Crisis or opportunity? Digital challenges in the Danish news media industry
Digital development and digital interdisciplinarity, big thinking, digital formats, new media and userneeds. These are some of many concepts that apply to the discussion of journalistic challenges and the future of journalism. They were also some of the main topics which media industry wanted to discuss at the first Digital Journalism & Project Management summerschool, held at Politikens Hus in Copenhagen this summer, with the purpose of developing digital journalistic solutions of the future.
And media organizations, and other media agencies similar to Politiken, are in need of such solutions, but the situation is complex because of two main opposing factors. On the one hand, the average number of newspaper circulation has dropped drastically since 2008. The traditional business models for the printing press are threatened, which can be considered as a journalistic crisis. On the other hand, total media consumption is constantly increasing. The average time spent on the Internet is growing, and studies show an emergent use of a diverse range of digital platforms and social media. A societal change through the means of mediatisation is happening, which is essential to the construction of society, culture and everyday life. Consequently, new media influences a lot of people’s daily life and therefore their lives in general. However, such an increased media penetration is simply not enough to establish a profitable business model for the majority of agencies in the media industry. Therefore, the solutions to the journalistic challenges are still lingering.
In a historical perspective, Marshall McLuhan’s notion of media as the extension of man goes way back. The media theoretical focus back then was intended technological appliances such as TV and radio, and also how technology as mental activities would affect society. Mental activities in this regard would include how people would perceive and interpret the world compared with the technological development. Since then a considerable progress has been made in new technology and in the media landscape, which can be considered as critical within a journalistic perspective. Journalism can be viewed as an aging concept situated in a new structure defined by new technology. But as a result of new technology, the need for perception, comprehension and interpretation may have never been as vital as it is now.
An interesting incentive based on the initial description of the situation in the media industry, was the celebration of an age-specific target-group as an overall focal point at the Summer School. “How do we produce content that creates value for the 15–25 year olds?” Keeping this problem statement in mind, the media industry clearly wants to pay attention to the younger parts of the population when it comes to solving the before-mentioned challenges. But does such a definition of the target-group make any sense when discussing content, user needs and value creation?
“How do we produce content that creates value for the 15–25 year olds?” — The problem statement presented for the participants at the Politiken Summer School
As technology change, new media users emerge, which is a natural consequence of such progress. Whether these users in a historical perspective should be considered an anomaly or not can be debated, but they are indeed able to navigate effortlessly in the digital neo-technological landscape. Marc Prensky baptized these users as digital natives, which attracts a huge amount of attention from the established media industry. With a mixture of an extraordinary high level of media consumption combined with no willingness to pay for anything at all, this kind of behaviour fits the initial description of challenges very well. But naming the problem does not provide any guidance for accommodation nor how to solve it.
Quantity over quality
Another interesting observation was the positive and confident reference to qualitative data as a bulletproof tool built for argument and as a scale for success. In regards to the depiction of the digital natives, statistical data becomes the preferred tool for measuring behaviour patterns. This is done in an attempt to predict a specific behaviour and to produce content accordingly, but at the same time to establish a significant market power position in regards to advertisers and their hunger for user specific data. As a result, the different participants and representatives from the media industry fulfilled their respectively described digital journalism initiatives with a mention of the success of the process with quantitative data that could justify the results. And the message was clear; if the interaction on social media or the reading- and viewing time on the digital platforms is not high enough, then the content is just not good enough. And the data rests its case. But is this a universal truth, or is it a sign of even greater problems ahead, when it comes to the creation of profitable business models as the solution for the journalistic challenges?
When it comes to quantitative data, people like Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen advocate in their book, The Moment of Clarity, for less so-called default-thinking during problem-solving processes. This type of thinking relies on some kind of instrumental rationalism, which always seeks to determine what is true or false when examining problems. As a result, opinions, convictions, feelings, doubt and confusion can be avoided by focusing on data, and believing that numbers are the only truth. But looking at it from a broader perspective, a default-thinking mindset will obliterate a company’s ability to exploit the full growth potential.
A company could start to predict the future customer and users of a given product by a set of assumptions, which will be verified by statistical data. Unknown influencers like types of customers and willingness to pay is to be defined, and subsequently the quantifiable data will be manufactured in order to validate the initial prediction. That way, the data will represent future customers as predictable and precise in their way of thinking, but the assumption is entirely based on speculation. By listening to the media industry, quantifiable data is clearly preferable when digital concepts and solutions are developed.
