State of the Media 2014

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As the news media industry grapples with its own survival, the push for content marketing, the ever-expanding mobile use consumption, and continuous print layoffs beg the question: how will direct content unfiltered through journalism change the industry’s future as it continues to take shape and capitalize on technological innovation?

Leslie Walker, co-editor of American Journalism Review and visiting professor in digital innovation at the University of Maryland, points to this very shift as one to watch.

“The two big trends I expect to play out in 2014 are downsizing in legacy media companies, and an increase in direct media production by companies, non-profits and governments,” she said. “I think we’re just in the beginning stages of companies, non-profits and governments bypassing legacy news outlets and directly communicating with audiences.”

Indeed, discouraging events in the journalism industry last year have introduced an uncertain road in 2014. Print news media continues to lay off journalists and reduce printing schedules. The Orange County Register’s push for old school print in 2013 has led to layoffs in the first weeks of 2014, as well as the reduction of daily papers – some of them brand new or newly resuscitated – to weeklies, even as it pursues new ventures like the Los Angeles RegisterNew York magazine, a longstanding cultural institution and a journalistic poster child, announced a reduction to biweekly printing. Online media was not immune to the scythe of journalism’s exceedingly dreary economics: Patch.com’s hyperlocal family of sites, an estimated $200 million venture, saw hundreds of layoffs and hundreds of sites shut down. And unfortunately, Walker believes 2014 may see more failed experiments and “force continued consolidation and cost-cutting for traditional news companies” , especially as advertising continues to push for online revenue growth over print.

While the media industry has seen consolidation, layoffs and job cuts in recent memory, the ever-growing shadow cast by content marketing has offered a divergent career path to many journalists.

“The increase in jobs for storytelling and reporting lies more in corporate, government and non-profit outlets than what we think of as pure journalism outlets. A significant number of our students are taking jobs producing media and content for corporate America, advocacy groups, and even government agencies. Those are all in hiring ramp-up mode, and they’re particularly keen on hiring multimedia talent. All the journalism schools today have ramped up their multimedia skills teaching. These students are very much in demand in corporate America,” Walker said.

In addition to the job growth presented by content marketing, Walker notes that 2014 will likely see much technological innovation and notes four key trends: data, mobile, social and visual.

Technology continues to offer multimedia methodologies that enable stories to be told in ways that both embrace traditional journalism and provide a new field for content creation. “Data-driven media and data-driven journalism are on the cusp of becoming a lot more potent, as web data scraping tools improve and the so-called Internet of Things generates more data that can conceivably tell stories. I think data-driven media is going to be much bigger than it is now,” Walker said.

Mobile news continues to experience growth, and Walker sees a turning point on the horizon for that area of the media industry; as a majority of the audience is now turning to online media, with online news consumption beginning to exceed offline in 2013.

“Mobile news consumption is important, because it’s close to an inflection point,” Walker said. “Nearly 40 percent of online news traffic now is coming from mobile devices. Once that surpasses 50 percent and becomes a primary way that audiences are getting the news, I think that changes how outlets have to report and shape their content. And I think that inflection point is really near.”

However, some may question what news media stands to lose through translation from print to digital, and whether it could impact the integrity of the story.

“People constantly say mobile means shorter stories. But really, tablets are driving a ton of mobile news consumption. And perversely, tablets and e-readers are helping to propel a renaissance in long-form, narrative storytelling,” Walker noted. “That’s going to continue this year. I like to say that the magazine crowd and feature writing folks have finally awoken to the power of interactive storytelling. They’re the last ones to the web party. Thank you Snowfall, Thank you New York Times. I think it’s a good thing. You can tell a lot more important information and reach a depth of thinking through long-form stories over short ones.”

In line with The New York Times’ Snowfall project is The Washington Post’s recently released Trove app, version 2.0 of WaPo Labs, which was introduced in 2011. Trove aims to personalize the news experience for audiences and moves the news media further into the field of content curation. “The Washington Post recently launched Trove. It’s a cross between Digg and Twitter. It’s pure curation. You can make your own flipboard magazine. You can make your own stream on Trove. It’s a cool and innovative app. I think you’ll see dozens of those launch.”

In addition to the growth Walker sees in digital media, she also proposes that another round of Patch.com-inspired news ventures may not be out of the question.

“Local News 4.0, the post-Patch.com models of hyper-local news and advertising will also be a big trend this year,” she noted. “I predict that there will be another round of hopeless, useless, doomed, epic-fail products launch that will try to take a run at the hyper-local advertising business. Local advertising is more likely to gravitate toward the big search and social media companies than to hyper-local companies that cannot possibly have the technological expertise of a Google, a Twitter or a Facebook.”

Those very social media companies are also becoming even further entrenched in a tug-of-war over users’ news choices, and Walker believes this struggle will continue to heat up. “One to watch is the rivalry between Facebook and Twitter. Facebook made an epic pivot last year in trying to mimic Twitter and become a conversation point for news. I expect you’ll see a lot more attempts from Facebook to become the personalized newspaper that Mark Zuckerberg always wanted, and it will be interesting to see that play out,” she said.

In terms of visual media, technological advances in social networks will allow journalists to embark on a new storytelling trail by increasing the options available to captivate audiences.

“Media is becoming more visual, internet media in particular. More storytelling is occurring through videos and photos than ever before. It’s the Instagram era, the Vine era. This is the cusp of something that is going to be transformative in the way news is consumed and stories are told,” she said.

However, those same innovations that allow multimedia storytelling for journalists also enable direct communication between audiences, organizations, corporate America and even the government, which may choose to bypass traditional media altogether.

“Think about Google Glass and the power of first-person video storytelling,” Walker proposed. “Governments can now bypass media and tell their own stories. A politician could wear Google Glass all day on the campaign trail and tell a story directly: direct narrative visual storytelling. This has huge potential in PR.”

Such potential may catalyze further competition for the attention of audiences, and in some ways negate the need for the journalistic information filter. “PR professionals no longer have to be limited like when traditional media had a monopoly on news,” Walker said. “PR professionals can go more directly, through social media, to communicate messages. You don’t have to be on anyone’s press release list.”

Social media continues to engender competition, and media outlets may continue to capitalize on every method available to engage audiences. “The news media in particular is obviously using social media as a distribution system, and increasingly trying to also use it as an engagement platform to have a two-way conversation with their audience,” Walker observed. “But it’s hard, because social media is primarily a peer-to-peer communication platform, and the news media is just one peer on a gigantic network with millions of peers.”

Journalism, then, as just one member of the larger media family, will likely see another year of reinvention and reevaluation. While the tools are there, the question of who subsidizes the news media remains a factor, and whether further gambles and experiments will pay off for all those involved.

Contact information

Leslie Walker
Co-Editor, American Journalism Review
Visiting Professor in Digital Innovation, University of Maryland
lwalker@ajr.umd.edu
(301) 405-6567  
http://twitter.com/leswalker


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