The Future of News: Questions in Need of Answers
Keynote delivered to the International Symposium of Online Journalists on Friday, April 1, 2022 in Austin, Texas.
In 1974, I worked at the Public Broadcasting Service on implementing the first satellite network for delivering television programs to stations across the United States. HBO was on a similar pioneering path. Until this point, distributing programs to television stations was costly and cumbersome. Using telephone lines was hugely expensive. Tapes were often shipped serially from station to station — it was called “bicycling”.
Using satellites to cheaply deliver programs would change the face of television. It enabled dozens of new programming networks. It laid the foundation for the explosion of cable television. The number of channels multiplied from five to five hundred within a decade.
I was there when Ted Turner introduced the first all-news channel, CNN. His proud objective was to deepen news coverage, expanding beyond two-minute stories. Since then, Turner’s vision for dedicated “news” channels has largely devolved from thoughtful coverage to less costly and more combative opinion programming — from an opportunity for deeper journalism to the frenetic Crossfire of determined divisiveness.
At the beginning there were channels for a wide array of niche audiences — from serious documentaries on the History Channel to classical performances on A&E to brilliant nature programming on National Geographic. Today it’s not what it was the, except for the names. The programming is now reality shows and shark attacks. All owned by a handful of large media companies.
The expanded distribution of cable was left in the hands of a few, which, in the mind of some, was the rightful order of things. It didn’t play out the way many hoped, including me.
What’s my point? The fight for share of voice will happen no matter the means of distribution. Those with real or perceived influence, be they governments or the private sector, will give no quarter to maintain and expand their share of voice, their share of influence.
Tim Wu in The Master Switch crafted a superb analysis of how this happens at every step of evolving distribution — be it the growth of telephony, expanding radio from AM to FM, the introduction of cable, and now, the Internet.
The Internet gave access to distribution beyond the dreams of a free expression purist. It lowered the bar, eliminated the friction for any voice seeking an audience. The audience might have to find you, but you can be found, word can be spread, and new audiences can meet new voices.
At the dawning of the Internet, many of us, including me, had an optimistic view. We believed, and do believe, that the broader our free expression rights, the better. Many of us, including me, believed our better angels would win. But we learned there was a dark side, that we are not all angels, that the Internet has enabled challenging and problematic behaviors.
Seeing the real and perceived impacts on their societies, governments are now regulating the Internet, typically with good intentions, but often with a weak understanding of the dynamics of the ecosystem, and a blind eye toward the problematic secondary consequences that can impact the free press and the openness of the Internet.
Which leads to the fundamental question we face:
How can we assure that evolving Internet policy will enable, indeed promote, an open and diverse press versus reinforcing a specific political interest or propping up a legacy business?
I fear the open Internet is slipping away from us, that our twenty-five years of an Internet that enabled the penultimate model of free expression was an aberration. The challenge of problematic expression cannot be ignored. However, it’s essential we understand and balance the risks to free expression itself. The slope is slippery.
Global media players see the Internet as a threat to their share of voice, their share of influence. They’d rather turn the internet into a distribution environment like those that enabled their earlier success, where share of voice went to those with the power and influence to command distribution.
They would rather see more friction between new voices and the audiences they seek. They would prefer to see core concepts of free linking and fair use curtailed. They may campaign with noble words, but the bottom line is a desire to maintain prior dominance, to constrain the openness of the Web, to reduce the diversity of voices it enables.
I urge close attention. I urge journalists reporting on matters of Internet policy to dig beyond the memes, to be cautious of being blinded by short term self-interest (“why not have Big Tech pay?”). The stakes are high — for the future of journalism, for the future of open societies. We support thoughtful Internet regulation. We only ask and hope that it respects these key principles:
- Protect the open Web and the open Internet and the free expression it enables.
- Enable an open and diverse free press.
- Protect against undue government influence that imbalances the news ecosystem.
Too often we trust regulation will have the intended effect — without verify the fine print, without considering the secondary consequences. Will legislation that purports to address misinformation but creates wide exceptions for politicians and any spin-master calling themselves a journalist be effective?
Will legislation proposed by legacy interests seeking a return to their era of dominance, instead constrain the openness of the Web and the opportunity for a more diverse free press?
