Tuesday 27 September 2016

Adrian Weckler: Mark Little's Twitter rise shows the future of media

Published 20/06/2016 | 10:11

Mark Little on the Web Summit stage (Photo: Sportsfile)
Mark Little on the Web Summit stage (Photo: Sportsfile)

It’s a parable for our times. Last week, former RTE anchorman Mark Little was named as the head of Twitter’s biggest non-US operation.

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In doing so, Little can now affect the distribution of news more than at any Irish media outlet. He has landed on the screens of 300 million people around the world and now has a central role in how things will be seen.

Little left a glamorous TV job in 2009 for a long-shot start-up called Storyful. He did it, he said, to pursue journalism more efficiently. It worked. The Storyful role led to his appointment at Twitter, which has 150 million daily users and is a news junkies’ staple.

He’s not alone. Other Irish journalists have been looking at tech companies as a way to reach people in bigger, better-funded ways.

Aine Kerr, a former Irish Independent journalist, was recently appointed as Facebook’s head of journalism partnerships. Facebook has over one billion daily users and is now the single most used service to read and watch news.

Dubliner John Collins swapped life in the Irish Times for the role of managing editor in a local start-up, Intercom (now reckoned to be worth over €150m).

Cork freelance journalist Daire Hickey went from being a writer for the Irish Daily Mail and The Journal to becoming co-founder of the Web Summit. The list goes on...

In taking these jobs, journalists are finding that they may have a reach far beyond what was possible before.

When appointed, Kerr described her Facebook job as one of the “possibilities for journalism” and praised “the role Facebook plays as a source of valuable, newsworthy content”. She also noted that Facebook is “a destination with the largest online audience in the world and advertising revenue models to match”.

On the revenue point, she’s not wrong.

Advertising is the lifeblood of almost all media. But two-thirds of its fastest growing segment, online advertising, is now monopolised by just two companies: Google and Facebook. By and large, that is money that used to go to traditional media outlets like newspapers, television and radio stations.

And even as the media scrambles to compete with hastily made-up online packages, the emergence of future ad Goliaths such as Snapchat look set to squeeze traditional players even further.

The effect on ‘legacy’ media companies is shrinking newsrooms, closures and pared back budgets. And it looks likely to get worse, with Mary Meeker’s recent Internet Trends report highlighting a one-way migration in ad revenue away from ‘legacy’ media to online platforms.

All the while, tech companies like Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook are hiring journalists and editors to pick out (‘curate’) the best stories and, in some cases, to put together packages themselves.

Even Apple now employs journalists and broadcasters for non-PR activities. Among Apple’s recent hires are the former BBC1 radio DJ Zane Lowe as an anchor for its Apple Music radio service. Lowe didn’t go just for the money. With 15 million subscribers, Apple says the venture is now one of the most listened-to radio stations in the world.

To be sure, tech companies have their problems. Twitter, for example, is regularly cited as a company with growth challenges of its own. But there are few media companies who wouldn’t want the problems that Twitter has.

Its stalled user base is still made up of 300 million people, around 150 million of whom are addicted enough to check in every day. And while financial analysts bemoan its financial performance, its ad revenue is still growing faster (at 58pc annually) than almost any other publicly traded company.

Twitter may have fallen way behind Facebook. But it still looks to be in better shape than most traditional media companies.

That doesn’t mean that every journalist’s transition to a big tech firm works out well.

When the American television news anchor Katie Couric became a high profile employee for Yahoo, she did not visibly improve her reach or the profile of her work.

Then there is the story of Dan Lyons, a former Newsweek magazine journalist who was hired by the online sales software company Hubspot. Unsuited from the off, he lasted a year before writing a scathingly satirical book about his time at the firm. The episode was a public relations disaster for Hubspot. It also didn’t work as a long-term job for Lyons, who is unlikely to be hired by a tech company again anytime soon.

But the success stories are beginning to outweigh the perceived failures. Because of their vast reach, online tech companies are more and more boldly proclaiming themselves as media newsrooms in their own right.

“It’s a newsroom where the work of all our teams — news, trends, viral video and content strategy — is equally important,” wrote Facebook’s Aine Kerr when she was leaving her previous role in Storyful.

“Because they all help tell the stories of real people. It’s a newsroom working with hundreds of journalists, witnesses and uploaders worldwide to win billions of views.”

The lesson of Mark Little is that the future of journalism’s revenue and reach probably lies in tech.

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