Journalism's radical future

September 5, 2013 01:30

By Hank Price, General Manager - WXII-TV, Winston-Salem, NC

We are on the edge of a breathtaking new era in journalism.  One in which users will not just view/read media, but experience it, interact with it and contribute to it.  The consumer is already moving to this new world and will soon demand we do too.

Journalists, by necessity, still live in today’s world – one in which the advertising dollars overwhelmingly flow to television stations and newspapers.  The limitations of these two traditional forms of media also tend to limit our future thinking.  As users take the lead in creating new ways to share information, most of our efforts still go to posting television and newspaper stories on our web and mobile sites.  While valuable, this is not the consumer’s definition of a new journalistic experience.

This issue matters because there is no guarantee the journalistic organization of tomorrow will be created by today’s players.  So, how do we reorient our thinking to do today’s job while still creating an orderly transition to the future?

To answer that question, let’s set television, newspapers, tablets and smartphones aside for a moment and look at history, context and human needs.  In other words, the big picture.

We begin in 1517 when a German monk named Martin Luther changed the course of western civilization.  Luther disagreed with the established church’s practice of selling “indulgences.”  In other words, forgiving sin for cash.  Luther was so distraught he decided to risk his life by going public with a detailed, written thesis (think investigative piece). 

But how would one publish such a piece in 1517?  There were no newspapers.  Printing presses existed, but would not be available to a poor monk.  Today Luther would probably publish on the internet and hope to be picked up by mainstream media, but of course none of the institutions we now define as “media” existed then.
Luther’s solution was to do what people with important things to say still do.  He used the latest technology available.  He went to the village square and nailed the document to the church door.

Within six months Luther’s treatise had been translated into every written European language, printed in most of those languages and distributed throughout the Western World.  It is still being read today.

From Luther we learn the two most important lessons of journalism.  First, the power of journalism is in the content, not the technology.  Second, when people have something important to say, they invariably choose the latest technology to say it.  In 1776 Thomas Paine used a pamphlet to spark a revolution.  In 1852 Harriett Beecher Stowe used a novel to help incite a civil war.  In the 1930’s Franklin Roosevelt used network radio to calm a nation.  In my own lifetime, Martin Luther King used network television to change core attitudes.  The list goes on.

Why then are we so surprised when consumers choose the internet, mobile and other new technologies for information?  It is because we are locked into cultural attitudes that are incredibly hard to change.  Can culture be changed?  Yes, but it is very difficult and requires outside forces to first upset the status quo.

Nowhere are these lessons more pronounced than a form of media not usually associated with journalism, motion pictures.

After Thomas Edison invented motion pictures in the late 19th century, he also envisioned the business model, selling films to anyone with the guts to rent a store front, invest in the equipment and charge 5 cents a head.

By the 1930’s the former nickelodeon operators had established the studio system and were accumulating vast wealth.  But the real power was never in Hollywood.  Power and profitability were held by the New York based theatre chains who carefully guarded their exclusive distribution rights. In 1947 the US Supreme Court ruled that theatre chain control of the motion picture studios represented an unfair monopoly.  Cut loose from their guaranteed audiences and supply of cash, the studios immediately began to struggle.  By the early 1970’s almost all were dead.

Motion pictures show us a pathway to the future because they eventually reinvented themselves into a purely content-based industry.  Today’s movies now lead the way in adaption to new technology.  Cable television, iPads, Kindle Fires and mega-size Droid phones are all good news for the motion picture industry, as will be distribution channels yet to be invented.  The industry has moved from being distribution centric to content centric.  Those with the best content are now highly rewarded.

I am not suggesting evolution from a distribution based industry to a content based industry is easy.  It is not.  Motion pictures only changed when faced with death.  Why?  Because there is an inverse relationship between profit and innovation.  The greater profit, the less incentive to innovate.

When actually faced with death, is it possible for current media companies to break out of their culture, or must the future always be invented by fresh players with no cultural baggage?  The answer is yes, it is possible.  Radio has done it multiple times.

Like much of today’s emerging media, radio began as a new technology looking for a business model.  The answer was national programming, networked from station to station, supported by advertising.  By the late 1930’s radio was the nation’s premiere form of in-home entertainment.  Owners of radio stations received a share of network sales and were allowed to sell local commercials during station breaks.

With the advent of television in the 1940’s, radio’s business model began to collapse. Their answer was to transform their stations into community centered media outlets; town criers offering local information and recorded music.  That business took off and became highly profitable.

By the early 1970’s radio was again in trouble.  Women were moving into the workforce and no longer listening during the day.  Television was programming all day long.  For the second time in 20 years, local radio faced death. Left with no other choice, radio station owners dusted off their little used FM licenses and created an in-car FM stereo music service for commuters.  For the third time in less than 50 years radio station owners found themselves in a new wildly successful business.

And what of AM?  In the early 1980’s AM stations began to go off the air.  Even NBC shut down WRC, their 50,000 watt clear channel station in Washington, DC.  Then, in the midst of pessimism, an amazing thing happened.  AM radio was reinvented as a mobile news and talk service. 

Both of these examples, motion pictures and radio, reinforce the two great realities of media.  First, the power is always in the content.  Second, content gravitates toward the latest technology.  There is also a third lesson.  Old technology can sometimes be repurposed for new ideas.

Now, let’s take these ideas and apply them to the future by removing ourselves from today’s challenges and asking the real questions.  What is the future of journalism?  How will technology affect that future?  To do this we must cast off our cultural and personal fears and ask ourselves what great journalism can become. What kind of content will the consumer/citizen want, need and use in the future? 

Here is our greatest opportunity.  Consumers want information on their timetable and delivered to their chosen device.  They want immediacy, an engaging experience, personalized information and above all, accuracy.  They want a relationship with people, not just some institution.  They want a seat at the content table, contributing their ideas and opinions.  They want an easy, transparent experience that puts all their media in one place.  They want interactivity and connection with their friends and neighbors.  They want a wealth of information about their friends, community, state, nation and world, in that order.  And above all, they want this from a trusted source.
Let’s assume you and I find a way to become this “trusted source.”  What will news consumers give us in return?  They will share their two greatest assets:  their time and their money.  Based on content, not technology, the “trusted source” will produce great wealth for the journalism innovators who create it.

As for technology, the answer is simple.  We must produce content for whatever device, platform or forum the consumer chooses to adopt.  Thinking in terms of today’s smartphones, tablets and Google Glass is too limiting.  Each advance in technology will bring new opportunity. And here’s a bonus.  We do not have to know what technology is coming.  We only have to watch the consumer and follow her choices.

Who is in the best position to create this radical future of journalism?  Who will create tomorrow’s “trusted choice?” Will it be major newspapers and leading television stations or two kids in a garage?  The answer to that question is up to you and me.  Either way, we will get what we deserve.


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