News Then, News Now: Journalism in a Digital Age
Keynote delivered in Bagnaia, Italy on May 25 at “Growing Between the Lines”, a conference presented by the Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori, an intimate gathering of Italian editors and publishers, global media and technology leaders, plus a few hundred accomplished students, the next generation of Italian leadership.
One point seven billion. The world wide web is now comprised of more than 1.7 billion websites. An explosion of expression beyond what we have ever seen, nor could have fully imagined.
In open societies it is the epitome of free expression as recognized by the European Charter. It changed how we communicate, how we learn, how we shop, how we sell, how we are informed of the issues of the day and how we form opinions about the issues of the day. The Internet exponentially expanded both the marketplace for ideas and the marketplace for information. It has brought extraordinary value to our societies and introduced new challenges — to our institutions, to our politics, and yes, to journalism itself.
At an existential level it poses the paradoxical question: how can democracies survive and thrive in an environment of unfettered free expression? Democracies succeed by their ability to achieve consensus between different views. How do democracies thrive in an environment that requires bridging gaps between alternate realities? How can we bridge that gap with an abiding structure of commonly-accepted facts from respected sources? Facts matter. The profession of journalism matters.
For us who are involved in the pursuit of journalism, can we evolve new approaches in quest of commonly-understood facts and not fall prey to amplifying our divisions?
Today, I will focus on the future of news. But to do so let’s first step back to see where we came from, because that might make it easier to see where we are headed.
Yes, the Internet happened. It dramatically lowered the barriers to publishing. It created a vast new marketplace for information, a new marketplace that offers exponentially more choice than the world of print. A richness of choice that triggered dramatic changes in consumer behavior.
Think back thirty years ago to newspapers like Corriere della Sera, La Stampa, or for that matter, the Providence Journal, where my dad kept the presses running. You could think of them as the Internet of their communities. They weren’t interactive but they offered all the information one might need to live one’s daily life. Yes, the local news, but also all the mundane but useful information one might want — from sports reports to movie reviews to recipes to classifieds and much much more. Yes, mundane, but immensely valuable as a magnet to advertisers.
The vast marketplace of information that is the web changed information-seeking behaviors. Think about the differences. When I turned sixteen and was old enough to drive, my dad bought me a used car through the classifieds of the local newspaper. Would you do that today? You’d go to Craigslist in the US or Gumtree in the UK or AutoScout24 in many parts of Europe.
When my mom wanted a new recipe for Sunday dinner she clipped one from the newspaper’s food section, along with coupons for discounts on the ingredients. Now my spouse and I go to Epicurious.com, BonAppetit.com or New York Times Cooking. Or we order food to be delivered from an array of restaurants.
When I graduated college I found my first job in the job listings of the Washington Post. Today, that would happen on Monster.com or LinkedIn or Infojob IT in Italy.
The same for real estate listings. Our information-access behaviors changed. We go to different sources, different websites, different businesses. And, not surprisingly, the advertising dollars moved with those behaviors.
This has not been good for the business models of newspapers. As consumer behavior changed the business model changed. The ad revenue generated by classifieds, by movie ads, by supermarket ads is no longer what it once was. And it was that revenue that cross-subsidized the serious journalism. Hard news in general interest newspapers has never been a major draw for advertisers.
Some media companies responded by investing or acquiring new online businesses. In Australia NewsCorp owns RealEstate.com, the largest real estate listings site. In Germany Axel Springer owns Stepstone, the largest job site. But these businesses are separate. They’re on different balance sheets. Understandably they no longer subsidize the creation of news on The Australian or Bild.
Bottom line: the business of journalism changed. That does not mean providing quality journalism cannot be a successful business. However, the models allowing journalism to flourish will be different, and in the view of some, more effective than the past.
We are now beginning to see what the future of local news will be. Look beneath the dust and smoke of disruption and one can see the bright, healthy seedlings of the future of news. What do they look like? How are they different?
