29 January 2020

Journalism innovation in the 2020s

What kind of innovation will the news industry need in the coming decade? David Caswell, executive product manager at BBC News Labs, offers some personal thoughts.

Innovation in news is at the heart of what News Labs does. But what does that actually mean?

Just over a year ago Dr Julie Posetti, a Senior Research Fellow at the Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), published a report about innovation in the news industry titled “Time to step away from the ‘bright shiny things’". The report was based on interviews with 39 senior executives charged with innovation at news publishing organizations around the world, and its opening line summed up their primary concern:

“The news industry has a focus problem.”

The consensus view of Julie Posetti’s interview subjects is that news organizations have invested in a seemingly endless series of technological fashions rather than in a carefully considered innovation strategy – an approach that has not been successful. As one of Posetti’s subjects puts it – “You would do an enormous service to the industry by helping us to define what that term [innovation] even means”. The news industry’s assessment of its own strategic innovation needs often focuses on vague and unspecified changes in: "storytelling", "culture", "technology", "leadership" and "organisational structure" – intuitive prescriptions that are obvious, but essentially un-actionable.

Ordinary and existential innovation

Posetti’s report identified and documented this absence of direction, but a year on from its publication there is still no consensus about what innovation means in the context of journalism. So let me offer my own definition of innovation in news - centred on a distinction between "ordinary" and "existential" innovation.

Every organisation, whether in news or any other business, engages in ordinary innovation. This innovation is the search for, and application of, better ways of producing what the organisation produces – primarily in response to competition, changing customer expectations, regulation and technological developments. "Better" can mean either products that are more suited to customer needs or improvements in the productivity of the production process. In the context of journalism this ranges from changes to the nature of news products in response to the changing needs of news consumers, to an increase in the quantity of news output that can be produced by a given newsroom, or a decrease in the number of people needed to produce a given quantity of news output. This last form of innovation will be depressingly familiar to most journalists.

Broadcasting innovations date back decades.

Ordinary innovation leads to better ways of producing whatever an organisation outputs.

Active engagement in ordinary journalism innovation is not mysterious – it merely requires a keen understanding of the audience for news and a willingness to deliver what that audience wants in the most efficient way possible with the available tools. News publishing organisations have always engaged in ordinary innovation, and always will, because it is merely a response to the ordinary challenges faced by any organisation in any business.

News publishing organisations, however, also face an extraordinary challenge that threatens their very existence and that can only be addressed by a second form of innovation – existential innovation.

Many-to-many communication

This extraordinary challenge arises from a structural change in the information ecosystem away from "one-to-many" (or broadcast) communication and towards "many-to-many" (or networked) communication. This change, enabled by the internet, is a staggeringly important development in human history – on a par with the transition from "one-to-one" communication to the broadcast communication enabled by the printing press and electronic broadcast media.

News publishing organisations are especially threatened by the rise of networked communication because their products, businesses and cultures were built for the broadcast communication environment, in which they held privileged roles. There are, however, no naturally privileged communicators in the networked communication environment. That reality gives rise to some extremely difficult questions for news producers: What is a publisher or a broadcaster in a world in which everyone with a smartphone or laptop has their own printing press and transmission channel with global reach? What special claim does a news publishing organisation have to assembling and retaining an audience in a networked communication environment? What is the essential difference between a newsroom and a roomful of independent bloggers? Does society still need news publishers and journalists to do journalism?

A selection of smartphones, including the iPhone.

The prevalance of smartphones has accelerated many-to-many communication.

The central challenge presented to news publishing organisations by networked communications is one of economics. Not monetary or fiscal economics, but the economics of attention. It can be interpreted as a mathematical problem centred on the relationship between linear demand for information and an exponentially growing supply.

People will only ever have 24 hours each day during which they can conceivably consume media, but the number of attention-seeking artefacts generated in the networked communication environment increases exponentially with the number of communicators – artefacts that include, and compete with, news articles, videos and audio bulletins. Furthermore, these attention-seeking artefacts are no longer local or regional, nor solely related to the current news cycle, but are instead global and persistent: the accumulation of all digital output from all publishers - ever.

Overwhelming choice

This difference between linear demand and exponential supply of information manifests itself in the daily experience of every newsroom via a metric called "share-of-voice" - the proportion of all communication in the environment originating with a particular communicator. In the face of an exponentially increasing supply of information, the share-of-voice of any individual news producer will decline relentlessly, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. From the perspective of news consumers the communication environment abounds with overwhelming choice, including choice in news products and news publishers. While there may be temporary variations to this grim trend for particular publishers from time to time – respected legacy brands, fashionable new publishers, cool new products or attractive marketing – the long-term trajectory is relentless.

