Exploring the future of news with John Stackhouse

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This article was originally published in The Insider, PressReader’s leading edge magazine covering the latest industry trends and top insights about navigating through publishing in a digital world.

John Stackhouse, bestselling author and former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail recently released his new book, Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media RevolutionLate in 2015, I had the opportunity to sit down with John and get his views on the future of news and the role that journalism plays in our lives.  The interview is a collection of questions from PressReader readers and a few of my own.


Here’s a transcript of that interview…

Changes in news consumption

Nikolay:   We have some questions for you from our audience. First let’s start with this one, “How has news consumption changed?”

John:   It’s remarkable how in half a lifetime it’s been revolutionized from analog to digital. Among the most significant change is the shift not only to digital, but to mobile. Half of news readership is now on the phone, on the smartphone. News organizations really have to get their heads around how to produce news; journalists have to get their heads around how to produce news for a phone reader.

It’s been what I’ve called atomized, spread out. We all read; we probably don’t count the number of sources we come across every day reading, which is wonderful.  We can get news from thousands of different sources on a single topic; maybe it’s too much for most of us. It’s a consumer paradise now for news readers, and it’s deeply challenging, obviously, for the publishers of news.

The end of printed newspapers

Nikolay:   News futurist, Ross Dawson, predicted an end of the traditional newsprint news media, in the US by 2017 and in Canada shortly thereafter. Do you agree with that, and what changes do you think are coming?

John:   I think that’s too soon. I often say in 2016 we’ll be celebrating or marking the 10th anniversary of an Economist magazine cover on the death of newspapers. I think if any of us can outlive our obituary by 10 years, we’re doing well.

The newspaper industry or newspapers in their physical form have outlived predictions of their demise for a number of reasons, but that end will come, who knows when. The end in any industry that’s being disrupted comes faster than anyone anticipates, even though it sometimes takes a long while to get to that end state. Will it be 2020, 2025? We’ll see. I suspect there’ll be a decline first of the frequency of the newspapers. Some newspapers, we’re seeing this with La Presse and I suspect others will follow, will start to scale back and eliminate the weekday newspaper and focus on the higher margin weekend newspaper.

Metro dailies will be more challenged than national dailies: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, should do better. That doesn’t mean the end won’t come eventually for their printed editions, but they’ll do better because of their economic base than the metro dailies, which will be squeezed and have to make tough choices between weekday and weekend. When will that end come? No-one knows of course, but I would say some time in the 2020s.

The future of serious journalism

Nikolay:   Let me ask you a question from one of our viewers, “Can serious journalism live online, or is it the end?”

John:   Absolutely, serious journalism can and does live online. I think we are seeing more serious journalism right now than we’ve ever seen. It’s harder to find because the sea level of information keeps rising, so it’s harder to find on some days and some topics the serious journalism. When you find it, it’s fantastic and it’s coming both from the established news organizations, which for the most part are doing terrific work, and all sorts of new entrants.

We’re seeing new platforms – Medium for instance is a terrific platform that is allowing a lot more of what people might call citizen journalism, or semi-professional journalism that’s very interesting. There’s a lot of good stuff, a lot of good writing on Medium as well as on other new platforms, in addition to the great traditional news organizations that we’re all familiar with.

Nikolay:   Serious journalism obviously costs money to produce, a lot of money to produce. Our viewers have been asking us, “Who should pay for it and if someone pays, then how?”

John:   This is the greatest challenge of our times in media. It’s wonderful to be a news consumer; it’s pretty good still to be a journalist.  But the publishers are wrestling with that horrible financial equation. One of the things that I argue in the book is that both readers and advertisers have to come to grips with the economic model. I’m of the belief that news organizations need both to pay.  The news media, especially from the print tradition, has always relied on a ¼ : ¾ split, more or less, between circulation and advertising. That’s important in the business cycle, because circulation tends not to go up and down the way advertising does.  And it’s important to say to your consumers, I believe, “We expect you to pay something; we’re producing really good stuff here, and we expect you to pay for part of the cost for that and challenge us to improve the quality.” That’s what the marketplace does.

News organizations, in my view, have to find a way to get consumers to pay for part of the cost. They have to think beyond news itself. I don’t believe people will pay just for the news article. They want a whole experience. People are willing to pay to have an association with a news organization if it’s delivering great news, access to news makers, quality advertising, discounts on deals and an ability to engage with other readers as well as with the journalists.  All these things sort of go together in a bundle that I believe people will pay for as subscribers. The second part of the equation, the bigger part, is to say to advertisers, “If you want to reach our audience you’re going to have to pay more than you’d pay through programmatic buying, through the robots.” That’s a challenge both to the advertisers and the publishers.

The advertisers, I think, are willing to say “Okay, we’re willing to pay more, but we’ve got to get a better engagement with the reader.  We have to know who they are, so give us better data.” I think that’s an important challenge to publishers, to ensure that without invading anyone’s privacy to be able to say “We can deliver 10,0000 or 100,000 readers who look like this, and are inclined to buy these kinds of products and services at this time of the day or month.” Advertisers will pay for that. Give a better engagement for the advertisers, so the advertising isn’t an embarrassment or something you want to hide behind or block it.

