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The future of news 2: what are the big uncertainties?

Reading on a KindleI introduced some thinking on the future of news in a previous post. I will continue to work through this question in a standard futures way. So I’ll first lay out thinking on the biggest uncertainties and the driving forces shaping the news business, and then develop some brief scenarios of the future of news. Please note, my examples here, and my experience, are from a US perspective. I would love to hear your thoughts on what is the same or different around the world.

In this post, I offer some of the critical uncertainties for the future of news/journalism:

Centralized or decentralized—over the past few decades, especially, we have grown enormous media businesses such as Time Warner, Clear Channel, etc. But the digital world is pushing out new kinds of news and media that can be small-scale, even the work of one person, yet still have an impact. The news (arguably) site of Matt Drudge is an example. Will we see a future with individual citizen journalists and small teams of individuals producing what we consume as news? We are already seeing that happen. But perhaps also we will see new kinds of big news media organizations. The Huffington Post, a kind of mega-blog, is a great example. So are the online efforts of the well-established news media, including the New York Times, the BBC, and others.

 Who pays? Readers, advertisers, government, philanthropy? Print media has been sustained by print sales and ad revenues for a long time. Both are suffering from the availability of new digitally. The news industry is looking for new sources of revenue, including toying with charging for online access. In the past few years most made their content free, presumably to build online readership in hopes of pay-to-read revenues later, or, hoping to make money on online ad sales. U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) has drafted a bill to make it easier for a news organization to become a not-for-profit, under U.S. law.

Print vs. digital—How much news will continue to be consumed in print, versus in electronic form? The balance is clearly shifting, and people’s reasons for buying print news in newspapers and magazines are changing. We also face uncertain future pressures to reduce print for environmental reasons. Finally, eBooks such as the Kindle are making an attempt to shift readers off print while still giving them a portable, print-like reading experience. How far will this shift take us?

Mediated/edited vs. “raw” information—The long history of print media has meant that the information we consume is selected and edited, with supposed objectivity, by professional journalists, or, at least, by people who publish for a living. That’s changing with the Internet. Much more of what we consume is loosely edited or unedited, inconsistently contextualized, not fact-checked, and idiosyncratic to its producers: website operators, bloggers, blog commenters, and so on. What could it mean to shift away from a journalistic approach to news production—what do we lose?

Broadcast versus collaboration—While traditional media is broadcast—a media entity prepares and shares the news with its readers, the Internet enables news media to be collaborative, with the readership participating also as contributors, commentators, and so on. That is the power of the digital world in the context of news media. Does that new capability outweigh concerns about loss of objectivity and professionalism? (Thanks to Maxine Teller, MiXT Media for focusing me on this concept)

Objective versus agenda-bearing—So too we worry about the objectivity of what we read. In theory, the traditional news media has been objective, and people worry that the new media news sources have a political bias and agenda. We should remember, of course, that the traditional media is not objective, and comes from a tradition of politicized, agenda-bearing, sometimes “yellow” journalism. Can the public learn to sort out for itself the political or commercial agendas of their news sources?

Local versus national, international—Local news remains critical, but covering it well is expensive. It’s cheaper to draw content from national news sources and republish it in various formats and forms. Can we sustain adequate coverage of local news, especially, of information people need as citizens, consumers, community members, and so on? In my city, Washington, DC, there are interesting examples of online local news coverage, including some with original content, advertising, and substantial readership. See, for example, DCist. DCist often gets the story out first, and has a way of covering local events, crime, culture, and so on, with broad reader participation. Is this the future of local news coverage?

Journalism as business versus public good—Finally, while the news business has been a business, some analysts think it is truly a public good—something essential in society that the market will not necessarily produce enough of. With that in mind, they are looking at ways to enable not-for-profit news media to success and thrive, and even how to turn some commercial news enterprises into 501(c)3 organizations.

These uncertainties are dimensions of the range of possibility for the future of news. They are not binary, either-or propositions. However, for the purposes of exploring the possibilities, we will push deeply out to the ends of the spectrums implied here, to contrast, for example, a print business versus a digital one, or professional journalism versus the “citizen journalist”. Our actual future will almost certainly be a blend of these things.

Image: CarbonNYC, via Flickr, cc license


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