News, journalism and the digital abyss

November 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

The news industry is looking for a life jacket in a storm. No one yet has a complete answer to make journalism float in the digital wave that is wiping out the news media’s traditional business models.

One of the biggest fears for journalism is how to maintain the separation between an editorial process and the money making side of the business. As the old news media models begin to collapse in the digital era, the danger is that the news will become all about clicks on pages because that’s what is most attractive to the advertising side of the business.

If news is determined by what gets the most clicks, the many issues that are serious, complex and unsexy (think climate change, changes to the way schools are funded or new surveillance legislation) would not be able to compete with stories about international rugby players caught in a sleaze.

How then do we as a society mitigate against changing news priorities that are primarily driven by commercial imperatives, made even more acute by an increasing desperation in news media publishing? How can good journalism be profitable when classified advertising in newspapers is drying up and free to air television news faces falling audiences and increasing competition for advertising dollars due to online competition?

The fact is no one yet knows. As American internet commentator, Clay Shirky, puts it, we are in a period of creative destruction and it is still too early to predict the kind of emerging media architecture that we hope will spring Phoenix-like from the ashes of the old business models that have served journalism for so long.

Shirky’s referencing of creative destruction is actually the idea of an Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter who described it as an essential part of business cycles. As companies grow and become leaders, they eventually become overtaken by other companies which adapt to the changes in the business environment by being smarter and more innovative.

In the current media environment, the pervasive mood is fear. Many news organisations are more concerned with clinging to their declining audiences than building new ones. It’s a strategy borne out of pessimism. There is a lot of waiting to see what happens next.

That’s why the experiments implemented by Rupert Murdoch’s News International have attracted so much media attention and commentary. The pay wall that ring fences news content on The Times website and Murdoch’s digital subscription newspaper The Daily were designed to stem the free content digital tide but the prognosis is not a hopeful one.

On the other hand, the New York Times appears to be enjoying some success with its pay wall as it records a significant increase in subscribers.

Meanwhile, The Guardian is a newspaper with an entirely different strategy. Editor Alan Rusbridger told Al Jazeera that a decision had been made a few years ago to turn the Manchester newspaper into a digital first organization.

The Guardian is betting that it will become a commercially viable strategy even though the transition to digital is literally costing it millions. Last year, it lost over 40 million pounds and it is even reportedly weighing up opening a lifestyle shop in Covent Garden to create another revenue stream.

But in journalism terms, The Guardian has been buoyed by its part in breaking two remarkable news stories – the Wikileaks documents and the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Even so there must be misgivings among its shareholders over how long it can continue to run at a loss while hoping its bet on a digital future for news pays off.

Rusbridger told Al Jazeera that the media companies that will succeed will be open ones. “This is the biggest transformation in the last two to three hundred years and not many media organisations have twigged it yet.”

The key appears to be finding ways of doing things that the competition is not doing. While it may be an expensive strategy, The Guardian is trying to seize a first mover advantage. Recent innovations include opening up its news lists to readers to contribute story ideas and@GuardianTagBot, a “Twitter-based search assistant”. There’s also nOtice, an “open community news platform” which is heralded to be launched soon.

While these experiments may not yet add up to a clear picture of the future of news, they give us glimpses of new directions for journalism and offer further clues of how media organisations need to evolve to survive.

Some might say it is simply a matter of rearranging the deckchairs but The Guardian’s guiding vision is a courageous one. That’s because it is intrinsically optimistic about quality journalism and the internet, despite the prevailing fear and pessimism that now grips the news industry.

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The future is wireless and ruled by zettabytes

June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Omens of the digital apocalypse are everywhere. Ask any 20 something if they buy newspapers and the answer is almost certainly no. At my local art house video shop, the staff say their clientele is increasingly 40 and above. At my local alternative radio station, the station manager observes the shelves for flyers are nearly empty. My favourite music shop has closed and another I go to has savagely reduced its stock of CDs.

This is how it is. The daily hard-copy newspaper faces annihilation as new cohorts of news consumers go online.  Video shops are staring at the end because young people download their viewing and music shops face the same threat. Radio stations and other popular culture hubs have fewer flyers because advertising increasingly goes online.

This creeping redundancy is extremely bad news for people who have based their business models around the old legacy media. We have also been here many times before with the advent of technologies that have irrevocably changed the way we do things. The printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, radio and television have all consigned older, slower, less efficient media technologies to the dustbins of history.

But I don’t think we have ever witnessed such wholesale change to the way we create, connect, communicate, consume and share content as we are now seeing in our lifetimes.

This cycle of destruction we are living through is contrastingly illuminated by a blossoming of online energy that is positively dazzling. How about this for a watershed moment? Sometime before the year 2015, the quantities of digital data flowing around the planet will cumulatively reach the one zettabyte threshold.

This projection comes from a forecast by the Cisco Visual Networking Index, an initiative that tracks global internet traffic and extrapolates those trends. The latest VNI says global internet traffic has increased eightfold in the past five years and will increase fourfold over the coming five years.

It also predicts by 2015, the number of devices connected to the internet will be twice as high as the global population. This is a doubling from 2010 when it was estimated there was one device per person.  Correspondingly, internet traffic will grow from three gigabytes per person in 2010 to eleven gigabytes per person in 2015.

But let’s just go back a bit. Consider a byte is one unit of digital information, and 1000 bytes is a kilobyte. A zettabyte is a kilobyte to the power of seven. Multiply a zettabyte to the next power and we arrive at another frontier signpost – the yottabyte. By then, we will have truly and well entered the realms of science fiction and quite feasibly, a yottabyte world, given the exponential growth in digital data traffic, may be closer than we might expect.

If the Cisco VNI forecasts are accurate, 2015 is shaping up to be a pivotal year in the evolution of our digital civilisation. Assuming the Mayan prophecy of some kind of global apocalypse is averted in 2012, we can look forward to the point that traffic from wireless devices will exceed traffic from wired devices;  increasing internet traffic will continue to come from non-PC devices (think smart phones, internet television, tablets); and mobile data to increase 26 times between now and 2015.

In another salient trend that demonstrates how things are changing, we will soon witness Asia surpass North America as the region that generates the most internet traffic, confirming how the world economy is shifting away from the West. It is with interest I read that the already super connected South Korean capital Seoul is working on becoming the world’s first complete free Wi-Fi city while we in New Zealand wait for ultrafast broadband to begin to roll out in 2015.

While these forecasts are stunning, they’re also unsettling. The present is increasingly digital and the future is wireless. That much we know. We also know the digital world is accelerating away from the non digital world and the gulf between those who have access to digital communications technology and those who are denied by any mix of geo-politics, deprivation and lack of opportunity will be excluded further. As the futurist writer William Gibson said: “The future is already here; it is just distributed unevenly.”

Governments, organisations, businesses, communities and individuals have a growing responsibility to ensure that as many people as possible have access to the digital world. It provides access to education, information, healthcare, political rights, creativity and freedom of expression.  The United Nations recently declared that internet access is a human right. If our wireless future is inequitably shared and distributed, millions will be consigned to poverty and lack of opportunity in a world that is increasingly defined by the internet and mobile access to it.

While we embrace the wonderful advantages of digital living and the social web, we need to think about the risks posed to society and human civilisation if millions of others remain locked out of this digital century despite the increasing ubiquity of the technology.

It is my sincere hope that our wireless, inter-connected digital future is an increasingly inclusive one.

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