Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The future of journalism

Several trends have come together lately, and I think that I can make a prediction as to what the future of journalism is. Recently, we've seen the folding of the Rocky Mountain News and the complete web-ification of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, every industry expert is predicting the demise of many more newspapers, and large media companies have or will file for bankruptcy.

Journalism is one of those fields, like education, that is forever catching up with business trends and presenting them as new-found knowledge. As newspapers and TV stations are folded into large "media companies," they will be treated as any other subsidiaries, with the same ethic and behavioral structure.

In particular, branding will be seen as the way to add value. For those not up on cutting-edge marketing lingo, branding is the practice of creating value in a product that is not intrinsically in the product. The classic example is the soft drink industry, which sells flavored sugar water at far higher prices than would be warranted by the cost of ingredients and distribution. The high margins are justified by "brand value," the feeling of homespun comfort you get when you drink Coca-Cola, or the youthful outlook of Pepsi-Cola. A lot of this is pretentious claptrap, but it works well enough that "branding" has become the unifying concept of the consumer goods market.

Local television news has known this for some time, so we have the female anchor who acts like nothing so much as a party hostess, ushering us into her living room to hear 10-second snatches of the news of the day. Chicago's CBS affiliate tried an experiment several years ago, of having one of our more respected journalists, Carol Marin, host a serious news program that might cover a story in depth, making room by giving only 30 seconds to the weather...and it was a total failure (at least in terms of the only thing that counts, the ratings). The brand message of local news is, "Come join us for some family fun; we'll slip in some serious news :-(, but we'll have the zany weather guy, and the zany sports guy, and generally enjoy a good time," and the ratings measure how successfully any "news" organization fulfills this strategy.

In print, we've heard of layoffs of reporters who cover uninteresting things like business, we've heard of publishers talking about "news productivity," and we've seen a greater emphasis on soft topics - even important news is increasingly covered with a kind of breezy irreverence.

So what I think is going to happen is that reporters are going to have to become brands, and they will be charged with providing an endless stream of content that can be "repurposed" by "content managers" (no editors here) to the various media platforms that are part of the modern news organization. A columnist will write pretty much nonstop, and some portion of that writing will go to the print newspaper (if there is one), some will go to the blog, some will go to the Twitter feed.

Someone like Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune will churn out endless words. I pick Zorn because he was one of the first mainstream journalists to get a blog, and he is now up on Twitter. His print column, which used to be pretty much it for him, is now a tiny proportion of his weekly output. I don't know what kind of pressure is on him to be typing all the time, but it can only intensify as the Zorn brand becomes increasingly important to the health of the Tribune company.

And that brings us to Q Score, the measurement of a public figure or product's penetration and popularity. Q Scores will be used to determine which "content provider" is reaching the public, and it will become a vital part of the decision to retain certain reporters or columnists. Each company will have to decide which part of the score they wish to emphasize, but, since attention is what every company craves, it's likely that penetration will be the dominant factor. We'll see more "controversial" writers in place of solid thinking and writing (hence, new media star Karl Rove).

It's not entirely impossible that this strategy will be successful enough that there will be money sufficient to support some of the traditional news-gathering tasks, such as investigative reporting or foreign bureaus. I'm not real hopeful, because part of this strategy is to pick the low-hanging fruit, and any activity that doesn't generate profits on its own is going to be discarded.

That's the future: the successful journalist will be the guy or gal who can pump out vast numbers of words (thinking optional) and can be appealing enough to gain a high Q Score, to be branded. It will not be cost-effective to have a reporter spend four months on a story that only generates a few thousand words, so depth will decline. Competition for "branded" reporters will be high, so the stars will make more money. On the other hand, the probability of a young reporter catching on will be far lower. If print survives at all, it will only do so because of failings in the Internet advertising model. Expect more multimedia figures, as the columnist will do a two-hour radio show and write longer-form pieces for the magazine section; this will lead to a breakdown in specialties, as we want to hear what the "star" has to say about the banking crisis. Therefore, we'll see less expertise as the brands are spread across the news universe (in other words, there will be no sportswriters or political writers, we'll just have the usual subjects commenting on whatever's hot).

It's difficult to see this as positive for those of us who actually value the gathering of news, but it could save the business ("Hey, let's see what Angelina Jolie is writing about today!").

Also: I didn't mean to imply that Q Scores would be the only metric; obviously Internet page clicks will be an important input as well. That these numbers may have little to do with actual quality will be of little consequence.

1 comment:

Citizen Carrie said...

The first journalist I saw close-up who starting branding himself (?) was sportswriter Mitch Albom. First I noticed him in the Detroit Free Press, then he had his own local radio shows, then he started showing up on ESPN, then he started writing his bestsellers, etc.

It's been so long since I've seen his earlier work I almost shouldn't be commenting, but I do have the perception that the overall quality in just about anything he does has really declined over the years. And I'm saying this as someone who used to be a real fan of his and couldn't wait to read his columns. With his sports columns, I notice the quality decline in both content and writing style. He has just spread himself too thin and seems to be incapable of writing or saying anything really interesting anymore. What he has done is found his niche market and now has a loyal cadre of fans who lap up everything he says or does.

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