The world has changed. More than ever, societies need quality journalism to understand their world and express their roles as citizens. The impact of the Internet overwhelms us. It continues to change, click by click, with every glob of media the Internet spits out — the prodigious gargantuan generator of free expression that it is.
From the sweet memes of TikTok, to the endless array of influencers, opinionators, and spin-masters. From the inspired dreams of YouTube creators to the hucksters and propagandists. From snapshots of cute grand kids to doctored photos of false righteous indignation. From thoughtful forays into innovative digital journalism, to astro-turf journalism funded by who knows who.
It’s a complicated media ecosystem composed of frightening simplicity. Our culture, politics, and news reduced to memes and 280-character sound bites lacking context and substance. Our world is twisted and torqued: by daunting cultural memes we are induced to amplify, by bad ads offering false remedies, by politicians igniting the fears he or she pledges to extinguish.
Yes, there is thoughtful, fact-based journalism sprinkled in, hard to identify, and largely overwhelmed by the cacophonous, mind-numbing, Cicada-buzz that is the collective expression of the Internet.
How does journalism perform its critical role in the midst of all of that?
Do our audiences understand the role of journalism? Do they know what is fact-based journalism and what is not, which sources to trust with their precious attention, which sources to lend their financial support?
Can audiences find credibility in fact-based coverage when it’s surrounded by opinion? Has the explosion of inexpensive but popular opinion distorted their perception? Is the drift toward partisan news making the problem worse?
Do they understand what we think they understand? Today, publications seek financial support through subscriptions and memberships. They make earnest pledges about the “importance of local news” or the virtues of “quality journalism”. What small percentage of our societies understands any of that?
Yes, we can demand more media literacy. But telling us eighteen reasons we should eat more broccoli and less pizza is not enough. We need to go deeper, explore new ingredients, new recipes for an enticing and healthy journalistic menu.
How might news organizations better understand the needs and interests of their communities?
I ask publishers about the research they do. In nearly every case the answer is “not much” or “none”. Or, it’s: “We study our logs. We analyze our traffic.” Okay. But that says nothing about those who don’t visit, nothing about what the audience values.
One friend, a managing editor, told me with confidence, “I understood what my readers want.” I wasn’t about to pass judgment on my friend’s wisdom. I only respectfully suggested, “but don’t you expect your reporters to ask a whole bunch of questions before deciding what they know or don’t know about an issue?” So why not do research?
I know from long experience journalists are suspicious of research and have an intrinsic mistrust of marketing. In which case: let the newsroom own it. But do the research! Rigorous research. Not only self-selected listening tours or focus groups.
What do our communities want? What information do they need on a daily basis? What will drive their interests? What will build ties with their community? What will they value? What will they pay for?
We’ve been working closely with emerging local news outlets around the world. We recently funded 37 local news research projects with our North American Innovation Challenge.
I’ve learned a lot from the success of publishers like non-profit Cityside in Oakland and Berkeley, California and for-profit Village Media, serving some 60 communities in Canada and the US.
Cityside and Village Media found sustainable success through deep engagement with their communities, by thoughtfully addressing their communities’ comprehensive information needs. Their success points to an opportunity that many local news entrepreneurs can benefit from.
Accountability journalism is critical to the role of journalism. But I fear local news startups that focus solely on accountability journalism are narrowing their opportunity for impact and success.
Communities have broad information needs. Often it’s mundane stuff, except it’s useful and valued — community events, local sports, obituaries. It’s often referred to as “service journalism” or “news you can use”. It’s this kind of information that drives engagement, builds strong community ties, enables local advertising, and expands the audience for the accountability journalism you do provide.
As David Walmsley of Canada’s Globe & Mail noted, might we “underpin the high church work with respect and mutual accommodation for all of the community’s information needs”?
How can journalism rebuild trust?
Eight years ago I joined Sally Lerhman to call for a focus on the declining trust in journalism. With the Trust Project, Sally has generated further research, advanced thought leadership, and assembled principles and playbooks to guide news organizations on approaches to transparency and trust. The Trust Project works with hundreds of news organizations around the world.
But as Sally would admit, there is more to learn, more to do.
Ulrich Haagarup and the Constructive Journalism Institute in Denmark pursues a different angle — rethinking the models, the formats, the linguistics we use to express journalistic work.
Ulrich began at Danish broadcasting — studying his viewers, making changes in coverage approaches, and harvesting gains in both the respect and size of his audience.
