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Engagement — not content — is key to building stronger media industry, world

08 July 2014 · By Anette Novak

The time is now for media companies to create innovative digital environments and user experiences that not only encourage readers to engage with our content, but with society as a whole. In the process, maybe content providers and consumers can work together to create a new world based on general humanist values of freedom, fairness, and equality.

Legacy media is not fading alone.

With it falls part of the old establishment – and society as we know it.

Digital transformation could propel us into a stronger, more close-knit and enlightened community than ever before. But it could also develop into another, much darker scenario.

This current pivotal act carries a risk, but also a major opportunity for media companies – to carve out a central position in building the new, connected, sustainable society. With people. By people.

Once upon a time in a country far away, there was a little village. To this village, the Storyteller would regularly arrive, and everyone would gather around the fire to listen to the enchanting stories.

There was expectation before she came. There was focus when she spoke. And there was joy in remembering the shared experience after she left.

Today, the Storyteller still comes to the village, but when she does, no one has any time for her. They are all busy telling their own stories to their own crowds – or listening to other storytellers, far away.

Our Storyteller feels lost. Sad. And on the verge of giving up.

The Storyteller is, of course, an analogy of a traditional media brand which, with the digital transition, has lost its purpose and been propelled into an identity crisis.

Some strong and slightly speed-blind brands are still convinced that quality journalism will do the trick. The readers will just have to understand that what the media house produces is great. And that there is a societal need for it.

In one of his most recent posts, media strategist Thomas Baekdal practically slays The New York Times’ digital strategy – and many others along with it:

“If the NYT is ‘winning at journalism,’ why is its readership falling significantly? If their daily report is smart and engaging, why are they failing to get its journalism to its readers?”

He asks pertinent, but necessary questions.

In other, more challenged regions, the media professionals are less likely to fall victim to this slightly blinding auto-admiration. They know they are on the “not hot” list. Take, for example, the vibrant start-up in the Mena region that I visited as management trainer just the other week:

“We produce expensive features, that take us months, but all the big crowds want to read about is belly-dancers …”

Whether or not we see it, the fact remains that audiences are not interested in our content. Or at least not in the way it is being presented and distributed today.

What I find most disturbing is the discourse has an “us” and “them” divide:

  • We, who know what is high quality.

  • They, who consume low quality.

Very often, media managers blame the audience.

And this is where we get lost.

What if we – instead of blaming the customers for our weak delivery – put our minds and investment dollars into innovation? What if we invent new methods of digital storytelling that are so appealing, even the most difficult and compact features on national budget matters will draw maximum attention?

What if we gamified the user experience, rendering the challenges of the public health system so attractive that even teenagers would know all about it?

This particular media challenge is not something that has developed in a vacuum.

Parallel to legacy media losing ground, we see the morphing of society in general. Traditional community nodes erode. We see the fall of the old establishment, and the rise of the able, empowered grassroots.

But six years after Clay Shirky published “Here Comes Everybody,” we are forced to note that everybody didn’t come.

We are online, for sure. But most users are active only if a minimum of time and effort is required.

Some are very active – but destructive. Some would like to be active – but don’t know how.

Here is the question I believe we all need to focus on: How do we create digital environments and user experiences that trigger positive, constructive engagement from a broad user base? This is crucial not only to legacy media – but to society as a whole.

We spent hundreds of years fine-tuning the system of democracy. It served us well, but with the digital transition, we need to start from scratch:

  • Admit what is obsolete.

  • Scrutinise what we can bring with us.

  • Create new ways to activate as many as possible in building the new “digicracy.”

We need philosophers, computer scientists, legal experts, political scientists – and journalists.

But most of all we need educated and engaged netizens to co-create the value base of this new society.

Not related to religion. Nor politics. But to the general humanist values of freedom, fairness, and equality that have always been the guiding principles for journalists.

From my point of view, this is legacy media’s best shot at moving back into a central role in people’s lives. Once again, becoming the community node. Once again, being relevant.

WAN-IFRA’s CEO Vincent Peyrègne summarised the business challenge elegantly, in Vienna some years ago:

“The challenge is not getting people to pay for quality journalism, it is about getting the young adults engaged in society.”

I believe the engagement is there, just waiting to be unleashed. We are moving from representation to empowerment. From citizenship to netizenship.

If we co-create this new society together with our communities, we will not only have solved the industry challenge, we will have assisted in creating a better world.

So what are you waiting for?

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About this blog

I am Anette Novak, CEO of Interactive Institute Swedish ICT, which conducts world-class applied research and innovation, creating groundbreaking user experiences. Also, I am an international media consultant, World Editors Forum board member, gourmet, long distance runner and Francophile – mainly because the Parisians walk and talk as fast as I do. I am former editor-in-chief of the Swedish regional media house Norran. I believe in digital opportunities for publishers, open innovation. The future belongs to media companies that are able to maintain the trust of the audience, who define themselves as active community players, and who are able to create amazing experiences.


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