In the United States forty years ago, newspapers were largely supported by advertising. Subscription revenue was less than 5%, more vulnerable to disruption than the models of most newspapers in Europe. That’s changed. The New York Times now has 2.8 million digital subscribers, more subscribers than The Times had in print. It’s nearly two-thirds of their digital revenue. CEO Mark Thompson speaks of objectives far more audacious than that.
In Paris, there is MediaPart, a digital pure play founded by former Le Monde editor Edwy Plenel, a profitable venture with more than 150,000 subscribers and fifty reporters.
De Correspondent in Amsterdam found success in the Netherlands and is planning to launch in the United States.
Here in Italy both Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica are showing strong year-over-year subscription growth in a market where subscriptions have not been an historical behavior. It was largely newsstand sales.
Subscription models controlling access to content are one approach. But in many cities we’re seeing membership as the core model. Publishers ranging from the Guardian UK to Berkeleysides in Berkeley, California, have shown healthy growth. 800,000 people now support The Guardian.
The focus on subscriptions and memberships is causing a healthy change in how news organizations relate to the communities they serve. News sites are learning that the value proposition for their communities is less about access, in the sense of a hard paywall, and more about citizens understanding and supporting the role a news organization plays in their local communities. It’s less about selling privileged access to content and more about “paying forward” out of support for the mission and values a news organization offers its community.
When you look at the approaches of the Bristol Cable in Bristol, England or De Correspondent in the Netherlands or the Texas Tribune in Austin, they are involving the community, hosting town halls, soliciting input, creating a two-way dialog with their communities to better understand their needs and concerns.
At the Bristol Cable they use different terminology. What other organizations might call marketing managers they call “community organizers”. Its symbolic of a shifting philosophy in how a news organization engages with the community we once thought of only as “the audience”.
It is a philosophy that Jennifer Brandel at Hearken refers to as the “democratization of news”. Hearken provides tools to stimulate community engagement that can guide the issues a news organization covers. It often involves the community in helping with the coverage as well.
We live in a dramatically different world. People consume news more than ever before, from more sources than ever before. It has changed how they learn about their world. It has changed how they form opinions about their world.
How might we evolve journalism models to address these changes?
In Copenhagen, Ulrik Haagerup founded a movement based on the concept of “constructive journalism”. The word “constructive” is key. It’s not news to make you “feel good”. It’s not advocacy journalism.
It is constructive news coverage — helping citizens understand how to think, not telling them what to think. Efforts following the model of “constructive journalism” have led to impressive growth in audience and a notable improvement in the perception of trust. Ulrik believes we must rethink how journalism can constructively help societies understand their challenges and understand possible solutions.
Another example is standalone Fact Checks. Over the last four years, Google has helped enable an ecosystem of independent fact-check modules. They are now being created by news organizations, independent fact check groups, and the medical community.
Google search is a tool that allows users to find anything that’s findable in the corpus of legal expression. As it should. Even the dark corners of expression. It is important to our societies and to journalism that it do so. With an obscure Google search like “do peach pits cure cancer” it is not surprising that results will include articles that say “yes they do” along with a few that will sell you peach-pit powder. Nor surprisingly, there are no recent articles from Corriere della Sera or the New York Times questioning that claim. It would be beneficial, and effective, to be able to surface a fact check from the National Academy of Sciences or the New England Journal of Medicine.
Today, we see a distressingly wide gap between how people perceive the world around them versus how they perceive the reality of the communities they live in.
It is not hard to understand why that gap exists. Everyday we hear of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, mass murders — all the horrific but anomalistic events that occur in our modern world.
“If it bleeds it leads.” We see wall-to-wall coverage of events which is then amplified by social media — often disproportionate to the real issues at hand. We then translate that experience, accurately or not, into perceptions of our own lives in our own communities.
After the British Parliament attack our televised media gave it massive coverage for three days. Yes, four died in London. A sad day. An important story. But on each of those three days there were mass murders in the United States of four or more people that saw no major coverage at all.