The word “constructive” is key. It’s not news that scares you or makes you “feel good”. Constructive journalism goes beyond the typical coverage model, with clear signals and clear intent, to include the necessary context, the hows and whys, and importantly, a consideration of how the calamitous event could be prevented.
It’s designed to seek common ground. When assessing sources, they ask, is the source adding to the story or “just moving their lips”?
When staging debates, they avoid divisive terminology like Crossfire.
It is a powerful philosophy. Ulrich has shown it can work. What better way for news organizations to gain society’s respect than by demonstrating the power of journalism to help a community understand its challenges and address them.
Let’s go further on how a society understands its challenges.
How can journalism avoid amplifying societies’ distorted sense of risk?
We are 400 times more likely to die in a traffic accident than an act of terrorism. We are 35 times as likely to die from cancer or heart disease than from violent death in any form.
Yet, research tells us we perceive those fears in reverse — our fear of terrorism is several hundred times higher than dying in our cars.
We live in a landscape of distorted risk. We live in a society where our perceived fears are amplified such that we lose sight of our societies’ real challenges.
Everyday we read headlines about terrorism, home invasions, kidnappings, refugee flows — all the horrific but anomolistic events that occur in our modern world. However unintentional, news reporting plays an intrinsic role in molding perceptions of reality in conflict with actual reality.
What should really concern me in my world? In my town? If I enter a polling booth with a distorted sense of societal risk, might that not skew how I consider particular issues or candidates?
If we believe the role of journalism is giving citizens the information they need to be informed citizens, might we provide more context? Was there a trend of home invasions or was it an exceptional occurrence? Can we close the gap between irrational fear and rational fear?
Can we build a foundation of data-driven knowledge to be found, shared, or embedded by journalists to provide context? In the United States we’re piloting a project called Common Knowledge. We built an expansive data commons of information from governments on thousands of topics across the United States. We normalized the data to simplify analysis. We are working with newsrooms, like those of McClatchy, to make it easy for journalists to embed a nugget of data-driven contextual knowledge to distinguish a disturbing anomaly from a dangerous trend.
How might we adapt to the media forms our cultures are adopting?
The underlying assumption of a democratic society, and the profession of journalism, is this: IF we express our ideas with the right words, with detailed narratives and logical arguments, and IF enough people read those words,THEN our democracies will be effective, the world will be a better place.
Again, the Internet and new media forms have re-arranged social, political, and cultural structures. We see it with Twitter. We see it with TikTok. We see it with short-form video. The messages get shorter. An inescapable progression, or digression, of how we communicate, how we understand the society we live in. We communicate via meme, not thoughtful treatise.
We can’t ignore it.
In 1985, Neil Postman wrote of the impact of television,
“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result: we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”
What would Neil Postman say today?
Kevin Munger, in a piece called “Sympathy for the WordCel”, makes the argument that forms of human conversation have an overwhelming influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.
“Wordcel”, Munger notes, “is an undignified word for an undignified phenomenon: the literary-cultural dead-ender who refuses to see the, uh, writing on the wall.”
I’m not suggesting TikTok is the future of journalism — though even today, in its own crowd-sourced way, it is a medium of journalistic expression.
Our language and information constructs change over time. We must adapt.
At Google we’ll continue to experiment with storytelling tools and formats, like Web Stories, to explore how they map to the behaviors of contemporary users.
I love great long reads. But when I encounter a high-functioning, thoughtful co-worker who doesn’t read long articles, disclaiming them as imposing “walls of text”, I hear a call to action. We don’t have all the right tools for the job.
How do we empower journalists with better tools?
In the digital world, knowledge is often hidden in data, and data often hidden behind technical complexity. Can new tools allow reporters to pursue investigations that otherwise are impractical or manually daunting?
We’ve made progress at Google with Pinpoint, a suite of tools for investigative journalists that utilizes our capabilities to analyze documents and understand them.
As an early test, we analyzed 75,000 documents released by the US Archive on the Kennedy Assasination — images and PDFs of old typewritten pages with notes scrawled in margins. We can understand all of that. We can understand that JFK, John Kennedy, and President Kennedy are all the same entity. We can organize the information by time and topic. We can map the entities to the Knowledge Graph and the open web to offer understanding and context. It’s powerful. Next are similar tools to translate printed forms like crime reports into tabular data.
