The Future of News

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Topic owners: Dharmishta Rood, Jon Fildes

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This is the landing page for the 2009 session of IIF:The Future of News, updated with thoughts and reflections on the class after the event. You can read the page as it was before the class here. In this class we grappled with future models of news production, revenue models and distribution. For this particular course session, student participants were asked to submit surveys about their news consumption and also create video presentations of future newsroom business models on seesmic. The course discussion was facilitated by discussion with LA Times editor Russ Stanto and Jeff Jarvis, professor of journalism and author of What Would Google Do? The course discussion lasted for two hours on Monday night and included participation on the Berkman Question Tool and also a live video feed on Mogulous

Summary

The traditional media industry is in turmoil. Circulation of newspapers is falling. Some, such as the Tribune group, are saddled with huge debts and have filed for bankruptcy. Staff are being laid off, costs are being cut and foreign bureaus are being shut. Audiences are fragmenting, advertising spending is plummeting and the valuations of companies are dropping. TV and radio are experiencing similar problems. Some organisations, such as Pasadena Now, have even begun outsourcing local news reporting to India.

Most of these changes have been blamed on the arrival of the web, which has changed how information is produced and consumed. Now, anyone can be a news gatherer, publisher and distributor. The balance of power has changed. Yet at the same time there is a paradox; the web offers organisations a huge opportunity to reach out to audiences and connect with them in new ways.

This class aimed to explore at least two of the challenges currently facing the media industry:

  • What will the business model of the future look like? As Richard Sambrook , Director of the BBC's Global News division, says: “Newspapers and broadcasters have lived for decades by selling audiences to advertisers. Now the number of eyeballs per page or per programme is falling - but we have much greater detail and granularity about where they are going and what they are doing online. Media organisations have to find a way to extract the commercial value from that”. Already, groups such as spot.us and Pro Publica are experimenting with new business models, such as community-funded reporters and grant funded newsrooms. Others, such as the Christian Science Monitor, have ditched the old way of doing things and have gone entirely online. Others, such as the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, seem to be following a similar strategy by cutting back on home deliveries. Will these work? Are these the right approach?
  • What will the newspapers or media outlets of the future look like? The New York Times is using its website in new and innovative ways. Others experiments, such as the LA Times wiki editorials, have been less successful. So, how should papers engage with their audience? Is news reporting now a collaborative process? How should they respond to citizen journalism? Are they competing or should they - and can they - work together?

The class also explored some of the issues facing the future of the news industry. Could they disappear? Does it matter if they do? What values are at stake beyond what the markets appear to be able to sustain? Should governments intervene to save them in the same way as they have decided to prop up the ailing car manufacturing industry? Is this an appropriate intervention? Should it be left to market forces? Ultimately, what is the future for “old media”?

Question of the week

In retrospect we found this question a bit broad, making it difficult to keep constrained within the subject of newspapers, and on-task about specifically solving problems of news production in a online environment.

What values are at stake in the newspaper industry and what could - or should - be done to maintain them?

Contributors

We found that the structure of our class (allowing each guest to speak for 20mins followed by Q&A) meant that we did not have time to fully explore the viewpoints of each speaker. In hindsight, we should have had fewer guests or structured the class to fully optimize the time we had with them. For example, we could have done away with each speakers overview and instead concentrated on asking them questions and asking them to question each other.

We had two guests take part in person: Russ Stanton, editor at the LA Times, and Jeff Jarvis, associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York and author of What Would Google Do?. We also had a video link with Josh Cohen, product manager for Google News. This was arranged through Peter Hopkins of Big Think.

Background and Discussion

As this is a timely issue, with views and opinion changing on an almost daily basis, we found it useful to use current articles and blog posts to give the students an up-to-date overview of the subject matter. We also chose popular and accessible articles as the student's had a range of different backgrounds. The reading list changed several times in the run up to the class as more information was published.

Readings

Background information

Relevant Projects

  • Spot.us: an experiment in community funded journalism.
  • Everyblock allows people to choose news feeds about their local areas
  • NYTimes Extra gives readers third party content.
  • Now Public: Crowd-sourced media
  • Oh My News: One of the original citizen journalism projects
  • Ground Report: "The world's hyperlocal citizen news platform"
  • Pro Publica: an experiment in sponsored invetigative journalism
  • TypePad for Journalists Formerly the TypePad Journalist Bailout Program, allows journalists "to take control of their own careers".

Technology

After all the videos were submitted we edited some of the highlights to play out in class. We also sent around a short survey using Google Docs before the class to get a sense of people's news consumption.

