The Reuters Institute is shortly to publish a wide-ranging report called What’s Happening to our News? It’s based on interviews with 70 significant players in the British media and quantitive data from a range of sources. The report’s author, Andrew Currah, wrote a piece for Monday’s Guardian summarising the main research findings. First:
News publishers have always had some degree of consumer feedback – but never at the range, intensity and speed that the web makes possible.
He concludes that,
…as newsrooms become more digitally integrated, the flow of data from the web will be faster, more detailed and much harder to ignore. It will put pressure on editors and executives to review the popularity and revenue performance of content, the value of specific journalists and the overall allocation of resources. Already, in the quest for digital success, publishers are being nudged to depart from well-established brand and editorial values. This shift is contributing to the development of a softer and more populist news agenda in the UK, with preference given to topics seen as effective generators of traffic, such as celebrity, entertainment and sport.
To the main report, to find the evidence for this shift. Unfortunately, the report does not contain any quantitive data on the softening of the news agenda in the UK. On page 88 there is the assertion:
The distant and relatively ill-defined promise of the clickstream is also luring quality daily newspapers into a more populist, comment-driven andtabloid-like style, which is designed to attract eyeballs from the international ether of the web. For example, the inclusion of entirely new categories of coverage—such as ‘celebrity’, ‘lifestyle’ and ‘weird’—to the websites of the Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Guardian underscores the radical difference between these newspapers and their pre-digital counterparts.
All of the newspapers mentioned above have had such sections for years, and without giving the precise date for each paper’s beginning to include ‘soft’ topics it’s difficult to credit the tyranny of the clickstream with this kind of editorial shift. Research by Professor James Curran is cited to support the thesis that the UK media has shifted toward ‘softer’ news, it’s true:
…research by Professor James Curran (Goldsmiths, University of London) has found that the UK news media are shifting towards the softer, entertainment-oriented model of the US, and away from the harder, factually oriented model of public service havens such as Denmark and Finland.
That paper hasn’t been published yet, but a report on the Reuters website on its forthcoming publication indicates that it was dedicated to assessing the impact of public vs private media ownership on the kind of news reported:
In collaboration with other colleagues, Professor Curran recently conducted research into the impact that the ownership structure of media has on the availability of different kinds of news in the United States, the United Kingdom, Finland and Denmark. The aim of the research was to assess what, if any, differences could be found between public broadcasting systems and commercial broadcasting when it came to the news mix on offer, vis-a-vis hard news and soft news as well as foreign and domestic news.
It’s possible that the report addresses a ‘shift’ from harder to softer news but
it seems unlikely, given that issue isn’t within its stated remit.
More evidence for a softening of the news agenda is provided, this time from the broadcast arena. However, the evidence in this case is also questionable. Quoting a 2008 study by the UK Department for International Development on the proportion of broadcast hours dedicated to international factual reporting the Reuters report says:
As UK citizens’ primary source of information about the wider world, television is uniquely placed to inform and educate audiences about other places … The results of this study show that the international factual output of the four main terrestrial channels in 2007 was the lowest recorded since these reports began … The data highlights the increasing migration of international factual
content to digital channels, which now make up 24 per cent of the total, the highest figure to date. ‘Soft’ programming topics such as
travel continue to dominate whilst ‘harder’ ones such as conflict and disaster and politics constitute only 12 per cent of all international factual output.
The report goes on, however, and this is not included in the Reuters study:
The data shows that the total amount of international factual output in 2007 (952.8 hours) was the fourth highest since the longitudinal research began and that since 2000/01 the total amount has remained significantly higher than in the 1990s.
The main point here is that factual output has not disappeared, it has just migrated, a function of the fact that terrestrial channels can move it. It’s not clear here how this is an example of the digital revolution ‘softening’ news coverage – it seems rather that it’s allowing for the kind of specialisation of media that commercial broadcasters/media have presumably always wanted. Without a public service mandate, catering to the small proportion of viewers or readers who are interested in ‘hard’ subjects has always been a commercial albatross. With multiple channels, commercial media can serve this population (who are, after all, of some value to advertisers, and thus to the broadcaster/publisher), while freeing up space on their mainstream channels to cater to, well, the mainstream. The second point is that the DFID study does not include a year by year breakdown of the type of programming (soft vs hard) that makes up international factual output, but it does say ‘“Soft” programming topics such as travel continue to dominate’, with ‘continue’ suggesting that this trend is not a new one.
