MARCH 7, 2022

Making the Media S2E07: Talking Trends

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News organizations must invest in innovation to attract new audiences and retain those they already have, but face doing so against a background of massive disruption within the industry.

In this episode, we talk to Nic Newman, from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism about the key trends facing media companies in the year ahead—including business disruption, the potential of the cloud, remote working, the challenge of new platforms, trust in journalism, and more.

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Listen to Hear:

  • The key trends which media companies will address in 2022
  • The importance of the cloud and web-based tools to enable collaboration
  • The need for companies to reconnect with staff after two years of remote and hybrid working

Our Guest This Episode

Nic Newman

Nic Newman is a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, and lead author of the annual Digital News Report, the world’s largest ongoing study of consumer behavior around news. Nic also authors an influential annual report on media and technology trends. He is also a digital media consultant and has recently worked with companies such as the Financial Times, Globo, BBC, and News UK on product, data, and audience strategies.

Previously, Nic was a journalist and senior editor at the BBC and was a founding member of the BBC News website. Later, as Head of Product Development and Engineering for BBC News, he helped introduce innovations such as apps, blogs, podcasting, and on-demand video.

How does journalism really stand out from the mass of information on the internet? How does it show that it has values and value to audiences?” – Nic Newman, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, welcome to the Making the Media podcast, it’s great to have you join us. My name is Craig Wilson.

There is so much disruption going on in the world of news, broadcasting, and journalism at the moment, it can be hard to cut through the noise and assess what are the key trends affecting the industry.

My guest in this episode is going to help us identify what is really important for the business right now.

Nic Newman was a founding member of the BBC News website. A journalist, and later head of product development and engineering for BBC News, he helped introduce innovations such as apps, blogs, podcasting, and on-demand video.

Now he is a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the study of journalism at Oxford University in the UK, and is the author of influential annual reports, including one on journalism, media, and technology trends, which was recently published.

So, who better to talk to and get an assessment of where we are? I began by asking Nic to outline the big-ticket items facing the industry right now.

Nic Newman: One of the big preoccupations is business models. So obviously we've seen this massive disruption as people move from print and traditional broadcast models to sort of digital models. So sort of, I think, reshaping that looking at sort of new innovations there and how the internet is now supporting other models apart from advertising—you know, it was all based on advertising, and now we're moving into all kinds of really interesting subscription, you know, the talent economy individuals being able to create media and distribute media in new ways. So, I mean, I think that's a really interesting trend, which obviously affects traditional media, but it also affects, you know, it's opening up a whole new areas for sort of creativity formats and storytelling, and you know, that's an area that you're particularly interested in has been, you know, a massive change as we move from primarily desktop ten years ago, to sort of mobile social environments. And that that disruption, I think, media is really sort of struggling with.

And so, you know, the report really looks at how the media is trying to come to terms with that, and then finally, just the audience challenge. You know, that what we're seeing is this fragmentation of behaviors. So all the people still basically preferring to use the media they grew up with, whether that's television or print or whatever, and then younger people, particularly the under 25s behaving completely differently and really sort of embracing social channels and new social platforms.

CW: Yeah, that's a really interesting aspect, and the way the stories are being told is changing, and traditional media is struggling with that. So maybe we can talk a little bit about innovation in storytelling. Is it the case that… There was a theory, of course, you could take a story once and then deliver it to many platform. But now, people want a more tailored experience. Is that still what you see from the report?

NN: Yes—I mean, I think so. I think it’s sort of a headline level, you have, as I say, a decade ago, people were thinking about an article and maybe taking, you know, the abstract of that and being able to put that in a social network. But tastes have fragmented to such an extent, and platforms have fragmented that people now expect stories to be told in completely different ways. Text is not necessarily the best way of doing it, you know. And so all of these formats are just exploding.

You know, if you look at audio right now, you know, you've got not just podcasts, but you've got sort of short form audio, you have voice devices opening up new ways of telling stories and interacting, and digital video the same. You know, we had massive investment and probably about four or five years ago, sort of a pivot to video, and now we're sort of seeing a second pivot to video where digital video formats, again, creatively are exploding because of TikTok and Instagram and sort of new expectations from younger audiences.

