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Lessons about journalism’s future from the School of Rock


A couple of years ago, as INMA President Ravi Dhariwal pointed out at the recent INMA World Congress, the mood in the industry was somewhat despondent and desperate.

Yet something has changed in the past two years. Eyes have lit up. Passion, excitement, and the green shoots of hope are appearing around us as we realise the truth: We’re not dead yet, and we’re not going to die, either.

Remember the famous timeline for extinction? It seemed to skirt the positive message proven in so many other old industries: The challenge of change doesn’t actually spell the end; it spells a new beginning, one that nurtures innovation, evolution, and transformation.

“The future of journalism will be better than its past,” declared Google’s head of news products, Richard Gingras. “Every time an industry is disrupted, it becomes populated with new players that think differently. The faster and more aggressively a company prepares itself for the new environment, the better it will be.”

Urgency, speed, disruption, faster, better, stronger — don’t think too hard or analyse it, just go for it. The new opportunities for growth are only limited by our bravery, nimbleness, and willingness to change. We’ve gone from an industry that used to be “put to bed” to one that will lose if we snooze. Anna Settman, CEO of Aftonbladet, put it simply: “Print has one deadline. But digital is always ON.” She also advocated for lowering the threshold for change by starting smaller with the growing audience of smartphone users. “Go mobile first. If you don’t have money, go mobile only.”

It’s starting to sound so easy to change. But while my brain was buzzing with coffee-induced inspiration, a sobering and arresting observation was made by James McQuivey from Forrester Research: “In the best-case scenario, only 60% of your staff have what it takes to stay, adapt, move with the model.”

Yikes! We talk about injecting new blood into our organisations, but we rarely think about the casualties of change. But if we take that comment literally, what about journalists? We can’t easily trade out 40% of journalists. Yet, suppose the staff that are the hardest to convert into the new model are our traditional, pen-and-paper journalists?

Professional journalism is the signature, the value proposition, and the raison d’etre for most newspaper brands and, ostensibly, it is the area most affected by the change model. Professionally crafted content competes today with the speed, spontaneity, and virality of often poorly written short-form blogs and phone-video-and-photo journalism from untrained laymen. Ownership and monetisation of the articles are lost through the social media world of sharing. What is the future of quality journalism in a socially interactive, 24/7 world? How can our journalists keep up?

I’ve been pondering this. Journalism is one of the oldest professions (you know the other one). There were journalists long before there were marketers. And while public perception of the trade moves from disdain to respect (and more recently, to outrage), it’s all we had for a long time.

CEO of Deseret News Clark Gilbert, who spoke at the INMA World Congress, quotes Ex-Huff-Po CEO Betsy Morgan’s baseline content strategy of one-third original, professional journalism, one-third opinion, and one-third curation. He also outlines a stark reality about the cost of news driving us toward this model.

It costs US$250-$300 per staff-written story, US$100 per stringer story, US$25 per Associated Press story, and US$5-12 for “remote” stories, largely written by the emerging class of bloggers. It doesn’t take a math genius to work out how expensive our aspiration for journalistic excellence has become. So does that mean we are talking about a downsizing of two-thirds of our journalists and padding out with user-generated content or wire news? That’s even more dire than the 40% figure.

I don’t think so. Here’s an analogy we can learn from. The music industry has had some seismic changes. It was looking like a lost game with the advent of Napster, piracy, digital sharing, and the Internet. Yet worldwide music publishing revenues have grown from US$8 billion in 2006 to US$9.4 billion in 2011. Worldwide live music revenues have grown from US$16.6 billion to US$23.5 billion in the same period. Which means the music industry is not dead or dying. iTunes, MP3 players, and YouTube have promoted the broader and deeper access of music to fans, who now enjoy access to collections of thousands, not hundreds, of songs. 

It doesn’t mean the songs aren’t made professionally. Nor are there fewer “professional” artists. It just means there are more avenues for wannabes to make the transition to “professionals.” Think Justin Bieber. And the value of face-to-face engagement with live concerts and Twitter feeds has grown.

We have the same platform, device, and engagement shift happening now with news. More audiences can consume more content across more platforms and devices, and share more with their friends. We will always need to “own” the stars of our medium, whatever additional opinion-led/social editorial or wire news we add to the mix.

The key to change for journalists is to retrain and adopt new platform skills to better capitalise on the potentially broader audience. Effectively, they have to be better at marketing themselves and developing audience-relevant content. That means writing to suit the style of the medium: short form, long form, chatty, serious. They market by referencing other stories of interest for the readers, tweeting to promote, engaging themselves in a social world through Facebook, blogs, direct email, and face-to-face interactions with readers.

And as for marketers? We’re their publicists and their partners. While management and digital developers should provide them with optimal tools to make sharing, curating, engaging, and editing easier, we need to support and promote their talents through marketing.

It might be a way of thinking that makes marketing folks a little more welcome in the editorial locker room — and prevents management from throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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