Tuesday, September 13, 2005

What's Going On?

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2002484118_sundaymerrill11.html

I Webbed the news today — oh boy!
By Merrill Brown

There's a dramatic revolution taking place in the news business today and it isn't about TV-anchor changes, scandals at storied newspapers or even the fierce tensions between government and the press.

The future course of news, the basic assumptions about how we consume news and information and make decisions in a democratic society, are being altered, perhaps irrevocably, by technologically savvy young people no longer wedded to traditional news outlets or even accessing news in traditional ways.

While the news business is in the news more than industry leaders might prefer, the most important issue they face revolves around the news habits of today's news consumers, and, in particular, those of young people.

There's an inescapable conclusion to be drawn from research I completed earlier this year for the Carnegie Corp. of New York about the news habits of 18- to 34-year-olds. In short, the future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news.

Through Internet portal sites, handheld devices, blogs and instant messaging, people are accessing and processing information in ways that challenge the historic function of the news business; meanwhile, new forms of newsgathering and distribution, grass-roots or citizen journalism and blogging sites are changing the very nature of who produces news.

Data from the Carnegie project indicate that today's young adults intend to continue to increase their use of the Internet as a primary news source, while newspapers and national television-broadcast news fare poorly in the research.

Internet portals emerge in the survey as the most frequently cited daily news source — with 44 percent of the study group using portals such as Yahoo at least once a day for news. By this same measurement, local TV comes in second at 37 percent, followed by network or cable TV Web sites, and newspapers, at 19 percent each.

And by other measures, the Internet is already clearly ahead of other media among the young. According to the survey, prepared for this project by Frank N. Magid Associates, 41 percent of young news consumers say that the Internet is "the most useful way to learn," compared with 15 percent for second-ranked local TV. And 49 percent say the Internet provides news "only when I want it" — a critical factor for this group — versus 15 percent for second-ranked local TV.

Preparing for the future

As a result of all these changing habits, American news organizations and many around the world are going through significant upheaval. Clearly, young people don't want to rely on the morning paper on their doorstep or the dinnertime newscast for up-to-date information; in fact, they — as well as others — want their news on demand, when it works for them.

And, say many experts, in this new world of journalism, young people want a personal level of engagement and want those presenting the news to them to be transparent in their assumptions, biases and history.

While it is premature to definitively judge the impact of this revolution on public affairs, political discourse or on journalism itself, the writing is on the wall: The way the news will be delivered in the future has already been altered and more changes are undoubtedly on the way. How can we expect anything else, when the average age of a print newspaper reader is 53 and the average age of both broadcast and cable-news viewers is about the same?

Baby boomers read newspapers one-third less than their parents, and the Gen Xers read newspapers another one-third less than the boomers. And the issues these trends suggest can no longer be swept aside by the news giants that ruled for so long.

Indeed, those who gather, report and administer the delivery of the news are increasingly focusing on the reality that technology, the enormous variety of media choices, demographics and, to a certain extent, the struggles of traditional news organizations and the journalism community to adjust to change have left mass audiences and mass-media news gathering and dissemination in peril.

As a result every news organization today is in an intensive, in some places frantic, search for answers, for new business models, for new ways to stop the bleeding.

Questionable losses?

To be sure, some observers and critics of news gathering institutions don't fear a weakening industry and see any loss of clout by big media — often referred to as mainstream media or "MSM" — as liberating. And there's certainly merit to the Internet's capability of allowing thousands of new "publishers," writers of Weblogs or creators of Internet sites, to emerge.

But there are important questions at play in this revolution, many of which revolve around the resources required to cover the news and not simply comment on it.

Who will cover lengthy, costly national political campaigns if traditional news organizations can't afford to? Who will cover international conflict or health crises around the world? Bloggers? Columnists? Organizations like Google or Yahoo that may be assembling news but are fundamentally technology companies?

Already news organizations are straining to cover the Middle East and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What if over the next 10 years large news organizations and the public companies that control them move from just limiting their international coverage to abandoning it altogether?

This discussion, therefore, isn't simply about newspapers, broadcasters or public companies facing marketplace challenges. The questions raised by the young people abandoning the news go to the heart of how we'll learn about the complex world we live in and make informed decisions about its future.

Ignoring the traditional

Already there is little evidence that today's politicians accept the notion that it's mandatory to connect to the population via a national press corps, often choosing to go around the press and communicate through their own Internet sites, friendly talk shows and blog forums. The Bush administration often ignores traditional White House norms of engaging with the national press corps.

Meanwhile, news professionals, until recently, generally were avoiding the bad news about young people's habits by taking comfort in the historic trends that indicate that as younger readers mature, they typically return to the familiar newspapers.

