2015: the year of the reader

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

The last days of the year are always an opportunity for a final balance of the last 12 months and trying to imagine the next. A weekly round up, such as this, is no exception, especially if you consider how 2014 may have been decisive for deciphering the media landscape of the future. Here, in sequence, are some of the 2014 issues, data and trends of journalism, with a view of the months to come.

Crisis

This – as those before – has been a year of crisis, both in economic terms (many sectors are struggling, not least publishing) and from a structural point of view (journalism in flux and a business model which is still indecipherable). There ais no more money, channels or readers than before. The only certain thing is that the decline of the press seems to be “an absolute given” (the number of outlets aimed at digital and mobile first continues to grow) and newsrooms keep losing staff. In the United States the number of journalists has fallen from 55,000 in 2008 to 36,000, and even the New York Times – always recognized as one of the most solid and important newspapers in the world – has been forced to cut staff and new projects, and re-examine its strategies as mentioned in the well-known “Innovation Report” published last May. In the past 10 years the circulation of newspapers has fallen by 47%, and advertising revenue by 55%. Since January, 190 new magazines (185 in 2013) have been launched, 99 have closed (56 the year before.)

In such a scenario, the issue of affordability is still a dilemma. Paywalls continue to experience alternating fortunes, ensuring survival in the mid term only for those who can afford it, while advertising – native ads apart – is continuing in its long migration towards platforms such as Facebook and Google, that are the same on which content distribution moves. «The media has been so completely flattened and democratized that your little sister can use the same distribution methods as the world’s most powerful publishers,» Mat Honan of Wired writes. Deprived of control over distribution of its own product, old media are forced to adapt to a new world, often unable to accept the rules. This situation of exasperation leads to the Spanish case, where – to rebalance this relationship and somehow “to take content back” – publishers asked for Google News to be shut down (which so far has produced a paradoxically significant reduction of access of those same websites.)

This does not mean that journalism, in itself, is in a bad shape. «It’s adapt or die,» explained the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber in September, and adapting to digital means maximizing everything that an online environment can offer as exclusive benefits, such as the search for new channels and new readers, the use of innovative tools able to report the news and be better consulted, the relationship with users and the analysis of their preferences.

Facebook

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Facebook has 1.3 billion users. It is the most visited website in the world along with Google. It is consistently among the most downloaded mobile applications and the main tool for sharing and getting the news. It seems that it may have even surpassed search engines as the main source of visits towards news websites. With such data, all in strong growth in 2014, it is not surprising that it has been one of the main topics of debate this year. For online journalism, Facebook is simultaneously an insatiable competitor – which is cannibalizing the market for online ads and all employable spaces, from WhatsApp to virtual reality – and an indispensable platform, from which a large part of the demand for online information and spreading of content passes. The social network is taking a major role both in construction and in the distribution of the news because of algorithms that condition the presence in one’s own home of the posts of friends and fan pages, and that favor the appearance of certain content on the basis of codes built on user preferences, which change with a certain regularity. Hence the debate: is it right to base editorial strategies on the policy – which is often changing – of an eternal platform, which legitimately pursues its own interest, and that continues to be accredited as the best ally for publishers? What if publishers had created their Facebook before Facebook, to continue enjoying the benefits of controlling the spread and behavior of readers? David Carr summed up the issue with a rather effective image. Facebook is like a big dog that runs to meet you and you never know if it’s coming to lick or to tear you apart – and there is the possibility that he will lick you until you die.

Mobile

The Daily Mail explains why iCloud is not an actual cloud – via Guardian

The mobile industry, nowadays, accounts for 25% of the global Web usage (last year it was 14%) and is (as of 2013) 11% of the world’s digital advertising spend, up by 47%. From mobiles the news is read by more than half of Americans surveyed by a study of the American Press Institute. Hence, “mobile” is another of the keywords of 2014. It is no longer a matter of simply how to adjust websites with responsive design, but to imagine new products and being able to adapt to the reading tool and to the time of day when it is used. A project designed for these devices has closed this year – it is the case of NYTnow, which for some has lacked the strategic choice of the offered product – but on the other hand investment has rewarded those who have bet on platforms and content designed for ‘on the move’ reading. This is the case of BuzzFeed, with 60% of its visits coming from mobile. For this reason, the outlet has appointed an editorial figure to harmonize this process (the “publisher” Dao Nguyen) BuzzFeed has now reached a valuation of $850 million. Just last week, it launched a new project (BFF) to reach young readers and mobiles wherever they are, on platforms like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram. «Make it mobile, or you may not make it at all,» «Desktop is the new paper,» it has been said this year. And not surprisingly, if it is considered that telephone users in the world amounted to more than 5 billion, of which 30% have a smartphone. Most of the “digital” life of people is on the phone.

