Breaking news — to fix our industry’s future

Walkleys CEO Jacqui Park went to Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley to find the answer to the industry’s turmoil. Instead she had to settle for finding the question. Illustration by Rod Emmerson.

What’s journalism going to look like? Whenever we think we’re close to the answer it seems to vanish in front of us.

A year ago, it looked like the answer was going to be social media distribution platforms, particularly Facebook, and particularly on mobile. We’ve had an 18-month run since the launch of Facebook’s Instant Articles, followed by Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages and Twitter’s Moments, when it looked like news was being put at the centre.

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Now that confidence has been shattered with revelations that Facebook adjusted its secret algorithm to prioritise personal communications over news shares — in response, the company said, to user demand. I guess they just weren’t that into us after all.

But beyond the economics and the algorithms of social media platforms is something more fundamental: Journalism today has become disaggregated and each story stands and falls on its own.

And while the news media used to control the writing, distribution, and monetisation through advertising, now that power is, in theory at least, in the hands of the individual reader, guided by the secret hand of the platform algorithm. Despite all this, there is one power we retain: the power of telling a story, of investigation, context and the power of good writing.

This has been developing over the past decade. Only about four years ago the home page still played a role, but we were worrying that half our audience was reaching our stories through search.

We were only wrong about the threat. Now Facebook provides 40 per cent on its own with Google another 35 per cent. On mobile devices the figures are even higher. The home page – the attempt to replicate the bundling journalism traditionally offered – has become less and less significant.

When Facebook tweaks its algorithm or Google prioritises AMP coding on its news carousel, there’s not much we can do about it. We don’t control what’s happening in our own industry anymore. Twenty-odd years into the internet disruption, we’re no closer to knowing what works.

And if we thought the first round of disruption was hard, the mobile one is a completely different and tougher beast.

In the world before mobile, we once could, more or less, move journalism to the internet on desktop in a similar format and style. We changed delivery methods, but journalism itself didn’t change that much.

Mobile demands that we completely rethink form and content to engage audiences against competition from Messenger, Facebook, Pokémon Go. What will scale? What will attract sustainable audiences over time? What will catch the wave of disruption without getting dumped by it?

It’s one thing to break, say, Netscape. It’s another thing altogether to break a newspaper. The first can be replaced or re-engineered. The second, once broken, threatens to leave a hole in our society that we cannot know how to fill.

The big thing we can learn from Silicon Valley is this: The answers we need are going to come from experimenting. We need to break things. Luck and timing have a lot to do with the success of breakthrough change and if we look back, the path to new journalism is littered with failed experiments that were perhaps just too early for their time. These are all building blocks, and we’ll do well to ask what can we learn and take from each of these.

This can be easier to say than to do. Our craft, our industry, our culture have deep investments in the traditional way of doing things. Our institutions and our practices are critical to our society. It’s one thing to break, say, Netscape. It’s another thing altogether to break a newspaper. The first can be replaced or re-engineered. The second, once broken, threatens to leave a hole in our society that we cannot know how to fill.

Some early innovations like live-blogging or slideshows have already become entrenched in our craft. Others, like crowdfunding stories through sites like Spot.Us were perhaps too early.

Most of our experimentation has been focused on incremental changes and improvements. As News Corps’ Neal Mann pointed out last year, the successful tech companies like Google and Tesla go for innovation that is 10x, not 10 per cent. That is, innovation that is revolutionary and long-term.

For journalism you can see how damaging this incremental approach was. When code-heavy advertising pop-ups threatened to break our industry by making it unfit for mobile, we needed the platforms to solve the problem for us, with Instant Articles and AMP. In fact, it’s not clear the industry even realised there was a problem until it was solved for us.

We’ve lost the luxury of not experimenting. We need to rethink both the journalism and the business models. That means we need to be thinking now not only about journalism for mobile — but for things like the Internet of Things and blockchain.

Hacking the journalism part
We’re seeing new story formats emerge to supplement the traditional pyramid style news story, like listicles, graphic journalism and Vox background cards.

Right now there’s a lot of chatter about mobile video, as it’s providing both new reporting streams and new opportunities for advertising income. Not-so-new media like BuzzFeed and Mashable are pivoting to video to hold on to their young demographic while also following the money. Social media live-streaming video is feeding into news to provide new dimensions to breaking stories. The chilling footage of the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota, live-streamed on Facebook, is a breakthrough example.