Data has a huge impact as an argument in decision-making procedures and when it comes to production of content. The above-mentioned description therefore perfectly encapsulates the failed thinking of the media industry, because the so-called understanding of user needs, which the before-mentioned value that Politiken and other agencies seeks to create, is primarily achieved by focusing on quantitative data.
Another aspect in continuation of the use of quantitative data is the Big Data debate, and the use of Big Data as an adequate instrument. The media industry signify the importance of this type of data, since the hypothesis is that the more data the better. Content is produced on the basis of these large amounts of data, and the revenue stream from advertising is directly interrelated with the total volume of Big Data. This reopens the Chris Anderson theory discussion, and his idea that a large amount of data undermines the necessity for any humanistic scientific theory that seeks to understand human behaviour.
In parallel, a failed perception has arisen with the notion of Big Data usage as a way of attaining an objective truth. Danah Boyd characterizes this myth as “the widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy”. But quantitative data can be perceived and interpreted just as much as qualitative data. Therefore, one could argue that a critical stance towards large datasets is indeed necessary.
“The widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy”
This includes the originality of the data, weaknesses, the bias of the source, and recognition of the identity of the sender, and his or hers perspective and agenda which could influence the analysis. This is interesting since the media industry did not pursue any critical reflection upon their dataset — far from it. Instead, the use of Big Data gives a false impression of full exploitation of the growth potential. The big question is therefore: can it be done differently?
Value and target-groups in a userneed perspective
Instead of assuming a default-thinking approach with the quantitative data as its driving force, the alternatives must be discussed. What other tools in the toolbox does the media industry have left? The problem statement was focusing on content that creates value, which necessarily must be based on the potential users and their needs. A qualitative approach may give the industry new insights into their customer’s userneeds, in contrast to the immense Big Datasets. Such new insights could open up for new types of users with interesting needs and deficiencies, instead of merely labelling them as 15–25 year olds. Described by Tim Brown from IDEO, Design-Thinking as a method could be used with focus on empathy towards the users through a deep intuition for what it feels like to live their lives.
This type of thinking directly opposes Chris Anderson’s notion of the dispensability of social theory. By creating empathy for the customers, the media institutions are forced to interact in different ways than usually. This can be done by using ethnographic research methods and a more qualitative approach, followed by a define phase, which purpose is to clarify social patterns and user behavior, resulting in the revelation of unnoticed needs. Then you have an intentional basis for the production of content that creates value for the user. A thorough discussion of the word value and the word target-group is just as important as the creation of the solutions themselves.
What can be concluded?
Design projects and smaller media innovation projects, such as the ones produced during the Summer School, is simple not sufficient in solving the challenges that the media industry faces. Focus on the creation of engaging content, use of innovative datajournalism or a discussion of target-groups is only the tip of the iceberg. Value creation for the users is of course of utter importance, but a broader perspective on the situation in the media industry is necessary in order to shed light on other main topics, that should be considered when discussing the future of journalism.
Despite an indication from the journalists, that journalistic content in a digital perspective will not make it on its own, traditional thinking and self-exaltation will automatically create internal power struggles between different professions — e.g. digital designers, developers and other content creators. Furthermore, design and content creating actions becomes worthless if the management structure and the vision of the company does not prioritize it. Edgar Schein argues that leadership plays an essential role when it comes to solving both internal and external problems. As a result, the future of digital journalism must be composed on the basis of a serious discussion about who you are as a media company, and whether you are able to transform and revolutionize your way of thinking. This challenge seems to be overshadowing everything else in an institution such as Politiken.
In conclusion, a discussion about the distribution of digital content from both a journalistic and a business perspective is necessary. Kasper Lindskow, from the Danish media publisher Ekstra Bladet, argues that it is necessary to exploit the different business models available when it comes to news distribution. He points to the transformation of societal and economic structures, which challenges publishers in the industrialized world — a result of changes in media consumption, competition and the way media is being used today. Design and content may play a role in this perspective, but the message overall is clear; focus must be on a strategic design of digital business models for news publishing.
Journalistic content is not viable if the business model is not viable. Therefore, such general problems are just as interesting to examine as questions about digital design and the production of content. It testifies to the complexity of the situation that the media industry faces, and it shows the necessity of further investigation into the digital journalism of the future.