Might we make greater use of data journalism? Make it easier for data-driven nuggets of knowledge to be found, to be shared, to be embedded in coverage by journalists to provide helpful context? To close the gap between irrational fear and rational fear?
Can we harvest public data and show its value? All the raw bits of stuff waiting to be turned into knowledge. Government data. Institutional data. A cloud of public data that will soon include some 50 billion sensing devices connected to the Internet. How can journalists use that data to help us understand how our societies work or don’t work?
Might news organizations build dashboards or scorecards for their communities that display key metrics, that paint a more complete picture of what matters in our communities?
Consider this: every day we all look at a dashboard of metrics: the weather forecast. Do I need raincoat or a sweater? Why not expand that “weather report” to include other key metrics? What is the crime rate and how has it changed? The graduation rate? The air quality index? All the important measures that truly define the comfort of our communities beyond whether we are bathed in rain or sun?
Some four years ago I helped found the Trust Project, an effort of the global journalism community to build a better framework of trust — an architecture to help fact-based reporting earn the credibility it deserves, that might help readers divine fact from fiction, wisdom from spin. How can we build that bridge of commonly-accepted facts without the trust of our users?
Might we develop a consistent framework to present the expertise inside quality news organizations? One that helps the reader decide why this person might know what he or she knows. That allows the reader to understand the full body of a reporter’s work. That allows the reader to understand the editorial process behind that work.
In a world that includes increasingly sophisticated fake content from illegitimate sources, provenance will be increasingly important. The trusted nature of the source matters.
To be clear: this is NOT about a badge that some third-party decides a given news source deserves. No single authority should have that power.
It IS about providing more transparent cues, more points of information to help readers make informed decisions. Cues to help search engines better understand and rank results. Cues to help the myriad algorithmic systems that mold our media lives.
More than 80 news organizations are engaged in the Trust Project, including many of who are here. The editorial leadership includes Marty Baron of the Washington Post, David Walmsley of the Toronto Globe & Mail, Massimo Russo from La Repubblica.
Last fall, Sally Lehrman and the Trust Project announced their initial framework of trust indicators. Trinity-Mirror in the United Kingdom put them in place. It resulted in an 8% increase in consumer trust. Trust matters. Trust has real value, including economic value.
Journalism is about far more than business models or technology or product design. It is about playing a critically important role in our societies, in our democracies.
We live in societies ruled by laws and guided by norms. Journalism is largely driven by norms, a commonly-accepted set of ethics and values that guides the work, that guides the audience in how to perceive and believe that work.
Journalism, in my mind, is about giving citizens the tools and information they need to be good citizens.
To satisfy that role requires an ethic, an understanding of the importance of the role, the importance of shining a light on how our societies work or don’t work, how our institutions and governments serve us or don’t serve us. A journalist’s role is help us understand our world, help us know how to think — without telling us what to think.
It is also the responsibility of all of us who perform the act of journalism or who support the role of journalism, including technology platforms, to maintain those ethics, to hold each other to account, to help the societies we serve understand the role and ethics of journalism.
That is ever more important in a world where there is too much “news” that pretends to be journalism but is not, in a world where politicians actively deride the role of the press and the role of journalists.
None of us involved in this pursuit, whether news organization or technology platform or journalist or journalist-to-be, should assume someone else will play the role of educating our societies about journalism’s purpose, of maintaining the ethics of the profession, and above all, maintaining the trust of the citizens we serve.
That responsibility is on all of us who care about a future for quality journalism in open societies. Every one of us. Every day.
Richard Gingras is Vice President, News at Google. In that role Gingras guides Google’s strategy in how it surfaces news on Google search, Google News, and its smart devices. He also oversees Google’s effort to enable a healthy, open ecosystem for quality journalism, which includes Accelerated Mobile Pages, Subscribe with Google, and various other efforts to provide tools for journalists and news providers. In March, Gingras announced the Google News Initiative, a global effort including $300 million dollars to elevate quality journalsm, explore new models for sustainability, and provide technology to stimulate cost-efficiency in newsrooms.