Thursday, 8 August 2019

The Future for News


I can’t be the only person who watches the opening sequence of the Ten ‘O Clock TV news – and then promptly switches over.  It’s a far cry from when I’d sit there with a cup of tea and salmon sandwich, transfixed until the dying strains of the programme’s closing sig tune.

They’ve told me the headlines I need to know – and that’s enough.  As for the other stories they’ve chosen, they’re not the one I’m interested in – or they’re ones I already had had my fill of.

No offence to the BBC’s fine editorial team, maybe things are just changing.

Broadcast news began on radio in 1922, with Arthur Burrows chuntering through a few pages of foolscap - from a rowdy meeting with Winston Churchill to the billiards scores. In many ways, news has changed little since – with TV bulletins a video variant of the radio options. Sure, we’ve now got actuality, two-ways and frightening animation, but we are still force-fed hourly lists of stories on linear media. Some we are interested in, some we are not.

Now, we may feast our news appetite in several efficient ways, with news users drawing on an average of 6.7 different sources (Ofcom 2019). Which media will play which roles in the future? Do the broader range of sources make matters clearer - or do we become more judgemental in discarding seemingly conflicting accounts?

Criteria

In news consumption, I theorise a number of factors come into play, although those better qualified than me have likely written lengthy books on the matters.

  • Relevance and convenience
  • Immediacy
  • Perspective, trust and transparency
  • Analysis and depth
  • Investigation and challenge
  • Responsibility
  • Reflection, comfort and occasion

Has digital media has turned relevance on its head? We connect with the story about the school our child will attend - and we connect equally to a photo of a slain elephant in Zimbabwe and the story behind it. The communications democracy which now exists may be eroding that old journalist tenet about the relationship between distance and caring. A story has relevance because we care about it - or the treatment makes us care. It can affect us directly or emotionally – whether down the road or across the globe. What does that mean for local media - not least in pretend regions invented by broadcasters?

Immediacy: we want the news we need - now. When we hear a worrying bang outside, we turn increasingly to social media and digital, as neighbours pitch in with their accounts of what's happened - and their odd theories. Ofcom's 2019 survey suggest 66% (and rising) of adults 16+ now use 'the internet' for news, compared to 75% (and falling) using TV - with 'internet' leading by some margin amongst 16-24s (83% use); and similarly minority ethnic consumers.  

Then, swiftly, as conflicting reports emerge from the man on the street - we want perspective and trust. We need to hear from someone with ability and access to give reliable insight. The pedigree and reputation of the big news purveyors will likely be ever more important here. Heightened transparency on their funding may become relevant - and a better public understanding on how they are regulated - and a proud trumpeting of such regulation. The protagonists – the council, police, fire brigade etc – are also seen as trusted ‘experts’, now acting as their own publishers for the first time.

In general terms, whilst one can now assemble one's own online 'news page' from a variety of sources, most people still turn to familiar sources. They are not only trusted - they are convenient. News can be sourced anywhere - but to what extent can people be bothered to act as their own news editor - and do they know what they're doing?

Then we seek understanding through analysis and depth. What exactly happened? What are the facts? Why has this happened? What are the key players saying? What happens next? Whilst analysis has traditionally pursued ‘truth’, our world is increasingly more complex - and consumers show ever more suspicion. I witness the excellent Evan Davis on the PM Programme on Radio 4 increasingly ‘showing his workings’, as my maths teacher used to say: that was one perspective – and here is another – and you will form your own view. It’s correct that this is now seen as a perfectly acceptable approach rather than simply engineering an uncomfortable ding-dong. (BBC World Service explains here why 'covering breaking news is not enough for today's audiences'.) 

The case for the expensive business of proactive investigation remains.  Many matters need unearthing and scrutinising. Original journalism from curious and persistent dedicated professional asking the questions that no-one yet has.  There is clear case for challenge too, where an offending figure needs to be heard being held to account; justice being seen to be done. In the wake of Brexit, some broadcasters have begin the healthy process of scratching their heads wondering whether they actually asked the right questions.

Responsibility is a thorny issue, if it is not to confused with social engineering; and the work on constructive news/solutions-focusedjournalism is highly relevant. ‘What’s gone wrong here?’ may be an accurate story – but it does not represent the entirety of any topic. Even ‘duly impartial’ broadcast media can ultimately affect the world we live in by the stories it chooses to cover and how it covers them.

Finally, when something happy or troubling happens, people want to talk. They want to reflect, derive comfort - or share a sense of occasion. Are the evening local TV news magazines - which continue to attract good audiences - as much about companionship and belonging as news.

Media solutions

The original news sources are changing, not least as newspaper circulations fall from 22m in 2010 to 10.4m last year.

