The future of news is arriving sooner than expected, and some media organizations are still woefully unprepared. The days in which audiences will continue to look to tightly packaged products like newspapers, magazines and television newscasts for information are numbered. Everyone now faces a growing onslaught of data continuously streaming from computers and smartphones _ a virtual swamp of information from which we filter what we find useful and discard the rest.
Each year more newspapers in the United States are shut down because they aren’t able to reposition themselves financially in order to survive in the digital jungle. In fact, for every $7 that newspapers lose in print advertising, they only recover $1 in digital ads, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. Few print publications have proven able to rise to the challenges of the new media landscape. And regardless of how influential newspapers or magazines have been in the past, it is only those few that will survive.
Just look at Newsweek. After 80 years as a leading weekly magazine, the publication will cease printing at the end of the year, and will try to make a go of it as a digital-only platform. That’s understandable _ Newsweek’s printing and distribution costs alone total $43 million a year. Publisher Tina Brown saw that this was unsustainable, so the magazine will instead transition from newsstands to computers, tablets and smartphones where, Brown and the Newsweek’s editors hope, millions of readers will be waiting.
Thinking about the transformation of modern journalism brings to mind “The Artist,” a film in which the protagonist, a movie star, stubbornly resists the end of the silent film era. Rather than adapt to movies with sound, he loses his fame, his money and his reputation. The traditional media could face a similar fate after decades of controlling the flow of information to the public. Some news organizations are stuck dreaming of the past while newer, more agile competitors on the Internet steal their audiences, their income and their prestige.
Not long ago I was chatting with Mario Kreutzberger, who is better known as Don Francisco, the beloved host of “Sabado Gigante,” a variety/game show broadcast every Saturday evening on Univision. He recently celebrated his 50th anniversary with the show _ no one has ever hosted a television program that long.
Don Francisco is a visionary, a media figure who has welcomed and adapted to technology throughout his career, from radio to TV to the age of satellites to broadcasting on multiple platforms in many countries.
His secret? He embraces every technological advancement and understands that his success depends on maintaining his identity and his focus. He also knows that he is unique _ no one else can entertain like Don Francisco, after all _ and that’s what keeps audiences tuned in to his show. He’s nearly 72, and has no intention of quitting. I suspect that he will outlast us all.
Don Francisco is primarily focused on providing entertainment; a recent study conducted by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard concluded that, in order to thrive and innovate, journalistic organizations should follow a similar path. The study suggests that journalists quickly take advantage of new information technologies while maintaining their brands, identities and, above all, their mission, which is to inform the public and analyze the news. (The study, “Mastering the Art of Disruptive Innovation in Journalism,” can be read at hvrd.me/QSVc9H.)
In journalism, providing the who, what, when, where and why of a news story is no longer enough. All those elements can be found in a tweet. Also, reporters cannot be everywhere, all the time, but social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, like modern saints, have the gift of ubiquity. No reporter can compete with a population of millions of smartphone owners.
However, what makes journalists unique, according to the Harvard study, is our ability to provide “context and verification” to the news. For example, take the rumors about the supposed death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro that float around Miami every so often. Every time Castro is declared dead, new photos of him surface _ alive, of course. The 86-year-old will die someday, but only the media organizations that didn’t rush to report gossip and rumors will be able to draw audiences when that happens. News organizations that provide confirmation, perspective and context will be the ones people turn to.
As journalists, we are tasked with providing more than the basics these days _ we must give readers something special, incomparable and even customized if audiences are going to remain with us. We must provide perspective.
Those media organizations that survive in this new world will drive the news of the future and the future of the news. Those who don’t will likely end up in the ever-expanding cemetery for old media companies: these days, there is a waiting list.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos.
(November 16, 2012)