But there's no denying that the numbers are changing. The deterioration of the newspaper marketplace has been steady among young people and would appear to be accelerating. From 1972 to 1998, the percentage of people ages 30 to 39 who read a paper every day dropped from 73 to 30 percent. The audience has permanently changed — and technology is a big part of the reason why.

The good news is that the digital-news revolution has opened up an entirely new, huge and utterly unanticipated marketplace for news and information that didn't exist as the '90s began — the at-work demand for news, sports, stocks quotes, weather and any other type of information you can imagine. It involves millions of people who access data, text, video, applications and headlines via the Internet at their desktops.

But that same circumstance — the easy availability of up-to-the-minute news at the workplace — makes the morning paper seem obsolete to Internet news consumers.

Creating new products

For journalism institutions, this suggests risks of extraordinary magnitude. History suggests that the news industry has at least on occasion created new products tailored to meet the emerging needs of different times and different generations.

Business coverage, for example, an afterthought in many newspapers until the 1980s and '90s, now gets vastly more attention from most news organizations. So-called "women's news" evolved into something far different in magazines and newspapers. The network newscasts of the 21st century look significantly different than those just a few years ago.

But perhaps an even more pressing concern, beyond simply beefing up coverage in one category or another or adding younger faces to a network newscast, is whether approaches to stories and prevailing traditions can really change.

Can storytelling evolve to include more interactivity, citizen participation, younger newsmakers and the use of music, innovative pacing and more engaging graphic and presentation elements? Is the growing movement toward citizen journalism — the creation of publications written by activists without news training — a notion inviting chaos and irresponsibility, or a new level of civic engagement?

Citizen journalism

What the survey data, as well as the message that's coming in loud and clear from bloggers and their readers, are telling us is that there are new forms of participatory or citizen journalism that can re-engage disengaged publics.

Last year, The Bakersfield Californian launched The Northwest Voice (http://www.northwestvoice.com/), a community weekly paper and Internet site. Most of the content is produced by members of the community and submitted by way of the Internet. A new company called Back Fence (I am an adviser) is preparing to launch community-journalism sites around the country and is already operating in suburban Washington, D.C.

While many news executives cringe at the idea of such projects, these are bold concepts and their premise — that news can actually be generated by readers — may be precisely what many young, dissatisfied news consumers will respond to.

Meanwhile, news organizations need to invest in building new ways to connect to consumers and join the virtual-online conversations that are a central place where news is discussed. Television networks are exploring new TV services that would reach viewers on rock-music channels and other places — such as on their computers at work, and at home — where they're accessing video products.

While making investments is imperative, the news industry needs to do so while simultaneously embracing new, creative business approaches. Few news organizations think methodically and creatively about product development, and resources allocated to studying and inventing new news products are generally minuscule.

At universities and think tanks, research on these critical topics is limited. It is time to tie together the disparate worlds of research, education and news in order to maximize intellectual capability and limited resources.

Experiment with bloggers

Meanwhile, the news industry should recognize the importance of what's going on in places like Bakersfield and with another similar project in Greensboro, N.C., and experiment with bloggers and other independent journalists and citizens. With safeguards, and appropriate standards as a requirement, news organizations large and small should bring the public into their news gathering and news delivery planning processes in previously unimaginable ways.

From the simple touches, like making every news professional's e-mail address available, to the more complex, such as engaging with news sources and the citizenry at large in meaningful dialogue, there are clearly methods for providing the accessibility younger audiences are likely to embrace.

In other words, news executives need to think about their products as participatory community institutions, not merely as distributors of their own creative output and open themselves to input, feedback, ideas and journalism from outside their own organizations.

In addition, news organizations must recognize the value of the one piece of technology that's in virtually every hand around the world — the cellphone — so that the mobile revolution is, in fact, part of a news revolution.

While the outright collapse of large news organizations is hardly imminent, as the new century progresses it's hard to escape the fact that their franchises have eroded and their futures are far from certain. Remember the New York Herald Tribune? Remember when CBS News was considered something quite special?

Turnarounds in these businesses are certainly possible, but only for those news organizations willing to invest time, thought and resources into engaging their audiences, especially younger consumers. The trend lines are clear. But in my view, so is the importance of a dynamic news business to our civic life, to our educational future, and to our democracy.

Merrill Brown was the founding editor in chief of MSNBC.com and is a former executive with RealNetworks. He presently is a New York-based media consultant and was recently appointed national editorial director of the News 21 project, a part of a journalism initiative launched this spring by the Carnegie and Knight foundations. This commentary is based on a longer essay published in the Spring 2005 issue of the Carnegie Reporter.

1 Comments:

At December 18, 2005 4:22 PM, Blogger job opportunitya said...

Hot blog. When I get to seraching on the web for
blogs, its got to be like yours! And the site is off
the hook! I just kept coming back!
Check out the blog site with my en language sell settlement structured in it!

 

Post a Comment

<< Home