The news now will have to find the reader
Sep 17, 2014
The news adapts to readers in a world of information overload, finite time, and complex consumption, requiring understanding of audience needs and leveraging technology for personalized content delivery.
There was a time, not so long ago, when content modeling for a publication was simpler: matters were created according to the convictions of the newsrooms and events of the niches addressed. The audiences sought what they wanted to read. But that's over. Information no longer follows the same sense nor obeys pre-established formats. Content production can still follow standards and quality criteria, but the most important thing is that it can find its reader and not the other way around, which was the previous path. Dealing with the new environment is a challenge that still raises more questions than answers.
The dean of the Medill School of Media, at Northwestern University, often talks about three "truths" related to content in the digital world. "The three John’s truths" do not reinvent the wheel, but aligned, they are useful to outline what the stumbling blocks are on the way. Many of the companies and professionals are not wrong in responding to the problem, but in asking the right questions.
A tsunami of information: we are under an amount of content being produced without any precedent in history and the pace is only going to accelerate. Never has the individual been so subjected to flows of information so intense, varied, omnipresent and consecutive. In a book published in 1989, thinker Richard Wurman states that in the Middle Ages, the common man throughout life, received the same amount of information that today is published in the Sunday edition of a newspaper like the NYT. Between 1989 and today, this informational amount has grown exponentially - and the proportion will only increase. Many of the diseases of the post-moderns are linked to this informational abuse. The problem is unavoidable, but also offers gigantic possibilities. Efficient information curators have an exceptional product to offer to exhausted and directionless audiences.
Finite and immutable time for consumption: no matter how much audiences connect, update themselves and make themselves available to receive more information, there is a physical limit that cannot be crossed: the time available to the individual is finite and immutable. There will never be a moment when the consumer has more time to dedicate to more content. Content consumption schedules are fixed and will remain fixed, at least until Einsteinian physics is not subverted.
Increasing complexity of the content consumption equation: If one day, newspapers competed with each other to see who offered the "best" content (in quotes because the evaluation is always relative), today the fight is insanely more heated. They did not stop competing for the offer of the "best" information, but also for its format, execution, platform, type, timing, price, packaging, geolocation, etc. Establishing what will be offered or not has so many variables in play that, most of the time, the outcome of the competition is random, with one of the competitors winning the round by having an advantage in one of the choices. Practically no player of content production is already with all instances optimized. This means that there is still a "no man's land" waiting to be taken.
There is no need to put yourself in the reader/user's place: we are all users most of the time. Moments that were once idle, today are occupied with the ubiquity of Facebook, the relentlessness of Google's ads, the various systems of direct communication (MSN, Google Talk, iChat) or indirect (Tinder, Foursquare, Yelp). As Julian Assange says in the book Cypherpunks, "cell phones are tracking devices that allow the owner to make phone calls". Unless you want and make efforts for it, there is no more non-communication or 'unknown whereabouts'. Privacy issues aside, this knowledge of customer behavior is the key to making the news find the reader and not the other way around.
In this scenario, the news can no longer wait for the reader. Today, it is decisive that the target audience is known, try to assess what their needs are and polish the talent to offer the necessary, at the right time, on the right channel, in the right format and without being invasive. The privacy dilemmas we are experiencing today are just the tip of the iceberg. In the future, providers who know how to recognize the limits desired by the customer will solidify relationships with him. Technology companies act aggressively to "own" their customers because we are on the threshold of the emergence of a new legal system with margins that are still undefined. The current chaos is temporary, but this transience can last for a long period or even become the default mode, because technological evolution is making increasingly violent and more frequent leaps. The logic applies to all content, but the immediacy of hard news puts the news at the forefront of combat.
This seemingly infinite tangle of filters and possibilities brings unprecedented alternatives. The possibility of communicating with increasingly detailed receiver groups allows the refinement of the information sent to have a scary precision ("scary" is the exact word). Large newsrooms will no longer be those with a large quantity of professionals but those able to process, with efficiency, the largest amount of data, with more accuracy, for the correct audiences. The "journalistic making" (to use a term adored by academics absorbed in themselves) has always been a team game where individuals shone. Now the team has grown - designers, engineers, data scientists, social media managers - and the work is even more collective. If the cult of personality still exists, it is an inheritance from the pre-digital phase. The stars will increasingly need support, even if those who provide this support remain anonymous.
Will "quality journalism" die? The question always circulates in the discussion forums among journalists, but it is a rhetorical trap. There was never such journalism and it will never cease to exist. The model used in the 50s with newsrooms full of stars like Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote hardly survives the radical transformation that is taking place, but on the other hand, fabulous forms of telling stories, making denunciations and evaluating situations are emerging and these new narratives will find their paths. What is uncertain is to define what will be the price of this.