston Herald) much more suitably than the New York Times. I think you'll see these types of organizations actually grow in popularity and take the rest of the traditional ad dollar pie over mover quality content.

    Concerning #4

    The opposite is true in my opinion. One of the great things about social media is the fact that we can more quickly determine the influencers, track them, monitor what they are saying and communicate directly with them through our own use of social media. The need for an intermediary to facilitate these relationships is growing, as you mention, but I think it is an organic and internal growth that is not coming from PR people and certainly not PR agencies (as you know, this is my background, so I do not type this without much thought and contemplation).

    Ultimately, if you want to do better communications with a growing community of "influencers" that do include press, bloggers, etc you will want to do it within your own walls and not rely on a third party.

    Looking forward to what is always a good debate between us ;)


  4. Brian - thank you for chiming in (and again for your inspiration last night). Trust me, I don't think you'll be the one "winnowed" anytime soon. You are too open minded and too socially savvy for that.

    Simon - fantastic point. Shame on me for not taking more time on that point. Fortunately for me, I have friends like you who keep an eye out for things like that. This is one of the reasons I will NOT ever become a source for news.

    Kyle - ahhh, my friend and foil. What would I ever do without you? Unfortunately you are probably right about number one. However, I am buoyed by the thought that as ad dollars shrink, discerning people will (hopefully) invest their dollars and attention toward more thoughtful publications that are NOT owned by Mr. Murdoch. As for point number four, we're going to have to agree to disagree on that one. While I do believe that many PR firms are not good or well equipped at outreach, the smart ones (ahem, SHIFT and ahem Edelman) will start to serve more as coaches/strategists vs. the ones doing the outreach. This is one of the reasons I mentioned "PR departments" as well as I do agree that more and more influencer outreach should come from the company itself vs. its intermediary.

    Thanks again to the three of you for making this an interesting conversation.

    Aaron | @aaronstrout

  5. I have to agree with Brian that traditional media trying to mimic social is not the way for them to go. For example, I'm rather bored with HLN trying to be "social" by going from one celebrity gossip story to another coupled with popular commentary with very little real news in between.

    I would hope that Aaron's idea of the "cream rising to the top" (point #1) will happen, but I'm cynical enough to believe that the trash will float more than the cream so long as the idea of "more eyeballs" remains the goal of traditional media.

  6. Good post, Aaron, and thanks for the nice mention.

    I'm not sure I fully agree with your premise, but it's a good debate. Are new media sources gaining influence still? I happen to think microblogging (tweets and FB status updates) are causing a pull-back in non-traditional news gathering. It's much easier (and often even more rewarding) to share through social sites (regardless of source) than to do the work that it takes to blog. Everyone who blogs knows that it's not an easy thing to maintain, especially when you have a full-time job and a life...

    I think of mainstream media outlets (including the New York Times, CNN, etc) as content creators. To be sure, they should be figuring out how to also curate content and effectively spread their own content, but they are content creators first and foremost. And I think the era of social media actually helps those content creators, not hurts them. What could be better for a content creator than to have huge machines set up to spread their content?

  7. Indeed Aaron. Except, I think you should have left out the word "IF." It's just a matter of time... maybe not next week, or in a year or 2 years, but it's coming...

  8. Aaron,

    Good word! I've been a working Photojournalist since the seventies and have worked for some great institutions over the years. One big observance I see few discuss is the vetting of stories, especially important stories. I've seen a trend since the eighties towards less time given to fact finding before running a story. These days the stories are rushed to press and corrected on the fly and in some cases just not corrected at all. Because of this the mainstream media has developed a credibility problem. This is the core issue and is mainly what is bringing Mainstream Media to its financial knees. No one trusts them anymore. I remember a comment people used all the time in the 60's/ 70's which meant it had to be true..."it was in the paper!" Today if I said that seriously to just about anyone, I would get laughed at and I live in a town with a pretty good paper, Austin, Texas...This scares me more than any other issue challenging us today! Without a credible press, who will hold our government accountable? Your overall thoughts on the trust issue?

  9. Elmer - let's keep our fingers crossed.

    Rob - thanks for chiming in. I actually agree w/ your points. Thanks for bringing your "insider" perspective to the table.

    Alex - just checking to make sure everyone was paying attention. ;)

  10. Kevin - fantastic point. Regarding your very last statement, there was an interview that news pioneer/anchorman, Tom Brokaw, did with KUT/NPR last fall. You should watch the whole 10+ minutes here - http://vimeo.com/4176028 - but the line that really blew me away was, "it really is important to a democratic republic to have strong independent journalistic voices to tell people what's going on in their name at the highest and lowest levels of government." Wow.

  11. Aaron--

    Great synopsis. I have one major thought about that stat you gripe about to further your craw (what the heck is that anyway?)

    As bloggers especially longer-term bloggers who have had to go thru the "blogger credibility" period (which is still apparent of course), we can't deny the fact that part of referencing traditional media channels has always been to establish the legitimacy of your information (whether any of us want to admit it or not.... We'd rather reference CNN than RandomBlogXYZ. Now, I don't know any good way of quantifying this or anything, but I'd be willing to bet that a significant number of "real media" references were made under theses circumstances.

    Now, you may think that's a strong statement, but at the very least, using the term "rely" or "reliance" is definitely a stretch. In some cases the use of big media references was likely a strategic move to cater to the reader who still had traditional views on the media.

    This goes along with your #2. As bloggers themselves gain legitimacy (without being propped up by big media), I would expect a decrease in cases of referencing them. Yes, there are MANY more factors to this of course, but I do think this has at least some effect on the numbers they're seeing, and really jut something interesting to think about in this whole mix, especially how it has changed and will change moving forward. Just one dynamic to think about....(sorry if that got a bit off topic there!)


  12. Kate - belatedly replying to your most excellent comment... believe it or not, I think we agree. I often cite traditional media because I know that source has been vetted. Going forward, as more citizen journalists come into the world, there are two things that will vet them:
    1) value of their posts
    2) number of people reading them

    Notice I put numbers 1 and 2 in the order that I did because big numbers don't a great or reliable blogger make. However, if you read someone regularly and find them useful AND they have some critical mass following them (especially if you know of some of the other readers as friends or fellow experts).

  13. The future of journalism is information written, or passed on, from your friends. The tipping point will be when the line between gossip and news is drawn.