The case for journalism’s future

August 25, 2015 01:30

By Hank Price, General Manager - WVTM-TV, Birmingham, AL
As every journalist knows, our industry is in the middle of massive change.  In the case of television, new revenue from retransmission fees and former newspaper advertisers has created a bubble, for the moment shielding the industry from the kind of devastating cuts we saw during the last recession.
But what about the future?  What will the face of journalism look like ten years from now?  Twenty years?  What can today’s media companies, and individual journalists for that matter, do now to ensure their future?  Will the ethical values we all live by continue to matter in a world of paid content and consumer generated material?
Over the past 24 months Deb Wenger, Samir Husni and I have been working to answer those questions.  We’ve interviewed leading figures in a wide variety of disciplines, studied the sociological implications, the effects of technology, the business case and much more.  Most importantly, we’ve done a deep dive into the role of the consumer. 
The results are ground breaking and good news for the future of journalism – but only for those organizations and individuals willing to change from the current culture of top-down control to one where the consumer becomes our partner.  Yes, that is a radical change, but one that is already happening whether we like it or not.  For those willing to make the consumer a partner, the future is bright.
In order to help journalists take advantage of these opportunities, we’ve created the 4 C’s Strategy – how customers, choice, control and change will affect the future.
In yesterday’s media world television stations were able to dictate when and how viewers watched news.  Today, choice and connectivity put the viewer in control.  That means we must begin by understanding how and why consumers make decisions – not just about news, but about every aspect of their lives.  Media is no longer just something consumers watch or read.  It is an integral part of almost everything they do.
How then do consumers make media decisions?  They use brand.  Brand is a way to short hand their view of the world.  Say the name of a product or service and the first thought that jumps in the consumer’s mind is what we call brand.  In the case of news, the consumer might say “My favorite place to get local news,” or “That station that just doesn’t seem to be as good anymore.”   Brand is about reality.  It is the result of years of interaction between a consumer and a product.  Brands can be modified or even changed, but only over the course of time and only when the change is real – a slogan revision or a news team shakeup isn’t going to cut it.
The implications of brand on news are stunning.  Consumers now invest their two most valuable assets – their time and their money – based on brand perception. News organizations whose brands are highly valued will be richly rewarded; no matter what future platform the consumer uses to connect. 
Here’s more good news.  The role of ethics in journalism will be more important in the future, not less.  This may be hard to see in today’s world of constant information bombardment, a wild west internet and virtually every industry of any size creating paid content, but these things are exactly why fact-based journalism will continue to matter.  Consumers want to know whom they can trust for the truth.  Becoming a consumer’s trusted source will open a much deeper relationship than yesterday’s one-way world.  Consumers who trust you will tell others about you.  They will become your greatest advocates, ready and willing to help advance your brand. 
In the past, a trusted source sat on high and dictated the truth.  Not in the future.  The consumer now demands a seat at the table, not just commenting, but actually creating content.  News organizations who take advantage of this new resource will become powerful journalistic forces.  The launch of 5G – ironically using spectrum auctioned off by television stations next year – means future communication will become instant, ubiquitous and worldwide.
As a result of our research we have written a just released new book, Managing Today’s News Media:  Audience First (Sage, 2015).  Designed to also be used as a textbook in colleges and universities, the book lays out an exciting path to the future for organizations and individual journalists alike. 
The future is upon us.  Opportunities for journalists and media companies have never been greater.  Those who survive and prosper will do so because they understand and take advantage of the critical new role played by the consumer.