Explainers

«The question for news publishers is no longer how to draw an audience to their sites, it’s how to implant themselves into their audience’s lives,» explains Honan in an article entitled «Inside the Buzz-Fueled Media Startups Battling for Your Attention.» In other words, entering the life of users and offering them a service, be it WhatsApp messages or email newsletters. The challenge is to “catch” the readers where they spend a large part of their day and try to capture their attention. To notice and read the news, however, it must be – first of all – interesting, useful and have ‘sense‘ for those who consult it («must read,» as suggested by John Battelle.) «41 percent of adults said they have a hard time telling what news is important; 40 percent said they don’t have time to keep up with the news; and one quarter said they find the news difficult to understand,» explains research cited this week by the associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism Rachel Davis Mersey. «The key is that people aren’t just looking for information – they’re looking to understand,» adds Millie Tran of the American Press Institute. Explaining things, making them accessible through comprehension and structure (such as Vox Card Stacks, information sheets which offer a series of basic knowledge on the issues of the moment) and making patable «vegetables,» the news you need to know (the vegetables you have to eat) to maintain a balanced (news) diet. This is the manifesto of Vox.comthe website of Ezra Klein, a former columnist of the Washington Post – and the movement of the explainers. The bubble of the explainers was one of the themes of the year (as discussed in # ijf14 with Felix Salmon, who invented the «wonk bubble» term) and fomented debates and a small market. Besides Klein, it involved Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and other projects of various legacy media such as The Upshot of the NYT.

Clickbait


To capture the interest of readers, how the news is presented really matters – including content, to launch on social networks, titling and chosen images. The obsessive search for attention of the users can easily lead to the phenomenon generally defined as “clickbait.” This year the issue was gutted in all ways in a debate animated by the editor in chief of BuzzFeed Ben Smith with a post entitled «Why BuzzFeed Doesn’t Do Clickbait» (subtitled «You won’t believe this one weird trick») and by the definition of comedian Jon Stewart, who compared some online outlets to the barkers of Coney Island (the ones who yell things like «Come on in here and see a three-legged man!» and then show a guy with a crutch.) For some, clickbait is the title, or the content, which forces the opening of the proposed article (sometimes shouted) for others it is a more honest way of staying in the market by winking at the reader’s curiosity (relying on the curiosity gap) a mechanism that survives all along in the screamed headlines and with the “blood” of the front pages («If it bleeds, it leads».) Certainly its exasperation often leads to a real parallel market based on unchecked news and hoaxes launched in a sensational way to have easy dissemination, news which, although passed under the debunking lens, is unlikely to lose its effectiveness (here the project of Craig Silverman, Emergent.info, who built a website to understand which of the viral stories are true or false, finding that very often false news travels better and more.)

Newcomers

Making information ecology, in a context so pollutable, becomes necessary. Websites such as the aforementioned Vox.com try to re-start from the base of the news, serving as a safe harbor for the reader. Klein’s website is one of the successful stories of this year. The Vox Media Group has reached an estimate of around $400 million, and steady growth in terms of views. However, it is not the only one. Even if old newsrooms shrink, causing the understandable sadness of those who have been part of them, new media groups continue to be born (and die) managing to attract high-profile investments, especially for those projects that have decided to focus on the millennials. For years, media critics have been wondering whether or not this is the golden age for journalism.True or not, 2014 saw new media increase from the economic point of view (Vice Media would be worth about $2.5 billion, and this year has launched Vice News; Quartz continues to undermine competition in its sector; there are the aforementioned BuzzFeed, Mashable and the case of Business Insider) and others that were born and raised under the pressure of the commitment statement of the new digital industrial magnates. If in 2013 it was the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who led the way, 2014 was the year of the launch of the first element of First Look Media of eBay founder Pierre Omydiar. This is The Intercept of Glenn Greenwald, to which more “verticals” should have been added but haven’t (yet) because of internal conflicts and resignations.