Most of us, as consumers, want to deal with advertisers.  We want to know what a car company has to offer or a vacation company or an airline has to offer, but we want something cool from the advertiser. The advertiser wants to give something cool and traditional news channels are a great way to deliver that. Publishers need to think more progressively on behalf of the advertiser to give that data and give that engagement to the advertiser; the advertiser in return, I believe, will pay more.

Social media – wonderful or dangerous?

Nikolay:   Are headlines, news snippets and social media making us, as the audience, as the readers, less informed, or on the other hand, giving us a much wider view of events?

John:   If I’m allowed to say both, my answer is both. I don’t know about your social media consumption, but I’m always amazed when I go through Twitter and LinkedIn actively during the day and learn a lot just from the headlines. I can just, in a taxi or in an elevator, go “Okay, this has happened.” That’s great.

But I often pause and think “Wait a second; what do I really know about this topic? Should I believe that headline; do I remember where that headline came from? Was it The New York Times or someone I’ve never met who I happen to follow on Twitter?”

As news consumers, I think we have to continuously remind ourselves that this feast of information that we’re getting, especially through social media, is both wonderful and dangerous. This is an important issue, especially for younger news consumers to come to grips with, that you have to be discerning.   Be careful what you read, what you refer, what you accept when it’s referred to you. This is a good challenge in a democracy, but we all have to be aware.  I think it’s both wonderful, what we’re getting through social media, and those snippets and those headlines.  It’s great discovery but with dangers and a lot of caveats that go with that.

From journalism-centric to reader-centric

Nikolay:   How can publishers make their media properties more engaging for readers? That kind of leads to the whole point that you just said, in terms of the editorial and the advertising, so putting the reader at the center of it, how can they make it more engaging?

John:   Exactly that, putting the reader at the center of it. It sounds so obvious, but that’s not what news organizations did for generations. I tried to explore a bit of that culture in my book; I was part of this. We created news that was really important, that we believed in, but it was often journalism-centric, and not audience-centric. One of the great shifts in the digital ecosystem is that there’s all sorts of new providers, of not only media, but of all sorts of goods and services that are audience-centric. One of the great examples of this is Netflix, which still provides old fashioned movies, and TV shows and video content, but does it in an entirely audience-centric way. The producers of that content may not like it, but the consumers love it. What news publishers have to learn from that is that there needs to be an experience.

News needs to be audience-centric, which means, among other things, ensuring that your content is interactive, that consumers can play with it, can contribute to it, can share it, obviously. It’s not a monologue; it’s a dialogue to ensure that the experience allows for readers to interact with other audience members, so it’s more audience-centric than journalist-centric.

As you pointed out, advertising is part of the experience, because consumers actually like advertising. It’s not an inconvenience. I’m fascinated to see a lot of new digital experiences that still present advertising in kind of an old fashioned way, as if it’s something that has to be there, but I feel like the publisher is almost embarrassed by it. As a consumer, I wanted to play with the ad; I want to learn from it. I actually may share the ad with my friends, or do something with it. That’s a step that publishers still, by and large, have to make.

Nikolay:   There is an element called the “Vogue Effect” – advertising that appears in glossy magazines and how when you buy or you get access to it, to a glossy, you’re enjoying that interaction with the advertising.  You expect the advertising to be there and you’re actually enjoying the information that it provides to you. The items may cost more than you can afford, but that feeling of satisfaction that you get from flipping through the pages in is something that newspaper publishers can really learn from.

John:   Absolutely.  You see that in some of the new tablet products, platforms that news publishers are creating. There’s an enhanced advertising experience that is joyful and engaging for the reader. I think people are willing to spend more time with an app if there is deeply engaging and delightful advertising, than they would otherwise.

Nikolay:   In your book you went through a number of instances, historically, where the newspaper publishers, or the media in general, have missed on some great opportunities. You refer to the infamous memo to The Washington Post owners in 1993 I believe. At the end of the day, your book is fairly optimistic in terms of the future of serious journalism, if certain things are done, certain conditions are met. One of our readers wants to know, “Will traditional publishers survive?”

John:   That’s a profound question. Yes, is my answer, but not all of them. In the conclusion of my book I argue that one of the things publishers need to think through is the capital structure of their companies. I don’t think media right now lends itself to public market ownership very nicely, because the battle to figure out the new business model is still going to take time. I think it could be another decade of slogging for media companies. Maybe it’ll come sooner; I hope so, for publishers. Investors and owners of media need to think in 10-year increments, and public markets just aren’t set up for that. I think one of the most pressing challenges for publishers is to ensure they have what’s called “patient capital” – money behind them that allows them to experiment and invest and wait five to ten years for a new model to emerge.

There is arguably too many publishers as well in some parts of the world; some of them have gone away and others will go away. It’s not like there’ll be a vacuum in their place.  There are all sorts of new news providers; we may not call them publishers, but content organizations are emerging that will fill that void very quickly. We, as consumers, will benefit from that.

Nikolay:   Thank you so much John. If you agree with John’s opinion that the digital revolution has started a bolder age in media and democracy, please visit John’s Channel on PressReader and support it.