Open letter to Charles-Louis-Havas and Michael Bloomberg
You are our spiritual fathers. At a time when the processing of media is at the heart of current developments in our industry, we want to share with you a few convictions about the evolution of our profession as a news agency, a profession that is entering a new era in its long history.
When you created the Havas agency in 1835, dear Charles-Louis, news was a rare and expensive commodity. You had a profession: to collect it, to “produce” it. It was spread at the time by carrier pigeon. This “news scarcity,” within the context of nascent globalization and yet limited means of communication, allowed for the emergence of “news wholesalers.” Your output totaled a few dozen units per day. Following your example, your former intern Paul-Julius Reuters set up shop in London in 1851. Adapting the business model to his environment, he became the leading specialist in financial news. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the emergence of three global agencies that established themselves as industry leaders through the decades: Havas in France (which became AFP in 1944), Reuters in England and the Associated Press in the US. Today, the agencies in this trio are still setting the benchmark in terms of the quality of their products, the comprehensiveness of their coverage and the strength of their international influence.
1981: adeptly seizing upon the growth of financial capitalism and the emergence of digital technologies, you, dear Michael, reinvented this industry with a focus on innovation. Your Bloomberg Terminal made its way onto trading floors around the globe. You transformed seemingly insignificant numerical feeds into news, and you invented “data journalism” long before anyone else.
With the concurrent explosion of the internet, smartphones, connected objects of all kinds, Google, Twitter and Facebook (to name only a few), the 21st century is changing everything. The years of news scarcity and data journalism have given way to an era of “infobesity,” characterized by an overabundance of news. Access to text, images and videos has become child’s play, mere banality. The numbers are terrifying. 2016: the global Facebook community posted 4.75 billion content items per day. For hundred hours of video are added to YouTube every minute. Seventy million photos are added to Instagram on a daily basis. Five hundred million tweets are posted each day. Of course, not everything is news. But the social network revolution is disrupting the entire media ecosystem. To the extent that a majority of U.S. adults (62%) get news on social media. To the extent that “brands” like Coca-Cola (100 million fans on Facebook in France alone) and Red Bull (46 million) become media outlets as soon as they disseminate “content,” which they are doing with increasing frequency. To the extent that Twitter has become a news source even for the “big” agencies, which have to cope with this accelerated pace without sacrificing deontological fact-checking principles in the slightest. These agencies are still the entities that “validate” a news report…including some that have already been shared, liked, retweeted, forwarded and hashtagged hundreds, thousands, even millions of times…before they publish it.
The result of all of this, dear Charles-Louis and Michael, is a question: should the vocation of news agencies remain the production of news, and only that? Or should these agencies change tack? Ride this wave by taking ownership of it through technology? This is our conviction. To change or to vanish, this seems to be the matter at hand. Change and, most of all, seize the numerous opportunities that come with change. Change and, within an ocean of news, in which it is so easy to drown and so difficult to find one’s bearings, revive the full etymological meaning of the word “source.”
A news agency should no longer merely supply quality content to its clients. This function is still a highly necessary foundation. But it is no longer enough. A news agency, in 2016, should also help its clients to generate, retain and monetize their audience. Content is a strategic subject, and the next-generation news agency should be the strategic partner of anyone concerned with content.
For text, photos, videos… a news agency should be the preferred source for those looking to differentiate through content. This includes media outlets, of course, but also an increasing number of brands, which are due to shift overwhelmingly from advertising to editorialize. In other words, from the age of classic advertising to one in which content is used to “engage” communities, which is to say consumers.
Indeed, they must change tack and become suppliers of structure. Who is better qualified than a news agency when it comes to evaluating the quality or the relevance of a news item? Who will prioritize news items better than anyone else? Providing structure means being able to aggregate thousands of sources so they may be consulted at once, ensuring comprehensiveness and timeliness. Providing structure also means procuring the necessary tools to identify what consumers like. Today, algorithms can measure in real time which news stories are buzzing the most on social networks. News agencies must equip themselves with these indicators, these true “radars” of popularity. Finally, providing structure means offering a panel of related services to allow clients to focus on the essentials, which is to say the selection and customization of news items and their publication in different forms through social networks and other platforms. All of this should require no more than a few clicks. The business of news is also becoming one of processing (of news and information) and of coaching (of clients, whether media outlets or brands). What do we have to thank for this? Technology. And media professionals. An indivisible pair.
All of this has an impact on the organization of the agency. Alongside journalists, who will never stop producing information (even once there are robots in every newsroom), new professions will emerge: “radarists” tasked with analyzing buzz levels and explaining trends; “sourcists” tasked with identifying and categorizing sources within a given editorial area; “strategists” tasked with defining and honing editorial concepts, as well as accompanying and encouraging reflection and discussion among consumers of news; and community managers tasked with building and growing online communities. And a deontologist will continue to safeguard the sacrosanct independence of media content.
All of this may impact the business model of the agency. Why not leave behind the era in which everything comes at a cost and adopt the Freemium model that has worked for so many companies worldwide: free access to news, paid use of this news as “raw material,” with a strong emphasis on customization, a virtuous model?
Charles-Louis, Michael, you who (re)invented the world’s greatest profession, you would be happy to note that we need news agencies now more than ever before.
Jérôme & Pierre Doncieux
Co-CEO of Relaxnews