Over the past six or seven years, I’ve spent more nights than I care to count sitting in bars with fellow journalists bemoaning the relentless decline in the industry’s fortunes, while spitballing about alternative revenue models, content models, regulatory policies, or technologies that might save the business. In that time, I’ve held pretty much every position imaginable. Many of these positions I’ve argued for in private with colleagues, in public in columns, on panels, even as a paid speaker.
If there is one thing I’ve concluded, it is this: No one knows what the future of the news media looks like. I don’t, the people running the major news companies don’t, the people running the cool new digital shops don’t, and the consultants who continue to charge healthy fees giving advice certainly don’t. Yet the “legacy”, or traditional media, continue to decline, and the new media darlings, like Buzzfeed, Vice, and others, aren’t doing so well either. No one has figured things out.
What, if anything, should be done about this?
That’s the question the federal government has asked the Public Policy Forum to help advise them on. In particular, the government has charged the PPF with answering three questions:
Does the deteriorating state of traditional media put at risk the civic function of journalism and thus the health of democracy? If so, are new digitally based news media filling the gap? If not, is there a role for public policy to help maintain a healthy flow of news and information, and how could it be done least intrusively?
To that end, the PPF has organized a series of roundtables and commissioned some polling, with a report to come this fall.
I participated in the first roundtable yesterday in Ottawa. Chatham House rules prevent me from saying too much about who was there and how the discussion went but I’ll say this: The conversation was more interesting than I expected, there was a good mix of new voices and extremely familiar faces, and pretty clear lack of sentimentality about the direction the business has taken. A few policy ideas were batted around, but I can’t say there was anything really new or surprising on offer. Certainly no one there thought they had a magic bullet to give to the government.
At the end of this there is probably going to be some pressure on the government to do something. Partly because the decline of the news media does seem to be a real problem, but also because you don’t launch these sorts of exercises without setting up the expectation that something will come of it. Nevertheless, my contribution to the debate yesterday (aside from calling Facebook “the devil”) was to recommend a great deal of wait and see.
More formally, here were the three points I made:
1. The past is not the future. That is, there is no “fixing” the business model of print journalism. There is no app or paywall or other device that is going to come along and convince people to start subscribing in great numbers to a product that mimics the structure of a magazine or a newspaper. This is a good thing. I’m old enough to remember a time when print journalism, and the news media in general, was seen as a pox on democracy, a gatekeeper of information that used its quasi-monopolistic powers to manipulate the public and manufacture consent.
2. The present is not the future. During the bulk of my time as ME and then Editor of the Ottawa Citizen, we were preoccupied with the development, launch, and execution of Postmedia’s “four platform strategy” or what was also called “Product 2.0”. It was a strategy that involved segmenting our product and our audience into four distinct groups on four distinct platforms, with four distinct voices and content strategies — web, mobile app, tablet app, and print, all produced within one newsroom. The strategy failed for a number of reasons, but probably the most significant reason was that it was about five years too late. The strategy was based on assumptions about how our audience consumed news that would have been visionary in, say, 2008, but which was obsolete before we even launched in May 2013.
That isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault — the evolution of consumption habits, technology, and platforms is just happening faster than strategies can be conceived and executed. But there is a lesson here: Where the audience and revenues are today is not where they will be in a year, or even probably six months from now.
3. The future is not the future. Even if we assume that the present is not the future, the future most of us assume is coming is not the one that will actually arrive. No one, literally no one, in the news media foresaw the rise of the Platform. No one is giving enough thought to the consequences of handing over the publishing function to Google or to Facebook or to Snapchat (short answer: it’s suicide). We prepare for one future, a different one arrives, and we try to force the round pegs of our anticipated future into the square holes of the one we get.
Given this, I’m increasingly of the view that we need to just let this process play itself out. The convulsion of news media is a decade old, and it probably has another decade or so to go. What the government should do, above all, is avoid doing anything that hinder the ferocious process of creative destruction that needs to take place. Worse than doing nothing would be a system that “bakes in” the status quo — which would leave us, I fear, with little more than the CBC providing content to the mega-platforms.
With its increased funding to the CBC, the government is probably doing about as much as it can and should, and even this comes at the cost of distorting the playing field in unhelpful ways. Otherwise, the government should do whatever it can to make sure there are as few obstacles as possible to the generation and testing of new business models or content strategies (including charities, non-profits, endowment models, and so on.) Beyond that, it is very, very hard for me to see what else can be done.