Monday, March 12, 2007

The Future of News and All That

  1. Television news viewership is down across the board -- but YouTube is more popular than ever.
  2. Newspaper readership is way up -- online -- but newspaper company earnings are down and the financials are challenging.
  3. The online news audience has plateaued, even though broadband connections are increasing.
What is going on here?

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has published its fourth annual report on American journalism and the big question it seems to ask is, "Where is everybody?"
The Web story is over as the driving force for digital news. Sites have already become repositories rather than destinations, warehouses instead of storefronts.

It may not be terribly obvious yet but they are going somewhere, for sure. There is no reason to believe that there is a diminished appetite for news, however currently defined. Is it just a matter of coming up with ways of measuring user experiences with mobile phones, RSS feeds, downloads and pirated & "lent" content? When that's doable, will there be any way to monetize your content?

The Web story is over as the driving force for digital news. We will look back in a few years and be able to date it properly, but I believe sites have already become repositories rather than destinations, warehouses instead of storefronts.

Social bookmarking, email advisories (already old hat) and text-based RSS feeds (how ironic) are the best way to tame the beast that is information overload. As others have said, setting the content free so that it creates a viral trail back to you seems to be a better way of building brand loyalty than marketing your address and expecting the world to beat a path to your door. How else could it be that some of the most popular services own and create nothing?

Newspapers own local and need to press that advantage. That might mean closing far-flung bureaus and not giving readers the benefit of full-time "built here" coverage from parts yonder. But is doesn't mean they can't parachute in on cherry-picked stories (National Guard unit in the trenches, etc). And there might even be more money for that sort of thing.

Yes, that is just a variation of local. But the fact is that Yahoo! and MSNBC and Reuters et al have a lot of readers who live in places served admirably by a newspaper (dead tree and online). These places are where the eyeballs will commune for national news, especially in times of crisis. The same is true on TV: you go to CNN or MSNBC or FNC, not channel 9, when a plane or politician crashes.

The challenge is, and always has been, getting right the part about what people are doing, and when and where. Neilsen ratings, the lifeblood of ad rates for television, are still a mere approximation -- more than 50 years after television became mainstream. So maybe it isn't too strange that we haven't got a grip yet on the digital metrics thing.

If Google hasn't hired every living engineer already some brainy grad student will come up with an unassailable impact algorithm that will be good news for some, bad for others but will settle the discussion.

I think these are times of opportunity for news, not despair. The cool heads who can or choose to afford to tread water for a while will seem like patient geniuses when the patterns emerge.

And it will be worth the wait.

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