The “dispute” with Silicon Valley

It is the case, for example, of The Racket of Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone who had embraced the project of Omidyar to launch an outlet dedicated to the corruption of Wall Street and Washington. In November, Taibbi left First Look because of «a collision between the First Look executives, who by and large come from a highly structured Silicon Valley corporate environment, and the fiercely independent journalists who view corporate cultures and management-speak with disdain,» as can be read on The Intercept. The episode has been analyzed as an emblem of the ‘ideological’ dispute between the entrepreneurial culture of the new editors, who come from the digital industry, and journalistic needs, amid organizing «strategy meetings» and «actually producing things.» Emily Bell has considered the subject, wondering if it is possible to compare a technology start-up to a newsroom. Certainly it seems difficult to adapt “ideations” and slogans of technology entrepreneurship in a profession that, according to Chris Lehman, struggles to adapt to a world made of «vacuous innovation-speak which are notoriously resistant to basic journalistic values such as skeptical inquiry.» This was shown by the mass resignations from The New Republic, which occurred for similar reasons (again, contrasts between newsroom and owner, the co-founder of Facebook Chris Hughes) or positive examples (such as the Washington Post.) The issue exists and deserves a proper solution. According to Bell, it is necessary to unify these two cultures and create something new and functional.

Storytelling

gif via Mashable

The opportunities to rewrite the profession are not lacking. 2014 was also the year of the launch, or attestation, of new types of storytelling. Data journalism has strengthened its presence, with new projects and an increasing use of interactive graphics to make complex data understandable; the use of drones in journalism has continued to spread slowly, while many have bet on an increasing use of robots in the production of content, already seen this year in newsrooms such as the Associated Press (here a “meta-prediction” for 2015 by Matt Waite, built entirely with algorithms.) If on the one hand ultramodern tools such as Oculus Rift and other viewers already allow virtual scenes to be recreated digitally to simulate war experiences or simply learn about life on a farm in Iowa (the Virtual Reality Journalism) other classical journalism – such as radio – has found new life in the unexpected rebirth of the podcast, given up for dead just a few years ago, sharing the same fate of newsletters (one of the trends of 2014, so fashionable as to arrive at the value, as in this case, of around $6 million). Meanwhile, factchecking continues to assert itself. If monitoring tools provided by technology were not enough, examples like Bellingcat of Brown Moses, or the Ukrainian StopFake.org (an anti-hoax website with 1.5 million visits per month) or OpenNewsroom of Storyful, show that the added value – regardless of platforms and technologies – also comes from those who, on the other side of the screen, read and interact, thus contributing to journalistic production: namely the readers.

Community

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Living online, for an outlet, can mean building a community of readers on which to rely in the production process and in content verification. If the “citizen journalists” expression begins to appear so obvious as to be obsolete (in a scenario in which a “platisher” like Medium allows the posting on the same platforms used by famous journalists or whole outlets) there are those who want to build a brand new project, creating stories with people who follow and participate from the outside. It is the case of Reported.ly of Andy Carvin (for First Look) which aims to report news and events on social networks in real-time with the help of a network of users and contributors around the world. It collaborates also with Ebola Deeply, I Fucking Love Science, or the aforementioned Bellingcat, which with its own network of readers and friends has aimed at financing the project through crowdfunding, demonstrating how to bet on the involvement of a community can become essential also from the economic point of view. In October, Mathew Ingram spoke of contiguity and relations to «monetize» as done by De Correspondent. A year after the launch the online Dutch newspaper, based on crowdfunding and subscriptions, continues to survive and raise money. In the same way, the Guardian Membership, a project launched by the Guardian in September has broken – with subscriptions – the wall between the newsroom and the reader, who has become an active member of a newspaper-community, with a physical space for meetings. In the era of open web – as mentioned in the speech of Katharine Vinerlistening to one’s own referring niche becomes essential: discovering, giving attention and discussing stories that have ‘sense‘ for a big or small group of people, combining «the view from the ground and the view from above» (as explained by the founder of GroundSource and Public Insight Network Andrew Haeg) can trigger an incredible mechanism for participation, and represents a real gold mine for the future.

The future: the readers

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It is not a coincidence that most 2015 media predictions – which are being published over Christmas, such as by NiemanLab – emphasize the role of the readers, with an analysis of their behavior, listening to the community extensively, no more as a passive actor to flood with proposals and content, but as an actor to be involved with, even at the cost of being wrongDigital first, audience foremost».) There are those who imagine a future with a view on an «audience-centric perspective,» able to offer services and solutions that enrich the user; those who – such as the editor of digital content of The Globe and Mail Craig Hall – suggest learning from Google both for the reading of the user and for the personalized offer; or those who, like Amy Webb, recommend using the information collected on users’ habits to work on a different offer in accordance with the used tool, adhering perfectly to the needs of those who read (here is a curious experiment: inserting one or more words of interest and the number of minutes you are willing to spend on reading, you receive random information on the chosen subject.) Let’s think about 2015 as «the year of the reader.» After all, it is the only certainty that journalism will always have – whether desktop, mobile or 3D. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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