People want stories. They appreciate in-depth research, long reads, scrolly-telling, rich multimedia reporting, tri-medial presentations, consisting of full video, sound and text. But what if all this isn’t true? What if we are only kidding ourselves and the future of journalism is going to look entirely different?
Presentation given at the Frankfurt Online Journalism Conference
I rode an Uber cab recently with a few colleagues as we were leaving a conference in Texas. For years now I have made a point of asking Uber drivers what their real profession was. Most of them came from the precariat, particularly from the food business, McDonalds, Burger King or Pizza delivery. Why am I telling you this — you’ll never guess. For the first time we found a profession among the drivers that we wouldn’t have suspected. When asked what he used to do before he started driving people around, the man’s answer was: “I used to be a journalist.”
It’s nothing new that journalists take to their heels because they are frustrated or because they can’t make ends meet any longer. So it was never unusual that they changed over to the dark side, went into PR or took a job as a politician’s speaker.
What we have been seeing for some time now is that good people run towards the web. Tech journalist David Pogue joins Yahoo. Jim Roberts, formerly video chief at the New York Times, today works for Mashable. Richard Gingras, the man who once helped create public teletext in the US, is now head of Google News.
I’m waiting for the day when they’ll make a television series about a has-been tabloid journalist who is so desperate that he sets up a Crystal Meth lab down in the engine room of an abandoned printing plant …
The climate is getting rougher out there. In the networked world journalists are increasingly at the mercy of a gigantic competition.
Not only are Netflix, Amazon & Co constantly increasing their content offerings and so continue to hijack our audience’s attention — another new factor has emerged recently: The empowerment of the amateurs. Thanks to apps such as Meerkat and Periscope their professionalization seems unstoppable.
Next-generation mobile networks are going to make data transfer faster than optical fiber cable. Once that is achieved there will be no more limits — that’s when the battle for people’s attention will start for real.
So there are three questions we have to ask ourselves today:
· How are we going to remain relevant?
· How are we going to be found?
· How will we have to present our content so that it will be useful for people?
These are the questions I asked a number of media professionals at the SXSW conference, and here are some of their answers:
1. How are we going to remain relevant?
One of the best and in my opinion the most honest analysis came from the Washington Post.
A year ago this very traditional paper was bought by Jeff Bezos, as we all know. Since then 100 new people were hired.
The number of programmers was raised from 4 to 47. The number of journalists was also increased: “technology-oriented people who do not romanticize print” (Martin Baron, Executive Editor, Washington Post).
The result: Page impressions increased by 63% within the first year.
The Bezos team emphasized three points in their restructuring of the Washington Post:
· Technology & Performance
· Customer Service
· Content Quality
As far as content is concerned, digital content chief Joey Marburger does not mince words:
“It’s like, a lot of start-ups will say how they failed was when they realized they were not using their own product. If we are not reading our own journalism, there is a problem!”
I am quite certain: If we want to remain relevant in five years’ time, changing the packaging will not be enough — we will also have to do something about the content!
Mediocrity will not get any better if you play it over three different media. It will be analog wine in digital bottles.
Three years ago at Bayerisches Fernsehen, a regional part of German public television, we did an internet experiment called the “Rundshow”. My motto for that work was from day one: “Would I ‘like’ that on Facebook?” Whenever we noticed that we wouldn’t recommend what we were working on to our own network of friends, there was something wrong with what we were working on.
In such a case there are only two options: You either kiss the topic goodbye, or you go back to the drawing board and think about how to change it in such a way that you would want to share it in your personal environment.
2. How are we going to be found?
One of the most important, if not THE most important topic at the SXSW interactive conference was ubiqitiy — omni-presence
Jonah Peretti gave us deep insights into the engine room of BuzzFeed in his presentation. I know that some of you have already downloaded that presentation from my blog. For all of you who haven’t done so yet, I can only recommend that you do! Even though the transcript costs €1.00, I haven’t had any complaints that the content doesn’t justify the price. If you want to sum up what Peretti said, it was all about breaking taboos. Up until now BuzzFeed has done what every content provider does on Facebook, Instagram or on Twitter: They put up a teaser photo, followed by a link that’s taking the user to their own page.
Peretti now wants to break open this procedure and put up the content directly on Facebook, not just a preview, but the whole article.
How shareable is our content? I know what you’re going to say now: Anyone can make cat content shareable. But how is it supposed to work with hard core news?
On Wednesday night, not even two days after the GermanWings crash, the New York Times started distributing tweets such as this one:
We can assume that this kind of “screenshort” will become more common once the Apple Watch will be in the stores 10 days from now.
Six lines of text, not like what we are used to from a classic headline plus a link to the story proper as announced by the NYT. The goal is to distill the essence from the story so that it fits onto the watch.
And who will win the race to the user — will it be text, images or video? That’s what I asked Matt Carroll from MIT Media Lab:
3. Longreads vs. Snackable — how will we have to present our content?
This is our third and last question about the future of journalism: Will it be short, atomized news, or longreads after all, the rich scrollytelling and multimedia formats?
Here is an answer from another expert who has been thinking about these questions for years:
Zach King has shown us that you can reach millions of people even with mini-videos. His genius managed to make an art form out of six-second videos.
Kawandeep Virdee, founder of the sharing platform Embedly, thinks that both genres, short and longreads will have a chance, as long as we manage to atomize the longreads in a meaningful way for all platforms.
Be the first or be the best. What we will not be able to afford in the future is mediocrity.
There is a future even for the big, multimedia story. But: make it snackable and don’t just share a teaser, but a complete, mini version of your content on Facebook, Twitter & Co.
And if you don’t reach your audience any longer on Twitter, because they can’t be bothered to read, don’t lose time and go where the people are. The currency of the future is called attention, and if you don’t have attention you will be doomed, no matter if you are a public organization or if you are financed with private capital.
Check out my blog: gutjahr.biz