Today’s stories tend to the short — say, 140 characters — or the long. This makes Twitter a journalism platform, as well as one that allows people to reach audiences without journalists. Look at Donald Trump.

Journalistically, the long form is more interesting. In the U.S., for example, we see Gimlet Media’s podcasts, or in-depth, issues-based journalism like News Deeply’s focus on Syria and on the refugee crisis. And in Australia, already, the long-form journalism categories are attracting the most Walkley entries.

U.S. digital publishers say they believe their followers are twice as likely to read a long-form story as a report of more traditional news report length. Perhaps we’re moving to a future where journalists do the hard work of long form, based on our core skills of investigation, research and storytelling, and leave the rest to the crowd.

In 2010, when Nate Silver took his FiveThirtyEight blog to The New York Times, it marked the moment when data journalism — long a part of journalism — became the big new thing in online journalism. Now it’s entrenched across all formats, providing new stories and more in-depth coverage of traditional stories. Data can work in any format. And it provides one of the richest fields to mine for untold stories. Quartz Media has taken this to a new level with its launch of Atlas, a data hub made for social media.

We are also seeing new media covering new issues, and from more diverse viewpoints, in areas that traditional media have either abandoned, undercovered or ignored outright, such as the environment, civic planning or communities of colour. The social media ecosystem allows journalists covering these topics to build audiences unconstrained by geography. Social media also provides new metrics for audience impact that funders and investors love to see.

Demand for local news is driving some experiments. The not-for-profit Lens in New Orleans uses citizen journalists to cover school board meetings that previously went unreported. The Texas Tribune has become the dominant source for political news in Texas. CALmatters is seeking to replicate that in California.

Localisation of neighbourhood data by sites like San Francisco’s Hoodline, auto-generation of stories like the LA Times quakebot or open source journalism like the work of Bellingcat in the UK are all showing new ways of identifying news in both new and traditional journalism organisations.

The culture of journalism is strong. It’s built on a sense of social responsibility to truth-seeking, and the public’s right to know. It’s a culture that’s been adapted by the internet itself, but its very strength made us slow to change and often blinded us to legitimate criticisms.

Computer-assisted reporting is enabling journalists to mine stories in large document dumps such as the Panama Papers by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Wikileaks diplomatic cables and the Snowden revelations.

We are also seeing new subscription services like The Information in California or MediaPart in France that give us some confidence that people are prepared to pay for the right content.

Right now, Quartz Media is experimenting in personal conversational journalism through Messenger and its own app.

All these experiments show us that journalism has a vibrant future. But how do we fund it?

Hacking the business side
Traditional media companies have been criticised for failing to adapt. Much of this criticism fails to recognise how essential the bundling of news and advertising was and how hard it has been to replicate the advertising supported model in a digital world. But we only know this because we’ve tried. We should recognise this knowledge for the important building block it is.

The culture of journalism is strong. It’s built on a sense of social responsibility to truth-seeking, and the public’s right to know. It’s a culture that’s been adapted by the internet itself, but its very strength made us slow to change and often blinded us to legitimate criticisms.

Most media companies embraced the internet and some made long-term investments. Looking back now, we can recognise that the industry tended to be too slow, too committed to defend the past. When things didn’t work, they were quietly taken down and hidden under the carpet. We need to be better at celebrating our failures, talking about them, helping others learn from them.

Like any pre-existing player in an industry undergoing disruption, media companies are restricted by declining advertising revenues and the consequent loss of internal journalist resources.

Despite everything, the dominant revenue stream of these companies built on advertising still comes from the print products – probably as much as 80 per cent. This stream is dropping between 5 and 10 per cent a year in just about every country and every company. But it hasn’t been replaced by anything else that works at scale. This means that the journalistic resources for innovation are simply no longer available.

Although we don’t have definitive data, what we do have would indicate that in the U.S. – and probably in Australia too – there are only half the number of journalists working in media that there were a decade ago, even including new digital jobs.

The smart traditional media are learning that you can’t do more with less. This means identifying your unique offering and focusing on that.

