Nic Newman: "Journalists need to reconnect with their readers"


Newman is a journalist, digital strategist and author of 'Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2018'.

Nic Newman is a journalist and digital strategist who played a key role in shaping the BBC‘s internet services over more than a decade. He was a founding member of the BBC News Website, leading international coverage as World Editor (1997-2001). As Head of Product Development for BBC News he helped introduce innovations such as blogs, podcasting and on-demand video. Most recently he led digital teams, developing websites, mobile and interactive TV applications for News, Sport, Weather and Local. He has played an important part in the development of social media strategies and guidelines for the wider BBC. Nic is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and a consultant on digital media. He is married with three children and lives in London.

How was the creating process of a document as Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2018?

I have been doing this for more than a decade. There is so much change, so many new developments that I find it really helpful to take stock once a year. It helps me understand the underlying trends and separate these from the shiny things that may be here today and gone tomorrow. Part of the process is also crowdsourcing great ideas from people smarter than me in technology and in media. Some of these people have been generously contributing suggestions and predictions for years.

Which has been the most difficult element to analyze?

It is normally easy to predict the immediate future if you are well informed and talk to media companies. These initiatives are already underway and we also do a survey where the top editors, strategists and CEOs tell us what they are planning anyway – that helps. But the medium and long-term future is much more difficult because there are so many moving parts, so many variables. I try to avoid too many specific predictions here. Instead I try to focus on the long-term trends (technology or social) and then work backwards from there.

Are Verticalisation, Segmentation and Audiovisualisation the three main trend areas that you present in the Reuters Institute’s report?

There are trends around storytelling and trends about the business of journalism. In terms of storytelling, vertical and visual journalism is an important trend which media companies are still trying to understand. The shape of the mobile device (vertical) and the size of the screen (small) makes it ill-suited to many of the old print formats such as the ‘news article’. Vertical, visual ‘story’ formats that have been pioneered by Snapchat, Instagram and now Google AMP I think will become mainstream over the next year for publishers and journalists will need to learn new visual skills. The industry needs to get better at creating compressed content, glancebale content as well as doing in depth stories.

In terms of storytelling, vertical and visual journalism is an important trend which media companies are still trying to understand

On the business side, the key trend is around how we use data better to create more meaningful relationships and greater loyalty between news brands and their audiences.  The internet had created a fragmented, pick and mix media environment which has undermined business models and trust in any particular brand. Now media is trying to re-engage audiences with more personalized and relevant content by using data to really understand core needs. Then through through segmentation and intelligent recommendation they are trying to recreate loyalty and depth of experience. This will ultimately enable more publishers to charge for online news content.

On the business side, the key trend is around how we use data better to create more meaningful relationships and greater loyalty between news brands and their audiences

We are living a moment of uncertainty about the distribution channels such as Facebook and other social networks, how do you think this situation is going to evolve in the next few months?

Many people now discover content through third party networks like Facebook and Google. Usage for news in these networks has doubled in the last five years and in a country like Spain over 50% say they use Facebook for news each week. This is undermining the direct relationship between news brands and audiences but also undermining the business model for publishing. Facebook’s superior data targeting means it is taking a large share of online display advertising that once went to publishers. These networks have also become rife with misinformation and disinformation undermining trust. Not surprising then that in our survey of online publishers, 44% said they were more worried about the power and size of platforms than this time last year and that Facebook is particularly unpopular.

Publisher worries about platforms, Google Viewed more positively than Facebook

Publisher worries about platforms, Google Viewed more positively than Facebook

In terms of response, Facebook are working incredibly hard to try to fix these issues. But it may be too late to persuade politicians, the press and audiences that they are serious.

Algorithm changes will try to hide unreliable news content. They are also likely to boost content that their community deems trustworthy (more traditional brands) especially around politics or elections. There’ll be more focus on how to support and scale fact-checking services that are struggling to get traction for their debunking activities – given the amount of misinformation out there.

But at the same time, those wishing to spread information will have new tools. Machine learning is creating models where videos of politicians can be now be manipulated and seeded in social networks with potentially disastrous consequences.

Overall, I think the tech companies will significantly reduce the amount of misinformation that consumers see this year by increasing the authority of traditional sources and downplaying sources they are less sure about. In turn that will create other problems as new, diverse sources of news and information get crowded out.

The tech companies will significantly reduce the amount of misinformation that consumers see this year by increasing the authority of traditional sources and downplaying sources they are less sure about

Ultimately there is no easy solution to the problem of fake news. We all need to remain vigilant and take more responsibility for working out what is true ourselves. That means more teaching of news literacy in schools and through public outreach programmes.

The messaging apps could be a real alternative to the traditional social networks?

Messaging apps are growing fast. WhatsApp in particular has grown in importance and allows people to have more control. We see more discussion moving to closed networks and groups where there is less abuse and people can express themselves more honestly with real friends. I don’t think they’ll replace social networks though – they play a different role. Facebook and Instagram will remain important for online identity and wider public expression. WhatsApp, Messenger , Snapchat and Telegram are for more private and intimate conversation. Having said that,  the line between a messaging application and a social network will blur. Social networks will also add new business lines as they mature. For example we’re seeing Facebook moving into TV with Facebook Watch competing more directly with YouTube, Amazon and Netflix.

Trump, Brexit, Catalonia’s Independence process… what should media learn from these geopolitical processes?

Opinion has become deeply polarised on the  big issues you mention. This raises huge challenges for journalists, who have biases and opinions of their own which often emerged in the coverage. For example after Trump and Brexit many journalists were shocked and surprised at the results because they were in a liberal and metropolitan bubble. Journalists need to reconnect with their readers, return to basic reporting, and recover their sense of objectivity. Too often journalists are seen as part of the ruling elite unable or unwilling to report fearlessly on the rich and powerful.

Another symptom of these changes has been the growth of new partisan journalism in Spain, the US and the UK distributed largely through social media. Much of this is a response to the perceived failings of the mainstream media but a more partial media is leading to a profound disrespect for the facts. Our research shows that news consumers are struggling to know what to believe as facts are routinely spun to support a specific agenda. This is undermining both trust and understanding.

Despite of the bad times for the truth, the report shows plenty of opportunities for the communication in general…

Absolutely – overall I am still an optimist. The internet gives ordinary people the opportunity to access more information than ever before  anytime, anywhere. Businesses have more opportunities to reach consumers with relevant and targeted messages. The next few years will be about maximising those opportunities as we move into the era of big data and personalisation, while mitigating the risks around misinformation and trust.

Can Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality or Voice Assistants be new ways to monetize contents?

These new technologies are just emerging and will not be successful overnight. Voice assistants will probably hit mainstream attention first as Amazon and Google expand their offerings to more countries around the world. In our recent survey 58% of publishers were planning to invest in new content for these devices as audio becomes a new focus (see chart below).

Audio Video Initiatives in 2018

Audio Video Initiatives in 2018

For the next few years the main focus will be experimenting with content and use cases. The monetisation discussion will follow once value has been proved but will likely be based on advertising, subscription or a mix of the two. Either way content will be critical.

We should pay attention to what’s happening in India or China. How can Asia contribute on the communication trends’ debate for this year?

There is so much dynamism and innovation in these two markets. Chinese tech companies in particular are now world leaders in Artificial Intelligence and are moving at huge speed with personalisation and frictionless digital payment. As a result we are seeing new models emerging for micropayment and instant donations through platforms like WePay, which is now embedded within the chat app WeChat. The combination of the investment in technology and the size of these two markets mean we should be looking much more to the East for new ideas in the future.




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