We ran into some technical difficulties with the livestream, which often distracted from running the course session. We recommend testing the webcast very far in advance to give time for any malfunctions.

Each class registered for a Seesmic account. Seesmic is a video blogging application which has been called the "Twitter of video". It allows threaded video discussions. You can watch a video explainer here

We also webcast the class using Mogulus and encouraged people to use twitter during and after the session. We also used the Berkman question tool to field questions from the audience members and those watching the webcast.

Task

Perhaps earlier deadlines would have been advantageous to us as session facilitators, as many were submitted right at the deadline and others had technical difficulties that were unanticipated, causing unnecessary stress to our students and putting intense time constraints on us to compile the videos. Each pitch was short - around 2-3 minutes. The video thread is archived here. We asked groups to post their pitch as a reply. If ideas overlapped with an previously posted video, we asked groups to reply building on the idea. We also asked our guest speakers and professors to record their own thoughts, to no avail.


Clearly, this was a huge area and we were not able to discuss every issues facing the newspaper industy. Instead, we tried to look to the future and encouraged the discussion to start before the class and continue after it finished.

Hence, we asked each group to use a webcam or mobile phone to record an elevator pitch and post it to Seesmic before the day of the class. The pitch was supposed to describe a new business model, working practice or technology that the group thought newspapers should adopt. Alternatively, groups could pitch a policy proposal directed at the newspaper industry. We'd also asked groups to explain what effect their idea would have. We listed some relevant projects above as inspiration.

Class Participation

This session of the course was held open to the public in a large seminar room at HLS, which allowed for comments and discussion from interested members of the community. Members from outside and within the room participated in online discussion on various platforms.

Session Recap

The session opened with remarks from Russ Stanton who outlined the challenges faced by the LA Times and some of the measures the paper was taking to make sure it remained relevant in the digital age. Questions with Mr Stanton from the audience was then followed by a brief overview from Jeff Jarvis, who outlined the current dilemmas and some of the potential solutions for newspapers. This focused on the "link" and the value of google, views expressed in his book. Again, after a short period of questions and answers we moved on to our third guest, Josh Cohen from Google News. This followed a similar format but was cut off midway through when the video link was terminated.

The remainder of the session was devoted to Q&A, as the audience - many of whom were professional journalists - wanted to pick the brains of the speakers. We tried to introduce the results fo the questionnaire and the Seesmic videos but did not have time to fully explore their conclusions.


For more information on the class see:

Liveblog of the event from Graham Webster at transpacifica.net

Post-event interview with Jeff Jarvis by the Nieman Journalism Lab

Post-event interview with Russ Stanton by the Nieman Journalism Lab


Teacher's Guide

The following section deals with the strengths and weaknesses of a course on this topic done in this format.

Evaluation of the Class

Overall this session of the course went well. We had a large community turnout on a snowy Monday night, and exceeded the initial mogulous live webcast cutoff of 50 individual viewers, to then be allowed 100. Interesting and sometimes contentious points were brought up by members of the class and guests alike and people in the room rarely turned to their laptop screens, if at all. The discussion continued well after class, with students meeting for snacks and drinks to interact with the guests and professors.

There are many things too, that could have been improved upon. The discussion in the room was lively and interesting, but it could have been helpful to direct the conversation around specific issues faced by our guests, rather than the broad "news industry" as an entity. Questions also became very complex, so it became a challenge to provide a socially friendly way to limit question length to allow ample time for answers and discussion. It was also difficult to accommodate for questions from those not in the room--submitting via twitter or the question tool, as precedence was given to those in the room.

Use of Technology

In an effort to make the class as open and accessible as possible, we chose to include as many technologies as possible. These included Twitter, Seesmic, Mogulus and the Berkman Question Tool. We also had no explicit restrictions on the use of laptops during class. Although this generated a relatively large amount of chatter around the class online, it was difficult to gauge whether this added to the experience of people in the auditorium.

Suggestions for Future Iterations

Strengths

  • Assigning work before class for students to begin processing the readings and formulating opinions
  • Bringing in knowledgeable, relevant and high-profile guests
  • Topic was current and unresolved
  • Open class allowed greater audience participation in the room and in cyberspace
  • Generated interest in the class by advertising the class in many online locations including Facebook and the Berkman website.

New Additions

  • Test all technology before class
  • Limit number of technologies used in class that allow for participation
  • Ensure class exercise is due with enough time to process and evaluate contributions before class
  • Have a more structured outline for the session with distinct questions to keep the guests and session on specific topic
  • Be prepared to direct guests more clearly to make sure time is used efficiently
  • Limit question length from audience