To return to the question of metrics; that newspapers are now armed with better statistics is worth pointing out, but important not to overstate, as it is here:
The digital revolution therefore heralds a new process of mechanisation in news publishing and in particular, the ascent of a new culture of metrics.
Until now, the market for news has lacked the behavioural metrics that underpin other consumer-driven sectors.
The clickstream is arguably as transformative to news publishing as the introduction of ‘electronic point of sale’ (EPOS) technology in retailing.
Because the metrics idea is new, this kind of overstatement of its implications is tempting, but should be resisted. There have always been newspapers whose editorial line diverges from what’s profitable and popular – the Guardian for one. More detailed statistics will not change what has historically driven newspaper sales – sex and sport – so one wonders if better measurement will impact on what newspapers choose to cover, if the broad brushstrokes have always been known, and a number of newspapers have pursued their own editorial line regardless.
More important to pursue, and it’s something this report doesn’t, is the impact of metrics on advertising, and the knock-on effect on newspapers as advertisers demand lower fees for publication. As pointed out in a previous post:
When I worked in Advertising the ineffectiveness of advertising was hardly a secret. But customers couldn’t measure the effectiveness of ads. So they paid and continue to pay ridiculous prices for them.
Online ads, on the other hand, are measurable. They work just as well, if not better, than print, television, etc., the difference is that for the first time ad customers know exactly how ineffective they are.
While the author does concede that some newspapers will likely continue to pursue a particular editorial line, it’s not clear how this maintenance of the status quo is peculiarly relevant to online media.
A…viable strategy, we suggest, is for news publishers to identify and follow ‘editorial isolines’ as they navigate the trails of the clickstream. In practice, that would entail a strategic focus on certain kinds of coverage and hence, certain audiences, whilst sidelining others. The search for digital success would be refracted through the prism of existing editorial and brand values. The purpose would be to focus on the qualitative rather than the quantitative dimensions of web audiences. In other words, the publisher would seek to engage a particular type of audience, rather than focusing on the absolute maximization of eyeballs, which tends to disregard the characteristics and location of audiences. In turn, that might curry favour with advertisers seeking to access that type of audience. Sir Peter Job (former CEO of Reuters) suggests that, with a distinctive audience-focused approach, news publishers would be better able to position themselves within the web of information search and advertising transactions on the web.
With the exception of the word ‘isolines’ all of the ideas contained in this paragraph are very old ones. This problem persists throughout the report; rather than addressing the unique challenges thrown up by web-publishing, it focuses on issues that have bedevilled the news industry for decades, and suggests only that newspapers follow already well-trodden paths to address these challenges. Another example:
…a more targeted focus on audience characteristics—not size or volume alone—would have the potential to sustain a more robust business model over the longer term. For example, the engagement of audiences around targeted and relevant news content is more likely to attract and sustain the interest of advertisers. As Douglas McCabe (Enders Analysis) pointed out, advertisers are
increasingly demanding access to well-defined groups of loyal and engaged audiences, not the transitory eyeballs that are briefly attracted by the flicker of salacious or sensationalist stories.
This conclusion seemingly failing to recognise that the segmentation of the newspaper market into tabloid, mid-market and broadsheet has delivered this kind of ‘well-defined audience’ to advertisers for about as long as advertising funded newspapers have existed.
Some of the problems the reports assert inhere to writing and reporting for the web are easily remediable, for example:
As many interviewees emphasised, the skills that underpin print journalism are not easily transferable to the web,
particularly because of the global distribution of digital audiences. As news websites become more popular, with millions of consumers in a spread of different markets and cultures, otherwise simple issues in the production of stories—such as terminology, definitions and contextualization—can suddenly become extremely complex.
where in reality the ‘extremely complex’ problem of region specific terms and contexts can easily be circumvented by hyperlinking terms or topics to external sources that explain them.
