Just another story on the future of the news business
Reading about the future of the news business is fascinating. Newspapers worldwide, big or small, have grown accustomed to monopoly and complete control over the information people consumed (or should consume, if you will). It is no secret that the Internet has changed the rules of the game. In the 90's one just couldn't compete with the New York Times. Ever. Hell, even newspapers weren't really competing with one another. The information vacuum, back then, was so brutal that a newspaper was just something people needed — badly. If you were not to read it, you’d be left in the vacuum. Additionally, you had no other option than to buy the whole freaking Paper — even if you were interested only in the Politics section. Believe it or not, the newspaper changed little to nothing in the last 25 years.
I won’t, however, focus on what newspapers are or used to be, but rather on what newspapers can be. And that’s the tricky part. Most traditional media companies and senior editors will simply not let go of the past. No matter what. To them, true journalism can only be found in the printed versions of their Papers. I am not a journalist, but it must have something glamorous about being a print journalist — whatever that means, anyways. The truth is showing its ugly face for years now and is relentlessly giving those companies and people a choice: adapt or die. A few are. Others are still discussing whether the print has a future.
It clearly doesn't. Or do you really see 20-somethings opening newspapers in 5 to 10 years from now to read yesterday’s news?
I am not telling people to shut down all of their print operations. Hell, no. I am not that crazy. Print is still, of course, where newspapers make most of their money. But that’s changing. And that’s not because people are consuming less information. As a matter of fact, people are consuming way more information today than they did 10 years ago — a courtesy of the Internet. Interestingly enough, the same Internet that is making people read more is also responsible for breaking the traditional newspaper’s business model. Yeah, that’s right. That business model is broken and there’s no way to fix it, simply because today’s newspaper no longer fulfill a consumer need. And everybody knows that the ad money — the foundation of the above mentioned business model —goes where the people are.
But where are the people, then?
They are everywhere, 24/7, on multiple devices and in many websites and apps. They will keep reading the news, though — more and more. It just won’t be in a printed newspaper. I am sorry to say so.
The new business model won’t, and certainly can’t, be exclusively dependent on ads. It is a lot easier to depend on the people who actually read—and love—what you make than on a (random) company's ad budget. And that’s just to begin with. Marc Andreessen wrote an inspiring article on that, by the way.
The future is a lot brighter than some people tend to believe. In fact, it is already brighter than it was a few years ago. Who would have imagined that investors would be pouring millions in news websites, such as BuzzFeed, Vox Media and Vice? Well, they did and will most likely keep doing it. It is actually plausible to believe that the world will see the rise of a few global media empires, with structured operations oversees, covering local events better than local newspapers ever did. That’s what smart investors are betting on, or else they’d just keeping pouring 100% of their funds on the Ubers, Dropboxes and Airbnbs of the world — which is far from being stupid, evidently. But a little information control, followed by huge reach, in a massively growing market is never too much, right?
The future is all about change. And change is very hard to predict. Paul Graham, Silicon Valley legend and former Y Combinator’s president, keeps writing and speaking about it pretty much everywhere. Recently, he wrote an essay on “How to Be and Expert in a Changing World” and I think it summarizes exceptionally well the current moment of news business executives. The world is not static. It changes. So does the news business. The main problem here is that those executives are experts in a business that now only exists in the past. They used to know everything from content production to finance to distribution and they are now faced with the reality of not knowing (nearly) anything about this brave new world. That’s why they are wrong and will keep doing the wrong things under the right assumption — that of the news business is well and alive. Believing that change is inevitable is the first step to understand the world as it is or what it might become. This, unfortunately, is the rule in the industry. Thankfully though, exceptions do exist, but only a handful of traditional newspapers’ executives are prepared for, and most importantly, believe in change.
What do newspapers have to do to be competitive, you ask?
I’d say hire as many (talented) programmers and designers as you possibly can. Treat them well and give them the autonomy they deserve because those people are special. They have the gift to change the way things around you feel, look and ultimately work. Yes, it is just like that — pure magic. Believe me.
Marc Andreessen once said that software is eating the world. The fact is that software’s already eaten the whole news business. Everything in this modern age of journalism works around accurate data and beautiful digital products that are only available because software made it possible. Take Medium as an example. Its simplicity and efficiency makes content creation so easy that anyone, anywhere, can be a writer. Its community, along with Facebook and Twitter, works as the distribution force that once was a prerogative of traditional newspapers. BuzzFeed is also a remarkable example. It is a media (Internet) company that prides itself for both creating and optimizing content. And that’s only possible, again, because of software. BuzzFeed has a legion of engineers, designers and data scientists that work hard to make sure that what you read is what you need — and they know that by working side by side with journalists as well as by analyzing in real-time the stories that perform best.
The future of the news business, however, goes beyond that. Journalism at its essence is also broken and no code will simply fix it. The newsroom itself needs to change. Its policies, its structure. It needs to adapt to this new world. Journalists need to understand their readers, specially their needs, to create truly valuable, and not simply "worth reading", content. Society changes a lot and its interest in certain topics increases (or decreases) accordingly. That said, the human factor is still vital and therefore must not be neglected.
Although being important, the human factor can and should be improved by technology. In the first paragraph of this text, I concisely stated how problematic the newspaper reading experience can be: you buy it all, the whole package — from politics to sports to economics to entertainment, unless you are into segmented newspapers. And that’s a problem for two main reasons. The first and most obvious one is that you can’t be equally interested in everything (plus, you don't have the time to read everything). It is in the human nature. Some things are more relevant to me than other things will ever be. And, surprisingly enough, the newspaper is still deciding what is relevant to me, as it always did, and not the other way around. That’s true for basically every newspaper in the world, in both printed and digital versions — in here I am also including “the digital package”, from websites to mobile apps, with a very few exceptions that also depends on how you see them; they may or may not be seen as an "exception".
What is clear to me, though, is that the global news business has a serious product problem. That’s precisely why apps such as Flipboard turned out to be so popular. They understand what you like and predict what you might like, thus providing a much better and more relevant reading experience. Who said the same concept can’t be applied within a single news source? It obviously can and I am pretty sure readers will appreciate it. The fact is that newspapers' websites and apps are very similar to one another; some look better than others, of course, but the core concept is still the same since the Internet is the Internet. Even the New York Times, which is considered a good example of a traditional newspaper that is embracing change, has a product problem. Its main product, the website, is essentially its printed Paper in a more (not so much) friendly format. And that concerns me given the talent of its programmers and designers (see NYT's Cooking).
The second reason is that some sections of the printed newspaper will never be as good, engaging and interactive as their online counterparts. TV guides and the classifieds are just two simple and straightforward examples of that. There are so much more to be offered online that the (decreasing number of) people who actually consume them in their printed versions are the ones who always did — and right now can’t even say why they still do.
I will not, for now, explicitly talk about paywalls, standalone apps and native ads, but they sure seem to be working quite well and are definitely helping to pave the future, despite the New York Times recently shutting down its Opinion app. What I do believe is worth noticing in this text, anyhow, is that media companies are more and more becoming Internet companies and that’s a trend that’s not going away anytime soon. The good news is that (winning) Internet companies tend to work under Facebook’s “move fast and break things” mantra. I sincerely hope that newspapers, as aspiring Internet companies, do the same.