An Outlook on the Future of Journalism

With the landscape of modern journalism rapidly changing, what does the future look like? With new technology and the internet impacting the way that journalists do their jobs and downward financial pressures consistently facing traditional media organizations, the answer is anything but certain.

In an effort to get a clearer sense of what the future of journalism may look like 20 years from now, we turned to Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab (whose full-time job is to figure out the future of journalism) to get some answers.

Q. Can you provide some background on the Nieman Lab and the work that you’re doing?

A. The Nieman Lab is part of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard, a foundation that was started 76 years ago to promote and improve the journalism industry. The main thing that the Foundation does is offer fellowships to accomplished journalists who come to Harvard to study and improve themselves and their career. Since 1938, the Foundation has brought more than 1,400 promising and accomplished journalists from 93 countries to Harvard for a year of study, innovation and experimentation.

In 2008, a fellow of the program, Joshua Benton, was asked to develop an online site focused on innovation and the future of news. We’ve been here ever since following the future and innovation of news and how this has been impacted by new business models, the internet and new technology.

Q. What has been the most encouraging and discouraging in what you’ve uncovered through this work?

A. It’s an interesting time to be a journalist. While things aren’t always so easy in the media business – there have been a number of layoffs and newspapers continue to struggle to turn a profit – there are new models taking hold and companies are finding ways to survive and thrive in this new world.

For example, a number of newspapers are trying to boost their subscription models or are focusing on more niche products to reach their audience. Publications including the New York Times and Guardian in particular are now offering their readers the opportunity to join a membership – which has been a popular way to create an incentive to get readers to pay a bit more behind the scenes. Through the membership, readers are given access to journalists, are invited to special events, get sent certain select content, and have the opportunity to connect with fellow members who share common interests. This model has been appealing to readers who like the feeling of being part of something, are connected to the brand and appreciate the sense of community the membership offers them.

Publications like this model as they attract an engaged audience and it’s a way for them to get into their ecosystem and sell additional offerings to them. Regional outlets have found success with this membership model as well. Non-profit news outlets out of Minnesota, San Diego and Texas have all launched similar memberships and are doing quite well. In the local outlets in particular, the memberships are appealing to younger readers who are looking to get involved in the local community and make a difference. While it’s still unclear if memberships will save the revenue crisis facing traditional media organizations, I’m hopeful it’s a start in the right direction.

Q. What are your feelings about the future of the news industry over the next 20 years?

A. Online outlets are truly doing some cool innovation. If you had asked me 20 years ago about BuzzFeed, or how readers would be able to get news alerts on their phone or follow news on Twitter – I could have never imagined it.

While innovation will continue to help a number of media organizations find success, some smaller traditional news organizations will inevitably collapse given the number of legacy costs, i.e. printing in particular. Even with new membership programs taking off – they’re not going to replace print revenue. If you take a look at the revenue reports, print revenue is an incredibly large share of how traditional news organizations make their money. As people turn away from print, it’s a big challenge to these programs. While I’m generally optimistic about the future of journalism in 20 years, I’m just not sure what it’s going to look like and how we’re going to pay for it.

One prediction I have in the near term is that news organizations will put a heavier emphasis on trying to offer readers a step out of the stream of constant news. Currently, outlets publish articles on a 24-hour news cycle and expect readers to figure out how to connect the dots on their own. We are going to see a shift in how reporters help people understand where information fits and what it means more broadly. As an example of this, some newspapers have started to change their format by offering readers more definitive news that gives them a quick summary of exactly what it is they need to know about right now. Yahoo News Digest has started sending its readers “7 things you need to know” and there’s a New York Times Now app that offers readers a summary of what’s going on in the news in a direct format.

Q. How has digital media changed how news is covered?

A. With the ramp up of social media, it’s incredible how people report and consume news. Social media has given power to the audience. For example, any time there’s a plane crash – people take photos – they’re on the scene sharing videos. There are more resources for reporters than ever before as they have the opportunity to get more content and get more photos from so many different places. It’s also changed how reporters approach their jobs.

