Monday 5 December 2016

Steve Dempsey: A futurist's view of how the news industry can plot a new course

Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30

'Can businesses traditionally focused on daily circulation and advertising revenues realise the potential that lies in the likes of artificial intelligence, personalisation, recognition and data capture?' Photo: Depositphotos
'Can businesses traditionally focused on daily circulation and advertising revenues realise the potential that lies in the likes of artificial intelligence, personalisation, recognition and data capture?' Photo: Depositphotos

Last month over 600 editors-in-chief and media experts came together for the Global Editors' Network Summit in a big old room in Vienna, with a rather grand painted ceiling, to find out if the sky was falling on their heads.

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One contributor with a strong handle on what the future may hold was Amy Webb from the Future Today Institute - a forecasting and strategy firm that researches technology and disruption.

There were three tools that Webb name-checked for the media types in attendance.

Bots, she said, offer the potential for a conversational interface between users and news providers. Recognition tools, some of which are being used by Facebook and Google, could enable news organisations to have a greater understanding of their audience, though they must be used carefully she said.

Mixed Reality (that is, augmented reality and other systems that bring the physical and digital worlds together) could create stories that build empathy, as well as developing new methods of distribution.

And it's distribution that Webb sees as the most pressing challenge for media organisations everywhere.

"Because news has become so democratised - which is to say that there are myriad channels for information and anyone can produce content - the old method of creating, producing, distributing and monetising no longer works," she says. "While I do see news media organisations optimising for certain channels, such as Facebook and Google, I have yet to see the industry developing the necessary tools to innovate distribution in a fundamentally new way."

And unless publishers stop outsourcing the thorny issue of online distribution to technology giants, Webb believes they're putting their collective futures at risk.

"Ostensibly, journalists are trained to use primary source material to present data without bias and to serve a watchdog function," she says. "Editors and producers, not to mention copy editors and fact checkers, provide that absolutely necessary layer of accountability and transparency. So there must be a new way - and I mean completely and utterly new - to distribute content, where news organisations are far less reliant on technology companies.

"In the models I've built, the catastrophic scenario shows the complete erosion of quality journalism and the rise of political and corporate despotism, geopolitical instability and the like as a result. In the pessimistic scenario, news organisations shrink down to a fraction of the size that they were before.

"Consolidation leads to just a few owners, companies and individuals, who don't come from a traditional media background.

"In my optimistic scenario, news organisations across the industry decide that it is in their own best interests to pool resources and to invest in true, applied research towards new distribution systems."

But do publishers have the stomach for what lies ahead? The ability to collaborate?

Can businesses traditionally focused on daily circulation and advertising revenues realise the potential that lies in the likes of artificial intelligence, personalisation, recognition and data capture?

Webb believes they can.

But it's going be tough.

"Many have been in a continual mode of reduction and downsizing for years," she says. "Now, are they actively planning for the future? No, I would say they are not.

"Self-studies, innovation teams and having someone speak about industry trends is not the same thing as practising foresight. News organisations must make foresight - which is the data-driven, active study of emerging trends, along with scenario mapping, strategy development and pressure-testing - a part of their regular routine. And not just once a year at a company meeting or conference.

"To effectively plan for future disruption and to do something about it in the present, they must use foresight tools routinely, across all of their business practices."

Webb told the assembled editors, journalists and news executives in the big room in Vienna that they needed to be more like Sherlock Holmes if they want to understand how their industry is evolving.

They need to hone their powers of observation and deduction.

"They do not track trends, map scenarios and build strategies that address their preferred outcomes," she said.

"Therefore they are prone to chasing and investing in shiny objects: things that are trendy, rather than trends themselves."

Sunday Indo Business

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