So I think it's never been a more exciting time for storytelling, actually. You know, a huge number of possibilities, but as you say, traditional media companies really struggle because you know, they're rooted in what we did before, so that process of change is so hard for them.

CW: Yeah, I guess when TikTok [inaudible] I don't think many people would have seen it as a battleground for news, but now Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, are the battleground, I guess, to get that younger audience that traditional media are struggling to get.

NN: Yeah, and it's really complicated as well because we did some research last year which shows that you know people are not using Instagram and TikTok for news, you know. Primarily people are there to connect with friends to be entertained. You know, particularly TikTok is sort of, you know, this endless stream of creativity and fun and laughter and music, and all of those things. And that this is not the natural playground of news companies.

But I think what's happened, particularly with COVID, particularly with Black Lives Matter in the US, is we've seen those networks really becoming places where issues of concern to young people are discussed, and those are issues of concern to young people in different ways. And so you've seen this sort of coming together of news and these new platforms in ways that maybe we didn't expect.

So I think this is really ramping up the pressure now for media companies to think about how they can get, you know, fact based information across within these networks when people are also looking for entertainment.

CW: Do you think that also raises issues around diversity and perhaps inclusion? Because that younger audience is actually interested in a different agenda than the agenda that the older audience is interested in?

NN: Certainly. I mean, they're interested in some of the same things, but they're also interested in different kinds of subjects, as well. And, you know, this is another of the challenges traditional media companies are facing, is, you know, how do you break away from the traditional sort of political agenda that quite often turns young people off? And how do you, you know, talk about identity politics or race in ways that are authentic and relate to people and provide value?

So I think, you know, this is… diversity and inclusion has been a massive issue within media companies and with society at large. And I think the sort of, the way in which those things are just naturally now being discussed in these social networks is putting a new sort of pressure to really address these issues much more directly in head on.

CW: Now, one success that we've seen here in the UK is the work journalist called Ros Atkins has done for the BBC. And for those who don't know about his work, perhaps you could sum it up, the type of approach he takes, because he takes complex subjects and distills it down. He doesn't dumb it down, but he just tells it very straight.

NN: Yes, I mean, I, I think if you look at digital video, a lot of digital video that worked in the past with stuff that got people angry, you know, that the sort of Facebook algorithms, you know, sort of political polemic, that kind of stuff. And I think what's new about this sort of second pivot to video if you like, is we're seeing the sort of growth of fact-based evidence-based explainer formats that are, I think, also about smart brevity. They're about how do you, you know, understand something, but really quickly. And I think what Ros Atkins has been doing at the BBC with his former Rose Atkins On... which is sort of about sort of seven to 10 minutes, taking one issue and really explaining it, is how do you do that in a way that doesn't take sides but still explains an issue and gives people that sense of being smart at the end of it, and having something to pass on?

So I think that's essentially what it's about. Is hugely successful, so some of the explainers he did on Boris Johnson, you know, were hard hitting. People call this assertive impartiality, but they also really were engaging to watch, and they got something like, you know 11 million views for, you know, two or three of the first videos on party gate, which is, you know, more than—way more than watching, you know, 24 hour news television. This is just a single podcast. And critically, for the BBC, reaching a different demographic, so reaching some of those younger users.

So, and I think you've really seen lots of people taking that format and trying to do versions of it. I mean, in many ways it's not unlike daily news podcasts, same idea, which was a hit a few years ago. Something like The Daily from New York Times, you know, again, how do you explain an issue, but make it entertaining using narrative storytelling techniques? And again, that's been another very successful format which is really sort of engaging different audiences, and particularly younger ones.

CW: One aspect that we see just now, and you mentioned at the start is the changing business model and the way that companies are trying to attract revenue. Now, an element of that is, of course, his subscription. I don't know if this was something you came across, but as well as using subscription as a source of revenue, are businesses also looking to use subscription as a way of changing, you know, their own business model moving their investments away, perhaps on CapEx to more OpEx expenditure?

NN: I'm not sure, I probably don't know enough about that, but I think, you know, subscription for media companies is partly about sort of leaning into the way in which people want to consume things nowadays, so it's not necessarily buying and owning everything, it's about, you know, essentially you sort of renting this service and having a relationship. So it actually changes the nature of what the media company is about.

