I was recently reading one of Philip Meyer's exceptional articles on the changing nature of journalism. He is arguing that technology and innovation have thickened the plot for journalists. Very true. And for traditional media outlets too. Their editorial and sales departments are often in panic as they lose both audience and revenue.
Innovation is probably the most used and most misunderstood word in our industry these days. Some get it, others make an effort to embrace it, but the majority finds it difficult to come to grips with it.
Well, it is because of innovation that anyone can be a news producer today. Whether it is news on YouTube or news by cell phone, citizens are reporters and journalists have lost the monopoly of information streaming. They are no longer the messengers, neither the only information sources. 'Public' journalism has taken over. As Meyer argues, "One measure of the discomfort that journalists feel over the concept of public journalism is the great variety of names given to it, e.g., civic journalism, citizen journalism, community journalism, or communitarian journalism."
We are in a new, digital era of news coverage and storytelling. Today we live in the real-time, personal web: the way we find news (or news finds us) is novel, different. IT and digital communications have taken the notion of 'public sphere' into a new level. If Habermas' "public sphere" is a domain of social life in which public opinion can be formed and access to it is in principle open to all citizens, then the web is an informal, transnational public sphere. It is potentially accessible to wide masses.
ICT has nurtured the formation of a new participatory system, where people can influence news, politics and social trends. As Arianna Huffington contends in a recent HuffPost article: '"by enabling participation, new media can actually help fuel stories that lead to real change."
People's relationship to news has changed creating a different type of news consumer who has developed a new set of digital behaviors. Because he can be a news producer, this has made him more individualistic, more selective and powerful. He is more interested in the 'daily me' content than the 'daily us' and he knows that his attention has become an expensive commodity. He likes to share his knowledge, he loves to be an active part of the wider conversation and he pays more attention to his friend's opinions and reviews, snubbing the big corporations and their polished, expensive marketing campaigns.
Out there in the cyberspace one can find original thinkers, who generate ideas; amplifiers, who take these ideas and broadcast them as information; and adapters, people who take this information and data and somehow change them or integrate them into other concepts. All of them are messengers.
Journalists and mainstream media have found themselves in a very difficult situation. They have realized the need to change, that they are actually forced to change. Journalists do not control the message anymore. In the old days they would decide on what is newsworthy, important. The entire world would watch, listen to them in awe, swallowing unquestionably every single word they'd utter.
When CNN introduced the 24/7 news TV in 1981, the power of live reporting from the battlefield rendered audiences speechless, mesmerized, glued in front of their TV screens.
Today web video is everywhere. Breaking news are catapulted into the cyberspace through Twitter or Facebook by the random witness-turned-reporter who uses his smart phone and captures the 'exclusive' story.
People love being part of the innovation game. Young audiences have become more important and influential than ever before. It is as if they are born with an innate ability for text-messaging, 'iPodding', gaming and multitasking on multiple platforms. They are tech-savvy and they are active players, influencers, decision makers. The option to share content freely on sites like YouTube and peer-to-peer networks like Bit Torrent means that consumers can bypass official media distribution channels, eroding media companies' traditional revenue streams of ad impressions and purchasing or subscription fees.
News networks are facing a survive-or-die battle. Global broadcasters have become content generators in a digitalized, interactive, audience-controlled world. Newspapers readership has collapsed. The Washington Post saw a revenue loss of 44 percent within six years.
Traditional business models have almost become obsolete. Ad sales have dropped; tapping into social media does not really help generate revenue while introducing paid content (when fresh new knowledge is free to access) doesn't look like a viable model. Mainstream media need to create new income sources in order to survive. Their window of opportunity lies in building on their brand, credibility. The virtual world is in need of trusted 'mediators', who can filter information and verify accuracy and importance.
Innovation has always been a key factor for company growth. But never as important as now, with the internet disrupting so many old habits and well established business models. The media brands that thrive are those who listen to the conversations that take place online and in fact they join in rather than lecture the public. Look at the HuffPost example. It is a triumph of brand credibility, exemplary journalism and open conversation with the public. As good as it gets.