Q. How has the role of the journalist and the values and ethics that come with the practice of journalism changed in the new digital media environment?

A. Social media has given reporters the opportunity to cover their stories on the ground from anywhere – it definitely offers them an interesting lens on what’s going on in the news. Social media also offers the possibility for hoaxes to happen more frequently – so reporters definitely need to spend more time verifying things. As reporters are pressured to get their stories out as fast as possible, there’s been a growing consciousness to confirm and double check everything. Reporters have learned the hard way that’s it’s better to be a few minutes late then be the first one and get it wrong.

Social media and the new digital environment has also granted more opportunities for reporters and has expanded the hiring pool. For example, the Washington Post recently hired 50 new journalists, which is a huge number. In this new environment you’re also continually seeing journalists stretched thin as they are consistently being asked to do more with less.

Q. How are newsrooms using analytics to increase the quality of their readership as well as the quantity?

A. You’re seeing a lot more newsrooms use analytics – especially as they take advantage of the capability to get more information on who their readers are and how they’re accessing the news. Reporters continually have to find a balance of offering readers stories they know they’re going to read, but at the same time covering the important stories that may not be as popular. The ultimate goal for reporters is that you want your readers to read your stories, watch your videos, etc. so analytics is a great way to get the data you need on how best to reach your audience.

Newsrooms are also using analytics to put further pressure on their reporters. In a handful of organizations, reporters have been paid based on how many times their stories get clicked, which is why when personalities like John Oliver or Jimmy Kimmel do a popular segment and post it to YouTube, that same video will be repurposed in a variety of different stories as they know readers will want to see what the hype is all about and will check it out. In rare occasions, reporters have also been rated based on how friendly their writing is to advertisers. Gawker recently published a memo from Sports Illustrated a few weeks ago on this trend in particular.

Q. Should traditional news organizations take a more collaborative rather than competitive approach with startups and new digital news sites? How and why/why not?

A. A lot of news organizations are competitive, however you’re seeing collaborations more often than not. Places like ProPublica do investigative reporting and from time to time they partner with news organizations such as NPR or The New York Times to get their stories out – which is a unique model. When news organizations partner they make a statement that they’re each committed to figuring out the next sustainable model for journalism – it shows a sense of community. At the end of the day though, most news organizations are competitive – they want the scoop, they want traffic driven to their website, they want readers to turn to them first.

Q. How should journalism school programs evolve and innovate their programs so that journalists have the tools they need to be successful in the new media environment?

A. Technology is constantly changing the role of the journalist. Many schools have taken on the “teaching hospital model.” Similar to how medical students go into hospitals and shadow doctors and treat patients themselves, journalists are teaching journalism students how to be reporters through this hands on approach. Students are going out into the field and doing journalism outside the classroom to see what things are really going to be like. Classes are also emphasizing social media, and teaching them all of the skills a digital journalists needs to know. Regardless of how technology is changing the way journalists are learning the craft, when it comes down to it – it is still essential that journalists have the basic skills and know how to build and write a story and conduct interviews. The basics are still important and won’t change. Journalists will have to strike a balance to nail the basics and get equipped with the new skills necessary to thrive in a new media environment.

Q. How is what you’re learning/you’ve learned at the Nieman Lab shaped your role as a journalist?

A. Through my experience with the Nieman Lab I’ve been able to get an interesting perspective on the journalism industry and what’s working and what’s not working. I love that the Nieman Lab has served as a beneficial resource for news organizations and journalists – helping them navigate this new world. It’s so interesting to be part of an organization whose sole mission is to gain an understanding of where journalism is headed, and I’m excited to see what the future will bring.

For further predictions on the future of journalism go to this site.

Since joining Greentarget ten years ago, Lisa has found great success as a highly-effective account manager and media relations expert.

During college basketball season, she can be found cheering on her Indiana University Hoosiers.