Similarly the assertion that,
To maintain or extend their digital positions in foreign markets, news publishers are realising that they need to adapt their websites to the tastes, habits and language of overseas users. The Guardian, for example, is expanding its deployment of US correspondents to better serve readers of Guardian America.
Although presented as a lead-on from the issue of writing for a world audience encapsulates a quite separate issue: ie, the Guardian is trying to better serve American readers of a site aimed at Americans by covering more news that’s relevant to them. The Sunday Times has had an Irish edition that has done just this for years.
Whether and how much newspapers should invest in multimedia is an important issue, only glanced upon here:
The web also opens up entirely new modes of narrative presentation, which publishers are still struggling to understand and address. Alan Rusbridger (Editor of the Guardian) believes that ‘audiences increasingly want to graze on non-textual forms of news media’.
and with no exploration of whether or not users want or use these ‘non-textual forms’. They may well do, then again the temporal restrictions imposed by them, added to the fact that they’re NSFW, implies that they could conceivably be a bad investment. Some reliable survey data would be useful.
The final chapter of the report focuses on the potential ‘hollowing-out’ of democracy brought about by the digital revolution. The point is made that non-profit organisations (like the Scott Trust and the BBC) are better placed to uphold the civic function of journalism than commercial ones.
publishers cannot afford to commit resources to the sustained monitoring and reporting of society, at home and abroad. To attract the interest of global audiences, however, news publishers need a growing amount of content; as such, they are
populating their websites with content from news wires, public relations gatekeepers, star commentators and the emerging army of citizen journalists. The overall point, therefore, is that the continued, systematic gathering and provision of reliable news—a vital prerequisite to the creation and renewal of an informed citizenry—appears to be under threat. Key areas such as coverage of political debate, foreign news or investigative reports are under strain due to the scarcity of resources. There are relatively few havens, outside the shelter of the BBC, the specialised newspapers and the Scott Trust, where the costs and complexities of a multi-channel news
operation can be managed in a fashion that does not impair the civic function of the news.
While this argument has been around since at least the Sykes Committee report on broadcasting in 1923, an interesting point that could have been made here is the fact that the digital upheaval has brought the public service vs commercial argument back into sharp focus. The commercial broadsheets, who once could pursue a reasonably civic minded editorial policy, thanks to an advertising monopoly of sorts, will, in the years to come, face serious challenges to the pursuit of such policies as ad revenue becomes more dispersed. A few questions that need to be addressed to this issue: will the nebulous value of associating a brand with a certain kind of editorial line persist in the future? Will publishers manage to bump up the cost of ads on their sites as they reach wider audiences than was ever before possible? Will the broadsheets be able to pursue civic minded journalism by subsidising it through the acquisition of profitable classified and specialist sites? (as the Reuters report points out many have already done). The report suggests both tax-breaks for public interest journalism, and a review of the Charities Act to allow for this kind of journalism to be funded by charitable foundations (as happens in the US with the Knight foundation, for example).
This report is not without value, but as an analysis of how newspapers are dealing with the transition online it doesn’t really offer an fresh insights. Too many of the challenges it looks into are old ones shoe-horned into being unique to the online environment. There is a certain tendency to assume all sites are digitised newspapers in various forms, as in:
…the digital revolution heralds an abundance of choice but a scarcity of attention. In the younger generation especially,
attention and time are increasingly focused on sites of sociability and fantasy, not sites of news. The transition from mass media to individually customised media is characterised by civic as well as commercial shortcomings. In part, the media is simply responding to a broader and ongoing process of fragmentation and individualisation amongst the audience
giving as examples of sites of ‘sociability and fantasty’ Facebook and Second Life. These sites are not competition for newspapers, any more than sms and chess are. They’re a different category, and people don’t visit them for the same reason they visit a newspaper site. Attracting and keeping new readers is an issue, but one television threw into the mix more than half a century ago. The point here is that it’s not useful to categorise all websites as equal, and this kind of category error is indicative of a failure to grasp that the internet is not a new medium in the simple way television or radio was, it’s an awful lot more expansive than that.