You have to be much more focused on delivering value and delivering distinctiveness in that environment. So subscription is definitely changing media, and I think it's probably also changing the relationship with partners as well and advertisers, because what you're really trying to do is meld different business models. So, you know, there are many media organizations where their subscription or membership are also trying to, you know, put together that really informed group of audiences that you know a lot about with advertisers. So this is not really a replacement—it's kind of an additional layer.

And what many media companies are trying to do is sort of build that resilience through sort of 2, 3, 4, different business models. Subscription events, advertising, you know, funding from often from foundations or third parties in particular types of content. So, like everything else, we’re just becoming more complex on the business model side as well as on the audience side.

CW: What do you think that business model side means for innovation in storytelling? Are companies really able to invest to make those kind of changes they need to make to ensure they have a future business?

NN: Well, they know they need to invest. They need to invest in technology. But you know, I think it's fair to say that media companies haven't been great on the R&D side recently, and that's partly because of the pressures of funding. I mean, if you think about what's happened over the last 10 to 20 years, you know, this incredibly profitable business model that allowed them to invest in R&D has kind of disappeared—particularly for print organizations. And we're seeing, you know, broadcast models also coming under huge strain, so the money hasn't been there for investment, but they know they have to.

And so I think you know part of the response of that is things like sort of scale and [inaudible] that's what I'm seeing. A lot of [inaudible] now, so you have sort of big companies you can really leverage an investment across multiple properties, so I think that's one of the implications. But then you also have, I think, you know, the ability to create whole new innovative media companies with very low cost as well, which is why you're seeing niche companies doing so well again, often off subscription models or advertising models because you know, you can suddenly find an audience very specifically with a low cost model, and you don't need to invest a lot in technology because this is much more commoditized and available at a reasonable price.

So yeah, again, it's a kind of complex picture, but I think you've got sort of scale at one end, niche at the other end, and in the middle, it's a bit harder.

CW: What about things like AI? How are people looking to take advantage of that?

NN: AI is something that media companies have been investing in in different ways, and the big ones we just talked about have been investing quite heavily in a range of ways of using it.

So first of all, you know, allowing journalists to find stories and patterns in huge datasets for big sort of investigations. You've seen that in examples with the Guardian and others using using AI for that. Secondary is around commercial, so you know, using AI to identify potential subscribers, for example, using big data sets again, and show them particular messages and maybe change those messages. So, some of that is about AI. Thirdly, the whole sort of packaging of journalism so huge potential to make the process much more efficient and to allow journalists to do more journalistic things.

So, things like automatic transcription, automatic summarization, automatic translation, you know enabling one media asset to be used multiple times across languages, for example, and making that process easier and more efficient. That's opening up many more possibilities. And then finally, sort of distribution, and essentially trying to create more personalized experiences within app.

Oh, and one more I think is probably the robo-journalism and actually writing stories or creating or semi-creating automating different kinds of journalism, which I think is, you know, a very interesting area.

CW: Yeah this was something I was going to ask about, which is this use of, you know, what you call robo-journalism. Is it seen in some way, and some places as a threat to the role of the journalist? But does that really come down to how the AI model itself is built?

NN: Yeah, and I think it's also often sort of its journalists against machine. Which one's going to win, is often the narrative. But really, what we're talking about is can you use technology to, for example, to create sort of narrative stories based on data where the journalist doesn't need to be involved? Or maybe just in a slight oversight way to check that it's as it should be to check the models working correctly to allow, you know, obviously, financial publications are using this a lot. And that allows the journalistic resource to do more sensible journalistic things. They always hated writing the company reports from data, right? And so, so this allows them to do something much more added value.

But I mean a good example is something like the BBC is taking constituency results from elections, and it did this in 2019, and essentially using AI models to write narrative stories, which are then checked by journalists, and they can do that as the election results change. So, you know, within 10 minutes they can write 400 stories. You could never do that with—you know, you couldn't scale the journalism for that, but you could have a few journalists just checking those things. And we're going to see many more of those kind of examples, I think. So it's not a replacement—it's kind of an addition.

I think you see it with video as well, so increasingly, you know, there are software tools that allow you to do the first rough cut edit from a whole range of materials, and then the journalist goes in and does the polishing, and it just saves a lot of time and effort.

