Legacy media needs to develop new DNA to absorb new streams of information
Aug 8, 2013
Legacy media must embrace new digital strategies to adapt to the changing information landscape and engage with audiences effectively.
At the beginning of the last decade, the Scott Trust, the foundation that owns the British daily The Guardian and some other properties, initiated a debate that, at the time, seemed out of place: how would the group's media companies position themselves in the face of the Internet? The discussion seemed untimely because the first Internet bubble had just burst and all major investors in the field had lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Even so, the Guardian persisted and today reaps the rewards of the decision.
At the time, traditional media thought it had proven that it would not be a passing wave that would shake century-old titles like the Washington Post, The Times or Le Figaro. Just over a decade since the beginning of the discussion, The Guardian is the only media group in the world that thinks about its operation prioritizing digital and can do so because it reversed the logic that permeates almost all other operations - the one of prioritizing the original operation where most of the revenue comes from. The bet not only put the Guardian at the forefront of the digital reconstruction of lost print revenue. Today, the newspaper founded in Manchester is the only one in the world that has social media at the heart of its operation planning. In the medium and long term, only the mutation to this digital DNA can save information companies and, alarmingly, almost no one takes this seriously enough.
The adjective "alarming" may sound exaggerated because today, not even in less mature media markets like Brazil, are there many (if any) means that have not brought digital and social media to the center of the board. However, all the range of digital resources that most of the digital operations of large companies present is founded on top of applications and plug-ins that do a beautiful social and digital makeup on their content, but nobody seems to realize that the hole is deeper. The insertion of shortcuts to some social networks and spaces for comments on the articles dress up content that follows the same workflow that arose when Gutenberg turned his movable type press for the first time in the 15th century. All digital media operations created from 'legacy media' (a term still without adequate translation in Portuguese used to indicate companies originating from traditional media) are still children of a process based on the daily news cycle and where the roles of sender and receiver are still quite separated, despite the cosmetics used to blur this division.
The Guardian only officially adopted the policy of prioritizing the digital medium in 2011, but throughout the first ten years of this millennium the decision became more and more clear, not only by the visible efforts of the newspaper to increase its own site but also by the investment in the operation of new media that ranged from the development of applications to the creation of the concept of 'open journalism', which requests the participation of the reader directly in the investigation of information and checking of documents. While most newspapers in the world used the euphemism "integrated newsroom" to simply make layoffs under the poetic license of digitalization, the Guardian and a few competitors like the Financial Times invested heavily to alter the concept and processes inherited from the Gutenberg era, turning editors into information managers armed with large torrents of 'big data', in collaboration with designers and journalists who began to make spectacular extractions of conclusions from flows of data not previously interpreted in their DataStore, whose motto is the suggestive "Facts are sacred", derived from a statement by C. P. Scott, famous editor of the newspaper between 1872 and 1929: "Facts are sacred, but comment is free".
The creation of this digital genetic mark in the Guardian carries with it a role for social media that does not give the public the role of the journalist. This function still belongs to the professionals, in charge of curating and investigating the information to be delivered to the reader. But, increasingly, the audience should have space in the content produced by the company (increasingly less a newspaper and increasingly more an information provider), respecting the limits of each one and with clear and objective assignments. This 'fingerprint' created by this new Guardian is the threshold of a new era for journalism and for the provision of information that must completely separate itself from the 'infotainment' that today contaminates journalism like a disease, disguising public relations and press advisory with a burlesque fantasy that some media giants have adopted in a desperate attempt to replace the lost revenues in the transition from traditional media to their new formats.
So, are you saying that, except for a few companies, the media is not using social media well? No - it means that companies are not using social media at all. Repackaging content produced in legacy media in beautiful digital formats is not enough to make a social media policy. In general, traditional media has bought a fantasy, but has not embodied the character. Content created for one format is not transposed with the same essence; similarly, a certain production flow designed for one medium needs to be rethought if it includes different parameters from the original ones.
Today, in most cases, social media are traffic generators for content produced in traditional media and little beyond that. The adaptation may even serve commercial purposes, in championships of tweets, likes and comments, but the audience does not become part of the process of choosing subjects or points of view. The inclusion of society in the debate, something that governments, parties and media often defend, always stumbles when it comes to passing the microphone and putting oneself on an equal footing with the other parties involved. Media organizations will only be able to claim that they have truly incorporated a social media policy when the discourse of all participants has equivalent weights in the debate. Creating a "premium spectator" position is not enough.
The definition of the concept of incorporating social media into the essence of the content of information providers will be reproduced in a tiny fraction of companies because the corporate cultural heritage is too strong to be changed from within and, if it occurred in the British daily, it was by exception. Like the division of power within a clan, power is rarely - if ever - entrusted to the most suitable part, usually going to the strongest faction, regardless of its ability or merit. Digitally born divisions corrode large sums of money in a kind of fratricidal struggle and generate unsatisfactory results. The same rule applies to the adoption of policies for the use of social media that bring the audience into the discourse instead of offering this place of premium spectator. There is no possibility of redesigning the workflow, the cyclical period, the business model, the role of the audience and the tools given to journalists one at a time. Either they are rethought as a whole or they will inherit vices in the service of the mother media. That's why independent operations tend to have a better chance of success than digital 'extensions'.
It's worth remembering that both the digital medium and social media are still living their postpartum stages. Everything is very new and even though truths are consecrated with scientific tones, there is still very little study compared to other areas of communication. Nobody knows what the scenario will be in five or ten years, although there are some trends that seem safe, like mobile devices and video and social media. More effective ways of incorporating audience contributions should emerge with technological developments, but the great difficulty will not be software or design - it will be in the rebalancing of forces in the processes of establishing a beat, investigating and producing content.
As for social networks, the pace of changes will be more brutal than the first two because it is more volatile, newer and has a higher percentage of innovation than video and mobile devices. The social role that virtual IDs should have in the following moments of society will certainly increase and the media itself will feel the violence of these changes since it will be viscerally united to them, for better or for worse.
Among these changes, the migration of audiences between media will be one of the most visible and may, in the next ten years, redesign the horizon of the industry, making compulsory changes that are still optional today. Several, if not many, groups that today have great relevance can be swept off the map with increasing speed due to reading errors in defining the course of route. The digital revolution has an impact on the economy and society that has a similar - if not greater - dimension than the Industrial Revolution had in the 18th century. The media and information industry is probably the one that felt the biggest shock with this change of era. To think that it is possible to turn the page without rethinking the roles is an illusion - an illusion that tends to pass like a tsunami over those who pretend that nothing is happening.