Social media is growing, despite low trust levels (37% of users say it is impartial, vs 61% for radio). Facebook rules as the most common social media news source. The BBC remains the most followed news organisation, being used by just over half of Facebook and Twitter news users. New brands are breaking through, with Ladbible attracting 19% of Facebook news users, and Buzzfeed 17% (Facebook) and 14% (Twitter) - both ahead of established press titles. Of those who use traditional media, Global's radio stations reach a healthy 19% of traditional news media users vs Sky's 27% and DMGT's 25%.

What future for the news bulletin?  In a sense, they serve as a regularly updated landing page for the day and for the hour, helping us navigate the news of the moment through trusted eyes. We discover what's happened - and ascertain which stories we might want to hear more about.  On linear broadcast,  however, we only hear these updates at times the schedulers choose - on the hour or half-hour - and we are usually treated to at least a paragraph of further detail beyond headlines, whether we are interested in the specific or not.  And - on broadcast - if we seek further insight into a story, we must turn to different media - or maybe wait in the hope that it might feature in a full news programme if it exists on that channel.



Would radio stations have scripted lengthy news bulletins on the hour were the medium invented today? It's interesting that whilst a healthy 43% use radio for news, only 9% of those who follow news turn to radio for their fix of local news - despite the hundreds of stations broadcasting local bulletins. When we want to understand a topic, is the engaging informality of the Brexitcast podcast or Theo Usherwood on LBC more illuminating than a package, voicer or script?

Whilst we will continue to value the major broadcasters doing the dirty work of exploring of each day for us - and the necessary journalism – the trend to bulletin brevity will understandably continue. Whilst Ofcom will insist on preserving the news bulletin on music stations, arguably breakfast shows just pausing every so often to list the top stories - or the updated stories - would serve the same purpose. At present, someone waking up just after 8 and dashing out the house at 830 likely hears no news on entertainment radio.

As voice-activated grows, one can imagine a future where we can scream 'more' at a radio or TV headline and expect further detail to be delivered, before returning to the linear. Similarly, another instruction might prompt insight into a story background. Where is the country? Why are these people fighting?  And - could it offer immediate 'fact checks'?

Flash briefings on smart speakers are experimenting with the format, having concluded correctly that just seizing the radio model may not be the answer. Indeed, the brevity of a true ‘flash briefing’ as opposed to a full news bulletin is probably what the consumer seeks. But will they also become purveyors of specific news stories on demand: ‘Alexa, tell me the latest on Brexit’.

Who will own smart speaker content – today’s broadcasters or tomorrow’s communications companies – or trusted news anchors. 'Hey Huw Edwards, tell. me what's new'.  Who will be the Uber of smart news? Is the NHS/Alexa arrangement, where asking her for flu symptoms will now serve the official NHS view, an interesting precedent - whereas Google Home still merrily tells you 'a fact I've found on the web'. What role will regulation play in this arena?

Rolling TV news - and radio newstalk on stations like LBC - appears to meet contemporary expectations: when I want it - it's there. It ebbs and flows with the news agenda, and is not afraid to dwell exclusively on the key topic at the expense of all others when the occasion warrants.

Will scheduled TV news programmes on general TV channels survive? Whilst BBC One TV remains a huge news source, the percentage of people who use it has fallen appreciably from 65% to 55% since 2010. Will people continue to sit down to watch lengthy TV reports on topics in which they may have scant interest? In linear broadcast, maybe we will feel more acutely the absence of a ‘next story’ button to skip the stories which do not chime.

TV's broad linear audience, however, certainly has a role to play in helping a sense of occasion: the Olympic opening ceremony or the Royal Wedding.

What role does context play in news on social media? Those using it for news struggle to attribute the original source - and, whilst Twitter news users estimate 55% of their news tweets come from news organisations, almost half come from friends and family or others they follow, placing news is a specific personal context. In the same way, 45% of Facebook users accessing news organisation posts read the comments too. Popularity also plays its part, and the lists of most watched/read stories online can seem variously illuminating and worrying. Trending stories generate their own momentum.

How can the social media platforms better distinguish trusted content from the spurious – and who will judge them?  Should algorithms be the conscience of a nation, doing their best to serve us dependable content? What are the risks of that - and to what extent should regulation play a greater part? 

Press has endured a challenging generation as 18th Century titles have struggled to make a business in a digital world.  Some have chosen paywalls, others not. Some, like the Times, supply the actual 'newspaper' in digital form, which looks reassuring familiar and yet often behaves oddly. Others, like the huge Mail-on-line, opt for a dedicated digital space. To what extent will we continue to want to 'read a newspaper' whether on paper or online. Will a UK podcast with the power and penetration of the New York Times Daily be created?

But - when it comes to informed conversation and commentary, comfort and companionship,there will surely never be a medium to match radio.







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