CW: You mentioned about mergers and acquisitions, which of course has been ongoing for a while, so that of course gives companies scale, but with that kind of scale is also the cloud, a way that they're trying to take advantage of that, and perhaps expand their editorial base because you know people can connect from anywhere, and perhaps we can also talk a little bit about hybrid working as well. I'm interested in how you think the cloud can be used from a technological basis.

NN: Yeah, I mean I used to run technology for BBC News in the early days around digital and some of the technology and, you know, then, we've just tried to control everything and we were sort of building these servers and we just didn't have enough space as we sort of built those things out. And then we kind of moved to the cloud in in various aspects of what we did. And obviously covid's been a real… and within companies you've had all these concerns about security etc. But I think COVID was a huge game changer because it forced people to think differently. The world didn't fall in as you know, whole television programs were presented from people's homes. And, you know, I think routinely, now, you see interviews done on Apple FaceTime or Zoom on national television, often to a really detrimental effect in terms of quality and radio. But obviously that's going to get better.

So I think COVID sort of really has accelerated that move to the cloud. And really, it's a question of, as you say, if you're looking for scale and the ability to operate sort of technology infrastructures across multiple properties, then that sort of flexibility of the cloud. Plus, you know, API's into common systems that allow you to really leverage technology and focus on the journalism and the audience is really the heart of where many media companies want to get to.

CW: So let's talk then about hybrid working, next. So the vast majority of people of course went to work from home. There is now a ton to the office to varying degrees, depending of course on local circumstances. But there is now, I think, an acceptance that, you know, hybrid working is here to stay.

So, I wonder what you think that means for the way newsrooms are run? You know, staff well-being perhaps has a higher profile now because you're not seeing people in person as often. How do you think companies are trying to address this?

NN: Yeah, we did a report on this last November, which was obviously still, you know, just as the next wave was getting going, and media companies were really sort of thinking about those issues. You know, what was going to happen when we move from this period of enforced working to hybrid working. And obviously that's being put off now, and you know, I think around now actually is when many media companies are sort of resetting and have in some cases renegotiated with staff contracts. So, I mean, again, like many other things, COVID has been a game changer here.

Some local media companies for example like REACH and Archant in the UK, sort of really big regional publishers, they've closed something like 75% of their offices. And they're really rethinking what the remaining officers are going to be for, so they will be for collaboration, creativity, training. They're not necessarily anymore the places where people do the work 'cause people are going to do their work from lots of other places, and sometimes in the office, and we see this all over the media industry. That sort of rethinking of… I mean, the real loss that people told us was around connection with the company and the company culture and collaboration and communication. And I think that's the thing that people are worried about. You know, that in this sort of intervening period, people have done their work quite efficiently, but actually they've lost that connection, and so the next few months about how to do that, and, as you say, that goes back to, you know, staff well-being, mental health, finding ways to get people, you know, experiencing and valuing each other as colleagues rather than just a sort of machines who are producing copy. And I think nobody's got the answer to those things except for, you know, let's have team days on the same day, let's organize some creativity and face-to-face time, and let's have some new rules around this, because currently, you know, there are no rules, and we don't know what the rules are. You know, everything is up in the air, so let's create some new rules that create some structures that allow us to have that connection again as well as the efficiency.

CW: Is this also putting pressure on the companies to look at the technology they're using to make the experience the same regardless of where you're connecting from? Looking at the use of mobile, web-based tools, things like that.

NN: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think again that's changed a lot during the crisis. You know, people who never knew anything about mirror boards, or you know, there's all kinds of sort of collaboration now that people are doing and mixing of tools, so literacy and these things have changed.

But it's also not the same. So, I did a sort of creative brainstorming little research project that I was doing face-to-face a couple weeks ago, and it's just amazing to be in a room. You know, the different level of communication you got. But obviously, you know, technology is going to move on. You know, both the sound, the video, the ability to make presence felt in some of the online video communication tools better. All of that is going to improve, but I don't think as quickly as people need it to.

So it's definitely a combination, isn't it? It's a mix. And it's never as good if you've got a hybrid meeting with some people in the room, and some people aren't, but we can make that better with technology.

