It seems like noone really can grab (nor should they actually) if the future media is new, old or a hybrid. Is it really media anymore in the future? Personally I think the key here is to understand it is neither. It is ‘nothing’. It is changing. It is what it should be. In a phase of transition into something new. One key question is if we can keep the transition flowing yet preserve what is good and prevent the media model from stagnating as it did before and in many ways created the media crisis (or maybe better put a very present need of change) of today.
Where is the news media industry right now?
â€œI have been thinking that the newspapers have got it right! Only the popular topics gets all the hitsâ€¦ The rest getâ€¦ wellâ€¦ just the spill overs.â€
The quote is from a conversation about the news media industry with a friend. He is right in one way, but yet oh so wrongâ€¦
The news papers and media in the US today predominantly covers entertainment news, and very little international news. In Feburary 2007, the coverage was around 79% US news. The remaining 21% was dominated by coverage of the situation in Iraq. Here is the really scary part: â€œThe combined coverage of Russia, China and India, for example, reached just 1%.â€ Just as an example, we all know about the BRIC countries and their influence over the world economy today and in the future. Does it really make sense to have such a infinitesimal coverage of these big commercial forces? Not to mention the non-existing coverage of the natural resource intense fourth BRIC country Brazil. Isn’t the in-depth understanding about the the situations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan just to mention a few, essential for the future? I wonâ€™t go in to a international policy discussion about reasons behind it here, even though it is an interesting angle and certainly could foster an engaging discussion.
The world becomes increasingly more flat. The borders – geographical, political, ethnical, cultural and religious – are eroding, constantly fading and soon I would claim they are almost non-existing other than on paper. We are living in a global society. A global community. We can try to escape it or accept it, but ultimately we will have to accept it. The issues we have to tackle are predominantly global, multifaceted unique, and very challenging. They have to be solved and understood by us all, together as one society. During this time of a complete transition of our world, the news media industry is decreasing their international reporting and media staff by to this date around 50%. This development is driven my ever decreasing margins of profit in the media industry. In my eyes, we are witnessing a very dangerous development from a societal growth perspective, not to mention from a democratic point-of-view as the need for real, diverse, news coverage is increasingly more important here.
I came to Stanford back in 2005 with the task to figure out ways to increase the news coverage in troubled areas, in particularly Iraq and the Middle East. It quickly became obvious that the web as a distribution channel was not the real issue. It was the lack of coverage of the news events taking place in the region. The lack of coverage of the human stories. The lack of perspectives coming from these regions. The lack of multiple media channels. The lack of alternative media. The few journalists present were getting killed, threaten or (in some way even worse as it silence the coverage) stopped from covering the events on-the-ground where and when they happen. The issue remains as urgent and present as always, as we saw similar issues in Gaza where the only media channel present inside Palestine were Al Jazeera. The danger then is the bias and single handed stories coming out of regions which desperately need objectivity and diversity. Continuing, today in the US we see an increasing number of unemployed, in many ways suffering core of journalist, photographers, video makers and other media workers. The industry is seriously wounded and in many ways in a paralyzing chock. The natural response of any organism, organization or company will in the state of being (seriously) wounded turn to survival mode and the quick fix or flee. It is about surviving for the moment. The logic leaves. Go for the easy win. In here lies the reasons for the media business trend, as well as we as consumers have very few other alternatives at the moment.
The reality however is that the web has forever changed the possible revenue models for news papers and the media business in general. The music industry got their share of of this transition a few years back, and is struggling to survive even though we are seeing some improvements there. The time has come for the news media business to realize that the era of the traditional media is gone, and that they have to take this challenge on head on. A lot of the revenue streams have for news companies throughout time come from either the classified and advertising (in the printed editions primarily) or for the big news agencies syndication of content. Look at Reuters for instance who earn their revenue from financial data, not their news arm, where you need accurate massaged data to make balanced and accurate decisions. Syndication is an ancient, today non-working and dysfunctional solution in its current form. The freedom of content – both on the publishing and consumption side – on the web these days make syndication models notoriously hard, or let us be honest impossible in the traditional sense. The news media industry is starting to realize this fact. There are some new models we can definitely look at, but in a different form.
Syndication models work well if you have access to purely unique content for which people are willing to pay for. These days you have to have the emotional and human touch to your content, as well as show a span of content around it. It needs to have that little extra. That spice that hooks you in. It has to be tangible, relatable, human and real.
Wait a minute! Can you not get this via a traditional media model?
