Friday 30 September 2016

Going Dutch: can the Netherlands predict the future of journalism?

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

‘Sometimes newsrooms are filled with people who dream of what used to be. But those newsrooms will all have vanished by 2025'
‘Sometimes newsrooms are filled with people who dream of what used to be. But those newsrooms will all have vanished by 2025'

The Dutch have been peering into their crystal ball, looking for a glimpse of the future of journalism. Not content with one version of the future, though, they went and found four. Last week the Dutch Journalism Fund (DJF) produced 'What's New(s): Scenarios for the Future of Journalism', a report that offered four different scenarios of how journalism could evolve.

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The Dutch media market is well placed to look to the future. It has a familiar tale to tell of falling print circulation and dwindling ad revenues, but it has also seen some interesting innovations.

There's the micropayments service Blendle, which has recently expanded into Germany. There's Dichtbij, the local network of over 40 news outlets that has worked to forge long-term relationships with advertisers. And there's De Correspondent, an online journalism platform that focuses on investigative reporting. It has over 30,000 subscribers who each pay €60 per year.

Despite the fact that these new kids on the block are surviving, many legacy media outlets in the Netherlands are facing extinction. Rene van Zanten, managing director of DJF says the 'What's New(s)' report is a stark warning to media companies that they need to re-imagine themselves for a digital future.

"Digital natives do not only understand the new world of media and information better," he says, "they also are more prepared to adjust, to adapt, to change, to throw everything overboard and start something new. As we say: culture eats strategy for breakfast.

"Sometimes newsrooms are filled with people who dream of what used to be. Our study shows that these newsrooms will be vanished in 2025. In order to survive, the 'old world' will have to embrace the 'new world', or more practically, work together with start-ups."

The report touches on many trends. There's the bleak but familiar picture in relation to the performance of print in the digital age. Advertising revenues down, average monthly reach down. Nothing's going up - except the average age of subscribers, of course. Younger audiences, according to the report, aren't consuming more or less news than previous generations, but they consume it differently. They snack.

The report also touches on how algorithms are the new editors of news in the online sphere; the erosion of trust in media outlets; and how increasing bandwidth is driving demand for online video. One particularly grim trend noted, is the inability of governments to take on technology giants.

The European Parliament's acceptance of a motion in November 2014, calling on the European Commission to split up Google, is referred to as unenforceable, and too little too late. Another depressing trend mentioned is the continued lowering of budgets in public broadcasting. The participants expected that the Dutch government will no longer wish to pay for sports and entertainment programming, which is increasingly seen as the purview of the big commercial players.

And then there are the four differing visions of journalism in 2025.

The first posits a world where technological news intermediaries like Apple and Facebook are no longer in the driving seat, possibly due to their failure to protect user privacy.

In their place, an online DIY culture has flourished, where new initiatives appear and disappear rapidly, and journalists operate as information gatherers, overseers and community-managers. Issues like use of personal data and the accountability of algorithms have become matters of national importance. The DJF dubbed this version of the future 'The Wisdom of the Crowd'.

Another vision for 2025, called 'The Shire' after the idyllic home of JRR Tolkien's hobbits, posits a world where the unbridled self-promotion and online narcissism of the Facebook era, has given way to online groups of like-minded people. Communities matter, not selfies. An increase in civic initiatives and grass-roots organisations, coupled with government cuts, means citizens take more responsibility and create platforms for the exchange of products and services.

In the media landscape, this translates into a range of topic-based sites that take contributions from both citizen journalists and professional journalists. Legacy outlets still persist, but many stations, TV programmes and journalists are seen as belonging to the establishment.

'Darwin's Game' is the name given to the most optimistic prediction. In this sunny vision, once authoritative institutions - like legacy media outlets - reinvent themselves, and regain the trust of their original audience. They embrace transparency and accessibility. Dialogue and collaboration are the orders of the day. And everyone lives happily ever after.

The least optimistic scenario, dubbed 'A Handful of Apples', predicts that a handful of the biggest technological players control distribution and access to content. The news is personalised and is served to users at a time and through a channel that's uncannily convenient.

Traditional news organisations are in decline, but a cohort of die-hards raise the importance of independent journalism, the quality of news coverage and pluralism. However, the majority of news outlets treat the public as a collection of consumers who need to be catered for, rather than as citizens who should be informed for the sake of a democratic process.

Van Zanten admits that this final scenario gains most traction.

"Wherever we talk about the study, we find that people believe that the scenario 'A Handful of Apples' is inevitable," he says. "There are no real threats for Apple and Facebook. We think that privacy issues could make people turn their backs on players like Google, but there are no serious indications to support that."

So is this pessimistic vision of the future of journalism inevitable? On a global level, it probably is. Hell, I'd even say it's a pretty good description of the present.

Massive distribution channels such as Google, Apple, Facebook and newbies like Snapchat have hooked users with peerless search capability, instant social context, or peer-to-peer sharing of information.

They have become the go-to guys to find, share and discuss stories and breaking news. What media outlet can hope to counter that?

But that's not to say that these tech titans leave no room for the smaller guy. There's plenty of room for respected, regional news brands that inform and entertain specific audiences. They may have to get used to the idea that they're reliant on the bigger digital intermediaries in this brave new world.

Sunday Indo Business

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