Traditional media are inevitably constrained by the need (or desire) to sustain their existing structures. They too often tend to conceptualise “innovation” as the digitalisation of old ways of doing business. This has been satirised as: “How do we put this op-ed on SnapChat?”

Advertising remains a two-edged sword. On the one hand, print advertising remains the dominant — if declining — revenue stream for even the most digitally advanced traditional commercial news organisations. On the other, it has been captured by the online platforms that do a better job for advertisers. And we’ve learned that people don’t necessarily like it, as we can see through the rise of ad blockers and the failure of banner ads.

As a result, organisations and journalists around the world are looking for new revenue options in three categories: advertising; audience revenues; and direct funding or support from governments, corporates or philanthropists.

The two new areas of success in advertising have been in native advertising, the one income growth area, and social media distribution that shares advertising income between the platform and the media organisation.

Some speculate native advertising, with its cousin content marketing, could yield most media advertising income. Nonetheless, transferring the relationship of trust between journalism and its audience to paid content can end up damaging both sides. Most native ads are appropriately tagged, in journalistic media at least — see Gimlet Media’s podcast ads or Quartz graphic ads.

But Google and Facebook are looking at ways to bypass media and grasp these dollars as well.

Reader revenues face two questions: How much will people pay? How many will pay it?

It requires consumers to make direct payments ranging from subscriptions and paywalls through to micro-payments for individual stories. These direct payments vary between selling the same story or package of stories to a lot of people for not much money (the paywall subscription model now common in Australia), or selling a single story to a few people for relatively significant money (such as bespoke journalism or research) or through micropayments (such as the Netherland-based Blendl, which has recently expanded to the EU and the U.S.).

It is not yet clear either how to aggregate a big enough paying audience to sustain a diverse news output (something like what we used to call a newspaper) or how to charge enough from a small market to sustain the required output (maybe something like what we used to call a magazine or even a book).

A handful of organisations – like the New York Times or the Guardian – are attempting to achieve scale by building a global network, one based on reader revenues (the NYT) and one on advertising (Guardian). The Guardian is now trying also to build a supporter or donor base, and to establish ancillary income streams like events.

At the other end of the scale, some new players are attempting to build revenues through affiliate links. If a reader clicks through a story about a subject to make a purchase, the outlet shares in the revenue. San Francisco-based NerdWallet is expanding on this model with reporting on consumer finance. The Wirecutter makes “best of” assessments in various categories of consumer goods and takes a commission on any sale arising from its recommendations.

We will all learn and benefit if we bring together the experience and trust of the big media with the startup energy and ideas of innovators to create a safe space to share, test and build the future.

In Australia, public funding of journalism has a long history, with public broadcasters the ABC and SBS sitting at the centre of the news ecosystem. In the U.S., not-for-profit journalism based on philanthropy, donations and sponsorship has built a stronger base.

Although it is difficult to replicate the revenues that 20th-century advertising provided to sustain journalism, these models show there are ways to experiment. They give us some confidence that there is a basis for ongoing support. There is no reason to presume that the next big thing won’t come out of Australia.

Australia and New Zealand don’t lack journalists prepared to give all this a go. And we’re perfectly placed to be the springboard for media innovation into Asia.

One of the big takeaways is that we need institutions to sustain this change. Sitting at the core of the craft, the Walkley Foundation has to place itself at the centre of change. The innovation grants, our flagship Storyology event, the long-running future of journalism project, keeping the awards relevant — all of these have been stepping stones, but we have to keep going.

The big hole in the Australian journalism innovation infrastructure is an industry-supported incubator or accelerator like Matter in the U.S. or MediaHack in India. This is the next step for the Walkleys.

We will all learn and benefit if we bring together the experience and trust of the big media with the startup energy and ideas of innovators to create a safe space to share, test and build the future.

Through the Walkleys, we can develop a funding stream and mentor the ecosystem to support creativity that builds a 21st-century journalism that our audiences embrace. No one knows what this will look like, even in five years’ time. But we know this: Now is the time for trying new things, testing quickly to see what works and moving forward.

Jacqui Park is CEO of the Walkley Foundation and has just completed a John S.Knight Fellowship at Stanford University studying in the Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.
Rod Emmerson is the editorial cartoonist for The New Zealand Herald.