Sure you can, but it will cost you way too much as content creation is incredibly expensive. It will cost you. It will cost you a lot. It will cost you too much. You will have large head counts, which lead to large expenses, and the margins for content are not there anymore as the key game on the content market has forever changed. Charging for content clearly does not work in the web era where everything should be “free” (or honestly seemingly free). Should it be free? Thatâ€™s another question, but it is naive to think that will change. :-) The unconstrained, immediate distribution of content online have set a stage where you need small slim organizations, that let the content flow freely and undisturbed. The era of the â€œwalled gardensâ€ is forever over, even though the cellular networks in many ways are still stubbornly fighting this trend. Yet remarkably, even they has started to realize the absurdness of the fight, and probably already realize that it is lost already. The content model for the future has forever changed. We as a media consumption society shaped it – for the good and for the bad of it.
The option left is to adapt as in all paradigm shifts. We should just realize that we have entered a completely new era of media. A more exciting. A more dynamic. A more un-predictable. A more interactive. A more social. Yeah! Where do I buy the ticket to tag along on the ride? I want in on this ride!
How do you do this? You turn to multipurpose, flexible and moldable solutions. This is surely nothing new as all big changes throughout history have come from such solutions. You have the steam engine. Multipurpose. You have the PC. Multipurpose device. You have Microsoft Office (regardless what you think of Microsoft). A multipurpose package to solve most of your needs. On the web you have YouTube. A multipurpose video sharing site. You also have Flickr. A multipurpose photo site. The list goes on. Now in here the opportunity lies. The opportunity of changing the news business to something the world has never seen before. The opportunity is to create a multipurpose news media platform where anyone can publish, any one can share any piece of content and anyone can discuss it? The opportunity is the creation of a multipurpose news platform. To use some buzz words the ultimate topical mashup experience. Wouldnâ€™t that be awesome and cool? It sure would be. (… and actually already is.
Citizen Media vs Traditional Media – Is It Really Opposite Solutions?
â€œHey now, we cannot just put up citizen reports. That is just not possible! Let us have a separate page for the people who are interested in this in particular. Oh, and we need to control every entry too. Moderation is key!â€
The comment above is heard way too often in the traditional media news rooms around the world. I have personally heard this comment from so many global media companies. I believe it is a road blocking mentality to accomplish a real change of the media arena. It is prohibiting the media to move into the next obvious phase – the topical mashups of social and traditional media content. The resistance is both hard and extremely easy to understand the reasons. The main reason that explains it all is that it is stepping out of the comfort zone. It is about redefining the space. If you want to use some hotter business development terms, it is the blue ocean strategy. Define the new market. Innovate it. Create it. The ride of your life to be honest! Stepping out of the comfort zone is something most people dread, fear or are uncomfortable doing. It is broadening your views to something else. Something never seen. It is about taking the risk. Just taking a leap. I guess it is a survival instinct. Never divert from the known path. Boooring!
I got news for you, my friend.
The media arena is already redefined. Sorry guys and girls. The unedited, unmediated, unfiltered real community-based media is here. It has been redefined for ages. It is more a matter of having the guts to move into it. Realizing that the change is here. Traditional media will not. Many bloggers will not realize and have not realized this either – “It is my content. Me, me, meâ€¦” Sorry guys, but the community model is here to stay and it is pretty hard to fight this transition. Again remember that the music industry is still pursuing the war against file sharing. In the military you learn one thing: Adapt and move on. Evolution says the same thing: The species which adapt to the new environment will survive. It is the survival of the fittest. We live in a market economy where the consumer is getting more and more power so you better adapt as a business. In a highly competitive market as the media business you better be willing to innovate. YouTube did it for video. Flickr did it for pictures. Wikipedia did it for facts. The news business is up next, or already up.
Will you take the red or blue pill? I prefer the travel down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. That’s where the party is.
First, let us take a brief look at the coverage issues laid out initially about the skewed news coverage in the US. The main issue with the traditional media model is that is completely incapable of catching the long tail market of any component of the long tail. Again the cost is one of the main reasons, but also the traditional editor model will never be able handle the vast amount of content produced in the long tail. Todayâ€™s media market is all about content packaging as the entry barrier for content publishing and creation is in every mans hand. The explosion of cellphones and the incredible growth of the web has enabled anyone to become a reporter, an opinion maker or just enable anyone to share their voice. The birth of citizen reporting or as I see it sharing of their voices and opinions is made possible by the access of publishing technology for no cost especially since web space is incredible cheap these days. The long tail encompasses a lot of challenges such as How do you navigate through the vast amount of information? How do you explain and make the relation between the different content pieces obvious?
The future game of the media business is about content packaging, not creation and distribution. The creation is taken care of and should be community powered, yet supported by the traditional reporting style. The distribution is straightforward using the web, and with supporting paper editions and of course television (over time web-TV). The main disruptions here have been the open-source content management systems and blogging platforms. Putting up a website now is as simple as a few clicks. You are up and blogging in no-time and can start to share your opinions. There are an enormous amount of sites providing possibilities for social bookmarking, multimedia upload and integration with your own site which will help you in the promotional part. In all honesty I would have to admit that learning content promotion is the toughest part and the biggest challenge for any blogger, photographer, video maker or any other content creator. I will come back to that a bit later what supporting elements you will have to have.