It was gratifying to see Pinpoint used in exhaustive award-winning investigations by the Boston Globe and Tampa Bay Times, winning Pulitzers and Polk awards respectively. More than a hundred organizations use Pinpoint. Jeremy Gilbert is leading an excellent Data-Driven Reporting Project at Medill. Please join them.
I’m on the advisory board of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The Panama Papers and Pandora Papers are extraordinary examples of high impact journalism. It is doubly impressive how they’ve empowered collaboration across newsrooms.
There is much more that can be done. Every journalist can benefit from better tools to increase their powers and save their time. Where is Reporter’s Notebook 2.0, 3.0, 4.0?
Last but not least:
How can we reach those who don’t care or who’ve lost interest.
A small minority, not much beyond ten percent, regularly consume what we might call serious news. According to the Reuters Institute even fewer pay for news. We hear it from friends. They avoid the news. It makes them sad, or anxious, or fearful. They find solace in other ways, bingeing the latest on Netflix or feeding their addiction to TikTok.
In his thoughtful analysis of media and culture, Neil Postman, again in 1985, brought the dystopian authors George Orwell and Aldous Huxley into consideration.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was there would be no reason to ban books, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
In Orwell’s 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
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I suspect you’re thinking: he didn’t mention the business model. Everyone says it’s broken. It’s broken, and it’s not.
Yes, the business model of the rich, near-monopoly metropolitan newspaper will never return. In 1985, newspapers were the Internet before there was one. But now we have the Internet. Classified ads went to online marketplaces. Department stores got smothered by e-commerce. Printed food coupons became loyalty programs. There went THAT business model.
But it’s not broken for the journalism entrepreneurs I know. They didn’t launch their ventures thinking they had no business model or path to success. They launched those ventures because they knew there were voids to fill, opportunities to harvest. Many are succeeding. Lots of hard work. Long nights of stressful doubt. But they believe. Everyday we see proof.
It’s no longer a question of whether news ventures can succeed. Now it’s about sharing the formulas of those who have succeeded. How do we scale the success of some to many?
With every advance in media distribution, there was an early phase of exploration. Failure. Evolution. Success. Then at some point, it became clear what the models for local radio would be, or in their time, local alt weeklies. We are now at the beginning of the second phase — where successful models can be propagated.
Yes, I asked NO question relating to the business model.
Because every question I’ve asked IS critical to a successful news organization, in both journalistic and business impact. They are foundational. The answers are the path to success, whatever those answers might be.
It was one of the great Greeks who said our open societies, our democracies, will be destroyed by the freedoms we enable. Wise words. Terrifying words. They hit a little too close to home.
The political sphere has adapted to the capabilities of the internet — to speak to voters, to build political alliances — far more quickly and effectively than the world of journalism. We see the impact around the world. The trend is concerning, as concerning to me and to Google as it is to you.
Google’s success is greatest in open societies. The value and success of search, the value and the success of our ad products are tied the robust ecosystem of the open Web.
The impact of journalism is also greatest in open societies — and quality journalism is critical to assuring those societies remain open.
We have common objectives, a common sense of mission. It’s why the hundreds of people at Google who work with news publishers and journalists are passionate about their work. I am passionate about my work. When journalism succeeds, we all do better.
Google’s commitment is stronger than ever. We want to do more. We plan to do more. I believe through trusted partnership we’ll get there. But, as I’ve said before, it will take the leadership of many, not the leadership of one.
Richard Gingras is the global Vice President of News at Google. In that role Gingras focuses on how Google surfaces news on Google’s consumer services and as well as Google’s effort to enable a healthy, open ecosystem for quality journalism. This includes the Google News Initiative, Google’s global investment in efforts to elevate quality journalism, explore new models for sustainability, and provide technology to stimulate cost-efficiency in newsrooms.
Gingras has walked the bleeding edge from satellite networks to search engines, from Apple to Excite to Google. He knows that innovation is hard. He readily concedes he’s made more mistakes than you.
Gingras has been involved in digital media since 1980 or as he once put it “since the days of steam powered modems”. He helped found Salon.com where he once worked with Pulitzer Prize winner Glenn Greenwald and has had senior roles at Apple, the @Home Network, and the Excite search engine among other digital ventures. He also serves on the boards of the First Amendment Coalition, the International Center for Journalists, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and UC Berkeley School of Journalism.