Jul 2, 2009

The news industry, disaggregation of audiences and 'failed truths'

Recently, much discussion online (and offline) has centred around the impending doom of journalism and the news industry. As an enthusiastic cheerleader of all the disruptive effects of the Internet, my opinion until of late has been that the changes couldn't have come about sooner.
But I am slowly beginning to wonder if in this particular case the results may be catastrophic in addition to being liberating.

The seeds of doubt were sown in my mind not while reading the many raging debates about the issue itself - but through an unconnected sentence in a Scientific American piece that explored the possibility of food shortages (caused by global warming, water shortages and over cultivation) increasing the risk of failed states and probably leading to the end of civilisation.

Contrasting the predominant geopolitical threat in the 20th century (superpower conflict) with what we are facing today (failing states like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq), the author of the piece states "It's not the concentration of power but its absence that puts us at risk."

That line in particular seemed to echo for me the travails - and the challenges - currently faced by the news industry. For much of the last century the criticism of mainstream media and the news industry has been that the huge audiences it aggregated by default created the risk of manipulation of the truth and news by special interest groups, advertisers, the government and the very leanings of the news outlet in question.

For those who feared that, the disruption wreaked by the Internet is welcome news - individuals were free to seek the news and the truth on their own and there were myriad places to find them. And most of it was free - a development that was simultaneously, and fortuitously, driving the established news industry out of business.

But there is a downside. In this context, the above line can be reframed as: "It is not the aggregation of audiences but its absence that puts us at risk."

If the predominant threat in the last century was that ever-larger audiences could be misinformed deliberately, then the threat we are facing now is the possibility of 'failed truths' - news and facts that don't have enough of an audience to become known or be championed.

That doesn't imply that all truth and news will suffer - in the very same way that not all countries face the risk of becoming failed states. As a recent Economist report states, "Yet the plight of the news business does not presage the end of news. As large branches of the industry wither, new shoots are rising. The result is a business that is smaller and less profitable, but also more efficient and innovative."

Much of this revolution is being driven by readers "seeking the kind of information they want, when they want" using search engines, aggregators and social sharing tools.

Some online newspapers are experimenting with a combination of free and premium (freemium) content - in the belief that the free fun (or commodity) stuff will bring in people who will be served targeted advertising and the audience looking for the dry, obscure specialist stuff will want it enough to pay for it.

But what of the the remaining stuff that we don't actively seek or are willing to pay for - which traditional news outlets served to us sandwiched between the above two layers. Information about local politics or local crime trends for example - news that we don't particularly seek but we should ideally know.

By including it in the mix, newspapers and news bulletins ensured that there was a bare minimum awareness we had of news and information that we didn't value ourselves - but added a great deal of value to our individual and collective lives.

It's these spheres that face the risk of being dominated by 'failed truths' if the current changes continue unabated - as empowered audiences seek and are found by news and views that cater to their own short-sighted, limited and momentary interest.

As I discovered, it's not a trifling worry. Tim Harford (the author of The Undercover Economist) writes of a research study that uncovers just that.

It seems, following the closure of The Cincinnati Post in the end of 2007, "local politics suffered. In the suburbs of Cincinnati where the Post had the strongest presence, fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the election after the paper folded, voter turnout fell, and incumbents grew more likely to win re-election."

As Tim Harford notes, the special circumstances of the Cincinnati Post - a closure date determined 5 years earlier and not by other factors like a local recession - points to the kind of void that the news industry will inevitably leave behind. And one that no amount of blogging and citizen journalism may make up for.

The larger arc of the Scientific American article about food shortages was that 'failed states' export disease, terrorism, illicit drugs, weapons and refugees; and without intervention, these could lead to a series of government collapses and the undermining of the world order.

I can't help but wonder what unseen repercussions our 'failed truths' may unleash upon us.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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