Okay, it all sounds good. But how do you relate traditional media content and marry it with user generated content and other related content? How do we combine and package this content to make sense out of it and make it digestible for a normal content consumer?
You will need to combine technology guided by a community. In the user generated arena the stream of content is too big to handle in any scalable way by humans. This is certainly not a new problem for sure as in most industries the big expense is their employees. The media today is increasingly moving into a long-tail market to attract a bigger markets and also harness the user generated content, why the issue with the cost of the employees is increasingly more urgent to address in detail.
Let us step back for just a second and take a look at the content life cycle as it is important to understand the nature of the content you are trying to quality assure.
Content has a life cycle of itâ€™s own and the value of content is pretty much built up by itâ€™s freshness (how breaking is the content), how unique is it, and how emotional the content is. Breaking news content will always be in high demand. The life time and stickiness of the content improves with supporting relevant material such as context, facts and opinions, together with providing the audience with the capability of interacting with the content with ratings, comments and topical forums.
The media scene is continuously moving more towards the ultimate content mashup between traditional and user generated media on a topical basis. The articles are no longer essay like, but more a mosaic of different media types, angles, presentations and such. Essentially, you will have three main components to the presentation:
- The Report – The report is the foundation of the media experience. Anyone can report from anywhere via cellphone or PC, sharing news, images, videos and opinions.
- The Related Voices, Opinions and Facts – Around the report multiple perspectives are woven together that is have a collection of news stories, blog posts, images and videos via contributors and aggregation.
- Discuss and Rate – For each of the presentations you will enable the community to emotionally connect with others around the world through discussion, rate the story and in the community spirit complete the human story.
The key here, and it cannot be over exaggerated, in all of these components is the freedom of contribution, interaction and discussion. It is an absolutely necessity to have this free. It is the freedom of speech on steroids but still fact checked. It has to be free and open. To all people. By any means. Everywhere. Essentially, all these components build the human story and the provided context, facts and opinions built up by other user contributions and aggregation grounds the discussion. Ironically all these characteristics of the content actually provides you with the necessary components of the quality assurance system. It is the ultimate long-tail system.
I usually describe the new content media arena with the analogy of imagining a party. Which party would you like to go to: the party with all the detailed instructions what to wear, what to do, what to not say, what to say. Or would you prefer the laid back come as you are party. I would choose the rock n’ roll party any day. Why? It is fun. It is free. Butâ€¦ Most importantly I can relate to it. I can relate to it. That is the key. Sure, you will need some logistics for the rock n’ roll party too, but the script is not already set. (I know a bit put over the top but you see what I mean.) The key is the creativity, the ability to play, the ability to experiment yet within a loosely defined playground defined by all it is participants as well as maintainers.
You have to be able to relate to the media you consume. It has to be human. You realize now that media is not about what you think others think. It is about bringing that human face to the story with all its warts, dirt and shit. But it is real. It is authentic. It is genuine. It is the real story. Not perfect, but relatable. Yiiiha!
Quality Assurance in The Long-Tail Content Market
The long tail content market, especially including the user generated content, has always been the subject of a broad and intense discussion about quality assurance, especially since most of the solutions proposed includes heavy emphasis on technology. Traditionally human editors have been used as the major and gate keeper part of the content quality assurance process. Again the use of hired human editors is not a scalable solution and never will be a soleable scalable solution. Will they have a role? Of course. Will they be the only editing instance? I doubt that. In addition the traditional editing model via human editors has also been proven to have some concerning issues especially for high profile news stories/events. The vast number of surfaced staged photographs published by for instance AP, Reuters and New York Times via their photographers during the conflict in Lebanon 2006, as well as the plagiarized and fabricated stories by the New York Times-journalist Jayson Blair have really seeded doubts that human editors/journalists are really the solely solution on the long term. This problem is also seen in the new social media sites and one of the more important examples are the issues with the super editors in Wikipedia.
Okay so most people usually shout out – What about Google then? Shouldn’t the incredible PageRank solve all this?
Nope. The concept of content ranking have always struggled between diversity and singularity. Usually the singular answer. This-is-how-things-are solutions have ruled the content ranking scene. Maybe the paradox is us as humans. Singularity is simple. It is transparent. Diversity is not. It creates this twilight zone reality where you do not really know what is the true or false. The easy, simple, neat answers disappear. PageRankâ€¦ The amazing, mythical and brilliant algorithm that disrupted a whole business and market. It gives us what we need. Or does it? Really? PageRank works (simplified of course) very much like biological evolution. The strongest (or here most reputable) survives. The strongest win. They conquer the weakest. The alternative voices such as the extinction threatened species are not heard. They are lost in the noise. Is this right? Or is it â€œjustâ€ the natural choice? Hard question right. It ties into the news worthiness of a piece of content. PageRank type os ranking solutions are designed to give you one answer, but do not adequately rank in the long tail market where you would like to present clusters of information. At least not without modifications and conceptual changes to the overall nature.
