Carinival: My thoughts for 2009
Sorry to have been away for a while, but grading for three lab courses is, well, a bear. (However, do have a look at what some of my students have done. Modest but promising for our pre-capstone course, I think.)
For this month's Carnival of Journalism, David Cohn has asked us to tackle "positive new media predictions for 2009." Hey, I'm game. After all, that's part of what we do in the ivy halls, right, make predictions that are worth what you (don't) pay for them. (We also have a tendency to come up on a battlefield where everyone is dead or dying and utter such bon mots as "There's been a war," but pointing out the painfully obvious is just part of what we do.)
I have pointedly not looked at my fellow carnivalers' predictions, so you may see some duplication here. Rest assured, groupthink is as much at work in the blogland as it is in the MSM. And I don't guarantee you will find all of these positive.
- We will begin to see an evolution in mobile that roughly approximates Moore's law. We've been saying this in one way or another at Newsplex for eight years or so, but it's only in the past year or so that people have really been listening. Restated a bit, it's that once TV converts to digital, the power and capability of that thing on your hip you now call a cell phone or iPhone or Blackberry will roughly double every 18 months. We are about to enter the age of mobile, always-on computing that's been predicted for years. Consider: Your local TV station becomes a big mother Wi-Fi antenna (it's not going to use all its bandwidth to send you pretty pictures). The cell phone system is the uplink (since upside data transfer is much smaller). People swear by (and occasionally at) their iPhones. You ain't seen nuthin' yet.
- As a result, media without a clear mobile strategy will be left (even more) behind. Forget the 10 a.m.-4 p.m. spike in your online traffic. Some of it may still be there, but with powerful computing available at the flick of a "cell-phone" cover, the demands for information bits will extend over a much longer range. And that's going to pose continuing challenges for operations that by their very cultural and corporate DNA are tied to a few deadlines. Oh sure, you can talk information center to me all you want, but I have yet to see an operation that really has that in its bone marrow except for the wire service. And your mobile strategy is going to have to be more than just throwing up a feed of links and headlines.
- E-paper will be more about extending the capabilities of these mobile devices than creating some Kindle on steroids. A bit of detritus still floats to the surface occasionally predicting that newsreaders are coming over the hill just like the cavalry. Yeah, yeah. Wake me when the revolution's over. I kind of like the electronic edition of my local paper, looking like the paper and all that. But you know what, I only like it for a pedagogical reason - it provides a nice current boundary for my students when it comes to those dreaded current affairs tests (wouldn't be fair, after all, to throw the entire Web open to them and say "guess what I'm going to ask.") The newspaper and its layout are wonderful studies in semiotics, but they are also of an era of limits. Somehow these e-papers never seem to find a way to let you really go explore the Web. Maybe they will, but I'm not sure they scale down as well as we might think to a portable screen.
- Battery technology will continue to be one of the limits, but significant advances will be made in portable power. (OK, maybe not till 2010 or 2011, but it is coming.) But that's another predictions list ...
- Community papers, which have been a tad smug in their outlook, will suddenly discover they'd better pay attention to digital, especially mobile. Look, your audience isn't getting any younger. And take a look at the youngsters in your market area. What's that hanging off their belts or in their pockets or purses? Hint: It's not your paper.
- Same goes for college papers, which are community papers by just another name.
- In a weird way, those community papers that have invested little or nothing in a Web site, but develop a good mobile strategy, might have an advantage. Web sites in their own way are becoming legacy media. We put so much into them, yet, if I am right and mobile is ascending, people will come to them less and less. Update: See John Duncan's well-explained take on the second-mover advantage.
- One of the real problems will be the pricing system we have created for digital communications. Take all your communications bills and total them. How much are you spending a month? I mean all of it - phone, papers, Internet, cable, papers, magazines, online subscriptions (including anything for storage, etc.). Add it all up. You could probably make the monthly payments on a small car with it. Much has been written about how far behind the rest of the world the U.S. is when it comes to broadband speed and pricing. I've seen only one report on this - a Louisville group that said about a year ago that high telecommunications costs were contributing to housing foreclosures. But I'm betting it's not isolated. In 2009, I think we will see higher speeds, but not lower prices. In the mobile space, digital plans will still be too expensive. Some things, like "white space" devices will help, but that will be 2010 at the earliest.
- If you're digital in any form you'd better have the kahunas to link to other folks, including your competition. This is soooo 2002, but let's repeat it: It's called the "web" for a reason. It's nice to see more places getting this message, but many still don't.
- Out of all that laid-off brainpower will come some really smart sites/products/stories/multimedia, etc. A lot of smart people have been shown the exit door from newsrooms and media operations. And despite how it sometimes can come across when listening to the echo chamber of the digiterati, not all are luddites or curmudgeons or whiners and piners.
- Someone will begin figuring out how to do "smart" aggregation in a digital age. In other words, something other than just the pure mechanical Google News or the human-assisted Digg or Newsvine. If a thousand (news) flowers bloom from my main prediction here, someone is going to have to help the Dougs of this world find and navigate the really good stuff. (I'm running into serious info overload these days, and I spend a whole lot more time working at it than my neighbors, for instance.) Smart aggregation combines the best of the mechanical with the public assist with the professional augmentation -- including original product, some of which may build on what the other two systems do -- that can produce smart, useful info packages. Yeah, "news you can use," but in a much different way from how the TV types have sliced and diced it. (Feel free in the comments to tell me how your site already is the latest and greatest, but I've looked at a lot of them and haven't seen it yet.)