CW: You're one area I wanted to explore a little bit was self publishing. You know, if I wanted too, I could go shoot something, create something, upload it and publish it. Perhaps to YouTube. You know, that really is a way that's completely different to the sort of business model of traditional media. So I'm assuming that in the report you still see that as continuing to grow and expand, and again, something else that poses a threat to that traditional model of the broadcaster.

NN: Yeah, I think so. I mean, just take Joe Rogan, who is obviously in the news right now. Controversial figure. Essentially using these new distribution channels, originally YouTube and now bought by Spotify, and I think that's interesting a number of different ways.

A., again, it shows the power of original content that engages to create, you know, huge amounts of engagement in digital platforms, but it also illustrates how even Joe Rogan, you know, needs that relationship with a platform such as Spotify to be able to commercialize that really effectively, and to really build that audience overtime.

So I think this is kind of a… it's a complicated one, because on the one hand, we're now seeing the possibility for anybody to create businesses, but most of those people, whether they’re podcasters, email newsletter providers, or video providers, don't make much money. It's just a few people at the top. And most of the attention goes to those people, and to mainstream media organizations who are also using the same channels.

So in many ways it's not a democratization, it's, you know, you still have this sort of huge gap between the top and the bottom, but I think the difference really is in the niche. I think that's where you know it is possible now to build businesses and to make connections in an unshowy way and make money. You know, if you get away from the mass audience thing. And I think that's a really interesting change.

CW: There's also information in the report about local organizations who are coming in with a very low cost model, but they're able to build an audience. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that.

NN: Yeah, I mean, it's one of the most interesting things, I think, right now. You know, take newsletters. Really old technology, which has sort of had a complete rebirth because there's a business model behind it now because of platforms like Substack, make it really easy to subscribe, relatively low cost, and for anyone to create this really powerful sort of package of news that is curated and it goes into peoples’ email boxes.

So there's this company in the north of England who set up three small slow news journalism Substack newsletters, effectively. There is a website behind them, and they're charging a very small fee for them, and they're really, you know, starting to see a different kind of model where you can build connections, and, you know, good quality journalism with a very low cost model based on subscription and events and some other things that get the kind of thinking about. And in in the US, AXIOS is going is taking its smart brevity newsletter lab model and trying to get into every community in America. So it's starting, I think, with 100 this year, but its ambition is much bigger, so it thinks it can scale that and fill that democratic deficit by essentially low cost newsletter models. And I think it's a really interesting experiment.

CW: Yeah I saw someone say that the greatest comeback in the last couple of years was the QR code, which is a technology which I think some felt perhaps had their time.

NN: Yeah, well, newsletters, QR codes, and podcasts, of course, which is you know, like goes back to whenever it does… 2004 or something, yeah?

CW: And here we are in a podcast!

NN: Here we are in a podcast.

CW: Nic, it's been really interesting to talk to you. Now, there is one question I ask everyone in the podcast, so I will ask it to you: What is it, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?

NN: Keeps me awake? I think right now it has to be the state of democracy and what media is doing to democracy and what information is doing to democracy. And, you know, obviously the rise of, not just straight misinformation, but actually the sort of alienation and distrust of traditional media. The way people sort of take sides on one side of a story or the other side of a story. And that makes it really hard, I think, for media to operate and talk about things without being seen as, you know, part of the problem. And I think that that's the thing that worries me, is you know, how does journalism really stand out from the mass of information on the internet? How does it show that it has values and value to audiences? And I think that's got really muddled in the last ten years or so, and I think we need to find some way to reset that effectively in combination with platforms, in combination with governments, etc.

CW: Really interesting thoughts there from Nic, not just on the technology and trends, but also on the wider aspect of trust in journalism. Lots and lots to mull over.

Let me know what you think. As always I am on Twitter and Instagram – my username is @CraigAW1969, or email us, we are [email protected].

If you want to find out more about some of what we discussed, why not check out the show notes? There you can find links to another podcast where we discuss innovation in story telling on social platforms, and you can also discover a webinar series on how Avid is enabling workflows in the cloud.

Now, if you liked what you heard today, why not spread the word about the Making the Media podcast? Like, leave a review, and subscribe to get notified when the next episode is released, and please share with your friends and colleagues. Let’s keep building the Making the Media community.

That’s all for now. Thanks to our producer Matt Diggs, but most of all thanks to you for listening. Join me, Craig Wilson, next time for more on the people Making the Media.

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