Clearly we are looking at a solution that is simple in itâ€™s core – technology heavy yet community and participation intense.
Now that is sweet.
The solution need to provide some quality assurance and build up a reputation for the contributors (yet work for unknown and alternative voices which are more likely to be part of news worthy events). Some of the main challenges faced (and at the same time model opportunities) are:
- Digg voting type of solutions leads to group fractioning. Similar models here include Wikipedia where you give the power to a few selected users, why you still have an issue to get the less strong yet very valid voices heard. If you fraction the community you will balance on a thin line where you easily can create a complete distrust of the system which projects on the quality of the content on the long term.
- PageRank type solutions lead to the survival of the strongest and/or reputable only. The hierarchy has been set which makes it very hard for new entrants in the space and for new, unknown voices to be heard. It is perfect for information seeking, but is dysfunctional for news and opinion.
- Reputation of the single user is an interesting factor to build trust, but not solely sufficient. We have seen examples in the media industry before. For instance the tampered photos of the bombings of Beirut in Lebanon 2006 of a well-known Reuters photographer and the made up news stories by the New York Times journalist Jason Blair. The key aspect here is to give the benefit of doubt for reputable user yet not use it as a single measure of credibility, quality or trust.
It is obvious that the right, sustainable solution will be a combination of at least these three ranking attributes. Basically you turn your challenges into assets in the editing process, as well as use them as opportunities to address the business concerns. This combination will be much more scalable, much more robust, completely technology based and still addresses all the issues with the ranking of user generated content. This is especially true for the long tail market where the amount of content is just too big for humans too handle – both practical and consistently. Think of it as a simulation of the traditional newsroom process yet with less bias.
That is pretty cool, right?
The Media People
Community powered topical mashups of content sound very neat, simple and straightforward. Right? However I do believe these initiatives need support by professionals, but in a different shape than before. Remember that we are still at the initial stages of the transformation of the media industry. Let us first take a look at the necessary key skill sets of the participants of the new media arena:
- Information snacking
- Broad interests
- Geographical breakdown
- The question â€œwhyâ€ is increasingly becoming more important
- Engaged, and entertained
- Relatable and tangible presentations necessary
- Multimedia more important
- Text as a medium is dying, or at least becoming less important as the story telling media type.
- In-the-field reporting increasingly important
- Knowing and closely interacting with their readership very important
- Fast consumption calls for a fast medium of distribution
- The globe as a market calls for a web solution
- Diverse distribution mechanisms
- Multiple reporting entries (cellphone, web, email)
- Multiple media types (text, audio, pictures, video)
It still looks good right? Oops, one crucial and essential thing is missing here. How do you turn normal people into content creators? How do you teach them how to produce quality content without loosing the freedom and simplicity of their contributions? It is one of the more essential pieces here to really transform media. Around the world, every moment, news is constantly happening: a picture, a video, a short text message captured by someone. While this moment might seem insignificant and random, often these captured experiences, reflections, perspectives, observations are the first evidence of an event that has impact. This news event, put in context is part of constant stream of news generated by individuals and the communities they inhabit. It is a stream of perspectives and a conversation anyone can join – anyone who has the means to contribute and the basic knowledge of how and where to upload their information.
In addition an essential part of all media is to capture the offline world, and to make the offline world connected in some extent to the online world. It is not necessarily about moving the offline community online, but to bridge the gap. In the regions where there density of news events is high as well as the global importance of the news event is major, the affected population is not necessarily connected or lack the understanding how to contribute. Using ubiquitous, simple and cheap tools is a necessity, but I am not sure it is enough.
There is as always a need to reflect where we are going and why. It is not about stopping the transition but to make sure it is going in the direction we would like it to go. For everyone in the media business the movie EPIC 2014 is a must. The key question from that movie is whether what we (believe) we want really is what we want. That is a hard one as no single person can answer it. Even more mindblowing. If it is not what we want, why do we want it? How can we shape a media where we get what we want, yet provide the diversity we seek but not seek? How do we shape it so that we see all issues yet do not feel like we get things stuffed down our throats? That is in my eyes one of the biggest challenges for the media industry as well as our society in the future.
Again. The time for media is amazingly exciting these days. The possibilities are endless. There are challenges to be faced, but at the same time a lot of opportunities. What is clear is that the global community model will dominate and that the path for the future will and should be guided as a global community,
Welcome to the party! It’s just getting started…