- Some media house is going to just blow it up and refashion itself into a social media site. (Actually, someone probably has, but I don't know about it. Toss something in the comments if you do.) I find myself more and more intrigued by how Facebook (and to some extend Linked-in) serves as an aggregator and wire service, as well as a meeting place and a sort of online 411. (I've used it, for instance, to track down contacts to get copies of academic papers or to substitute for e-mail when I needed to reach someone and had forgotten to put them in my address book.) In other words, it's become an information utility. But isn't that what the modern media house wants to be in its community? So ...
- Publishers and editors will learn that online is a dynamic medium requiring constant tending and attention to what your users are telling you. Unlike that behemoth, multimillion-dollar press, it is not a turnkey system that you make everything else fit to. Ok, nah. But there's always hope.
- Publishers will blow up the sales bullpen as much as they are blowing up the newsroom. I think this is actually the large untold story of why MSM continues to struggle like large lizards caught in a tar pit. That pit is the old-line sales mentality still prevalent at too many media - the one that grew from becoming largely order takers. I still hear a steady stream of stories about compensation structures that favor print and sales people woefully ill-equipped with the tools needed to sell online. That includes having the capability "back at the office" to produce innovative solutions quickly and flexibly (see No. 6)). Paul Conley talks a bit about this in the context of B2B publications.
- The successful ones will be those that see ad agencies as their competition. Sorry, but this is business and the gloves are off. The Internet destroys middlemen, and ad agencies are middlemen. A well-structured media house will have many if not most of the same capabilities itself. Now, much of a media company can be seen as a middleman, too. But if it's a matter of survival, those convivial relations have got to go. See, that ad agency can now be a publisher too .... 'Nuf said?
- There will be growing realization that even if you aggregate an audience, online it is not a mass audience. It's a bunch of little revenue streams. From this will come more innovation into targeted advertising instead of banners, which are an artifact of a mass mentality. (See also No. 7: If you combine the idea of flexibility and attention to audience with the idea that an audience is no longer a mass, this might become easier to understand.)
- The Detroit newspapers' cutback on delivery experiment will falter, as did the Tampa Trib's earlier foray into a single-section paper. In Detroit, the News will be the one that comes up short without a Sunday edition, unless it is going to turn one of the other editions into a faux-Sunday. We'll see how it works out, but I think this is going to come across to many readers as being partly pregnant -- you can't be partly a newspaper. Now, this is different than, say, doing the Web all week and then putting out a kick-ass, magazine-like Sunday edition or a TMC that takes the best of the Web and wraps up the week with some probing, trenchant analysis. That's a different strategy with a different product. But what I've read so far comes across as "we'll sorta be a paper two or three days a week." If the paper does not significantly change and you force your audience to the Web, it's not likely to come back.
- Journalism schools will become increasingly irrelevant - and important. Heck of an oxymoronic thought, huh? Bear with me. It's no longer just enough to be a whiz with a pad and pencil, a gift of gab, a good ear, and a turn of phrase. For many journalists, the future is going to be -- them. Not a job with some large, established company, but treating themselves as a brand. Or maybe with a small startup where you still are, essentially, a freelancer. It's no longer enough to know a little about a lot. You're going to have to know the business and the technology, how to make a buck, and how to harness it all to your advantage.
- Journalism schools that can figure out how to package all this and stay relevant in an an ever-changing society will become more important. But there will be fewer of them. Academe is no different than newspapers in that it is under intense financial pressure. Just like newspapers, much of academe doesn't "make" anything. It advances knowledge, and for that, just like newspapers and broadcasters, it relies on third-party funding. In business we call them advertisers. In academe we call them the state, the feds and foundations handing out grants. With dwindling state support, the feds focusing more on the hard sciences, and foundation endowments taking a hit -- well, you do the math. Journalism, by its nature, needs a low faculty-teacher ratio to be taught well. It also needs, these days, the ability to create and reshape courses and curricula to stay ahead of, not just respond to, this tidal wave of change. But such things do not come quickly in the academy. Given the financial pressures, as well as those of prestige and the inexorable push toward Ph.D.s and funded research, what dean or provost in his or her right mind would not be looking at the relevance of j-schools to the future of the academy?
- An increasing number of journalism schools will be j-schools in name only, and we'll start seeing this shift speed up in the economic malaise of 2009. It may say "journalism" on the building, but increasingly behind the doors will be "communications" schools. If you're going for that NSF or NIH grant, you don't put "journalism" down as one of the components. You put down "risk communications" or "science communications," "public relations" or "visual communications." Journalism - the process of finding out what is happening, why it is happening and what it means to people's lives -- doesn't get much funding. Never has. Blame the industry largely for that -- R & D have never been big in the publishers' offices. But communications schools allow for larger classes, more prestigious research, etc. In many ways, the broader perspective is a good thing in a multichannel, multimedia, always-on world. But journalism tends to get marginalized in the process. And I am remain amazed, as 2009 dawns, at the number of schools that still have "mass" communications in their name, even as the world around them atomizes.
May you all have happy holidays and a healthy and happy New Year.