On Monday the Columbia Journalism Review posted an edited version of a speech by Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Bell was speaking to some students at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. As I read, I felt like I usually do when I see yet another post bemoaning the state of the media industry and how it has lost control to social networks.
Like many others, Bell talks about journalism decoupled from revenues and the business of media. But they are tightly knit: Bad business decisions and dependence on a type of monetization are what led the industry to its present state. Meanwhile the creative part of the establishment has spent too much time focusing on the nuances and minutiae of journalism. We should be focusing on more important questions: Why did we get here, and where do we go from here?
Like many other previous pieces on the topic, Bell’s piece doesn’t propose any new solutions to the current state of panic that is gripping the media industry. It doesn’t hold media executives accountable for their short-term actions — their blind aping of the clicks-and-views model, their abandonment of the core values that made their products worth our time and, most importantly, their tactics of cramming the reader experience with malware and ads, which only make people want to spend their precious minutes elsewhere on an internet full of options.
The current state of hand-wringing makes me wonder if the media establishment actually groks the idea that change is constant and that with change come chaos and opportunity. When will the media establishment stop looking at the business from a content-creation perspective and instead start looking at it from the perspective of money, or, rather, how money flows into the system now?
The internet changed and deflated every industry it touched — brokerage, real estate, travel, tourism, books, music. So why is media special? I am not sure looking at the past is the answer. What I do know (and I think Chartbeat has data to support this somewhere): Original journalism, especially the kind that wins you Oscars, remains extremely popular. So much so that it’s exactly what Facebook wants for Instant Articles.
The Reality of Media Today
- Attention is fractionalized. Netflix is killing journalism as much as photos from your aunt on Facebook are. (Read “The Distribution Democracy and the Future of Media.”)
- Attention is not only fractionalized but also highly distributed. (Read “Media, Attention, Etc.“)
- Social media platform algorithms reward attention with more attention.
- There are no monetization tools yet, because the advertising industry has been smelling its own orifices.
- Containers of media seem irrelevant.
To recap: The beauty of the network is that you don’t have to go anywhere to find entertainment or buy things. Having a computer in your pocket makes it even more convenient to not go anywhere and have everything come to you.
So media as you know it is over. Move on. Let’s focus on what to do.
What I Know
- Great content can still focus attention — it shouldn’t matter where and how you focus it.
- Develop products that focus attention. Why isn’t someone writing a book of the campaign as it happens?
- There is no such thing as producing one-size-fits-all content, so you don’t need one newsroom, you need multiple newsrooms focused on different platforms. Just as McDonald’s tweaked menus for different countries, why can’t media companies tweak their stories for different social platforms?
- Websites become the archives of the content.
What Media Entities Need to Do
- Zero in on what is working, and be ruthless about what’s not. Otherwise algorithms are going to relegate you to the loser spot.
- Hire and incentivize people not with year-end bonuses (which allow them to focus on incremental gains that get them the bacon) but with long-term goals measured by attention devoted to their products.
- Stop competing with BuzzFeed. Start working on your own products of excellence. The Upshot and Bloomberg Gadfly are perfect examples of good work that is unique.
- Find small niches, and make them indispensable. Skift and The Business of Fashion are good examples. Internalize this: Big isn’t the only route to success.
I could go on, but I’ve got to go and find disruption to champion …
March 8, 2016, San Francisco