This systematic decline in the share-of-voice of news publishers is experienced in similar ways by all journalism-producing organisations. Reach metrics like page views or unique visitors are increasingly biased towards users arriving via distribution platforms who consume one piece of content and leave. The demographics of loyal audiences become biased towards older members, as younger digital natives, raised in a world of near-infinite media choice, disengage with individual publishers. Trust in individual news organisations declines as alternatives are found and comparisons are made.

BBC television studio in advance of a broadcast.

Choice of news has grown spectacularly since the first days of colour TV.

A publisher or broadcaster’s share-of-voice largely determines their relevance, and therefore their cultural authority and financial sustainability. The net effect of its decline is a pervasive experience of long-term decay and unease in news publishing organisations – a kind of ‘climate change’ in the zeitgeist of journalism that is now taken for granted as a normal state of affairs. All of this is rooted in the mathematical reality of networked communications, and cannot be changed unless the structural basis that underlays it can be changed. Finding and applying ways to change that structural basis of news in the networked communication environment is the objective of ‘existential’ innovation in journalism. Its practical goal is to develop entirely new models of journalism that are structurally sustainable in the digital information ecocsystem.

Dr Posetti’s report concluded that journalism innovation is “key to the viability of news media in the digital age”, but that news organisations have been “technology led”, investing in a seemingly endless series of “shiny things”. It is therefore worth examining some recent ‘shiny things’ in journalism innovation to test whether or not they are ‘ordinary’ innovations or ‘existential’ innovations. In performing this test a helpful question to ask is – “Can anyone access the same technology and use it to create and publish similar information?”. If the answer is ‘yes’ then it is probably ‘ordinary’ innovation. By this standard recent innovations such as virtual reality, augmented reality, podcasting, mobile stories, "drone journalism", fact checking and others can be understood as ordinary innovation – useful and necessary, but unlikely to materially change the underlying trajectory of journalism.

Outcomes

What, then, might ‘existential’ innovation in journalism look like? A starting point is to consider what outcomes of innovation might plausibly address the structural challenge at the heart of journalism’s crisis.

One desirable outcome would be to restore a privileged position for news producers in the communications environment – i.e. providing unique value to news consumers, leading to a defensible competitive advantage in the intense competition for human attention.

A second would be to break the dependence on communication platforms for access to audiences, by giving people real reasons to build direct relationships with news organisations.

A third would be to deliver news to consumers in ways that correspond with their authentic cognitive needs – i.e. reaching each person with the news they need in the particular way that best suits them.

A fourth would be to re-establish a plausible basis for trust by news consumers who have been made jaded and suspicious by the tsunami of digital communication.

A fifth would be to make this transition to a sustainable future for journalism while retaining journalistic values and maintaining human editorial judgment.

Questions to answer

How might we make progress towards these outcomes? We must fundamentally reassess the assumptions of the broadcast era and ask some hard questions:

  • Are isolated pieces of video, audio and text – which anyone can create and distribute - really the best artefacts for news in a networked communication environment?
  • Do we really expect all news consumers to accept the same news produced in the same way and delivered by the same channels?
  • Are arbitrary, anecdotal or sensational ‘stories’, ubiquitously available on the internet, really the best use of journalism’s resources in this new era?
  • Is hand-crafted or artisanal news production really integral to journalism’s purpose and values?
  • Do we really think that people should trust journalists merely because they claim to be trustworthy?
  • Do we really expect that anyone can ‘win’ the zero-sum competition for human attention raging on the internet by producing slightly different programmes or by writing slightly different articles?

Honestly asking, and honestly answering, questions like these can open up productive areas for research and innovation in news. For example:

  • We can explore entirely new information artefacts that may be better suited for communicating news to audiences in the networked communication environment.
  • We can test the potential of connecting these new news artefacts together in different ways for different consumers, thereby re-bundling news while offering uniquely valuable experiences.
  • We can use techniques from the cognitive and social sciences to understand the deep cognitive needs and uses which audiences and individuals have for information, and seek to satisfy them.
  • We can use automation and abstraction to personalise and adapt news to the real needs of each individual.
  • We could reorient our definition of news away from the arbitrary, anecdotal and sensational and towards more systematic and analytical coverage of events, knowledge and arguments.
  • We could re-establish trust based on ‘show me’ criteria such as evidence, rather than on ‘trust me’ criteria such as brand.

As we enter the 2020s, news innovation is at a juncture. We can either continue to be distracted by Dr Posetti’s "bright shiny things", or we can pursue a model of journalism innovation oriented by an understanding of the fundamental challenges facing news.

Ordinary innovation is obviously part of that, but it is insufficient. Without existential innovation, willing to question the assumptions of an era that is ending and to reimagine what news can be, professional journalism will not survive in recognisable form.

So here’s my new year’s resolution: Be bold.

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