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The Future of News

For a glimpse of the future of news, we must look about 500 years back to the past. Prior to the invention of the printing press, news was spread by word-of-mouth. Each of us was a news participant – a receiver and transmitter of news. With the arrival of newspapers, we became news observers — no longer sharing a responsibility to generate or distribute news. But, ever since the Industrial Revolution, our role has become even more limited. While inventions like the steam engine, telegraph, and broadcasting all increased public access to news, their economic requirements and governments’ response forced news through fewer and fewer outlets. This yielded an increasingly unified set of news stories and angles, with a decreasing resemblance to Jefferson’s vision — a multitude of voices engaged in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas.

Today’s news outlets refer to themselves as the “news media,” a phrase that is as accurate as it is prophetic. The term “media” is derived from Latin and means “something in the middle.” Clearly, the news media have certainly been one of those “somethings,” standing between news events and the public who wants to know about them. So, let’s translate this word back to English. When we do this, a truth is revealed — today’s news outlets are simply “news middlemen.”

In the emerging Internet news environment, the pressure to “eliminate the middleman” is now palpable. Middlemen have their place in our economy, but only if they can deliver value that justifies their existence. Today’s news outlets have traditionally done so largely through their proprietary possession of the infrastructure needed to gather and spread news – e.g. printing presses, transmission towers, distribution systems, wire service relationships, recording equipment. These have little value in an Internet environment where news events, newsmakers, and witnesses on one hand, can communicate more or less directly with the public who wants to know about them on the other.

The inescapable conclusion is that news roles are about to be shaken-up, arguably more profoundly than they have been since the printing press was invented more than 500 years ago. Each of us was will once again be a news participant, although unlike the past, we will be technologically-empowered to receive and transmit news anywhere on Earth. Traditional news middlemen roles that are no longer valuable will be eliminated, and new middlemen roles will emerge. And, Jefferson’s vision for news as a multitude of voices engaged in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas may finally come to fruition.

Below, I will lay out a vision for the future structure of news, with a few caveats: 1) This vision should be viewed as a plausible scenario and not a firm prediction. There are too many variables for any human being to understand, and too many unknowns about technology and how consumers, competitors, entrepreneurs, investors, and the government will react to opportunities and threats; 2) For simplicity, this vision is presented in its purest form. It is likely that organizations will emerge that combine more than one of the 4 delineated roles; 3) This vision assumes that all news media will ultimately converge to the Internet, with web pages, widgets, or other portals serving as entry points; 4) As mentioned elsewhere, my hope is that contributions from you and others will help me evolve this vision over time as ideas emerge and events unfold.

In this vision, there will be four roles in the future of news media: News Leders, News Associators, News Frameworkers, and News Consolidators, as described below.

1. News Leders
Those who are today’s news “sources” will be tomorrow’s “News Leders.” They will no longer require “reporters” as middlemen to create news stories, nor news outlets to produce them in multimedia formats. They may be compensated by those who have a story they want told (e.g. newsmakers, corporations, PR firms, litigants, think tanks), or receive no compensation at all (e.g. as witnesses, enthusiasts, concerned citizens). The term “Leders” is borrowed from the traditional journalism term “lede,” meaning the essential point of a news article. News Leders will create and develop ledes.

News Leders will seek to create material that is valued by the audiences they would like to reach, and will not be bound by the principles and practices of modern journalism. For example, their stories might contain both facts and opinion, be about matters that are serious or frivolous, be designed to inform or entertain, be straightforward or sensational, be tasteful or tasteless, be objective or biased, or deal with issues ranging from the very local to global.

2. News Associators
These will be the new, primary middlemen of news. In a role that vaguely resembles that of today’s “editors,” they will develop audiences based on their ability to select, and perhaps comment upon, stories created by News Leders. Audiences may also be drawn by the News Associators’ attraction of a like-minded community with whom they can identify and interact. If these audiences are sufficiently large, or represent particularly good sales prospects, they may be subsidized by advertising. The term “Associators” is borrowed from 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who marveled at how American newspapers brought and kept together like-minded citizens.

The emergence of this role will effectively reverse the roughly 200 year movement of American news away from Jefferson’s vision of a multitude of voices engaged in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. Each News Associator will represent one audience’s voice, and would be expected to select news stories and angles from News Leders that fit their audience (but, note that individuals may be members of several News Associator audiences). By contrast, the series of news stories and angles created by newspapers in the Associated Press (AP) network tends to consolidate news into a single voice. The new AP — the network of “Associated People” – will erode the power of the old AP.

The news content that will be covered by News Associators remains the big unknown, and one of the most critical factors which will determine whether Jefferson’s visions will come to fruition. Based on a review of history and of human nature, I predict there will be at least 3 directions in which news content will move.

First, there will be more localized content, at levels as low as neighborhoods, school districts, and municipalities (vs. larger metro areas). It is the human condition to be most interested in news that affects one personally, and the current domination of news by metro and national issues is likely more a reflection of technology and business limits than of consumer demand. The emergence of Social Computing (e.g. MySpace), which essentially covers personal news, illustrates this latent consumer demand.

Second, we are likely to return to a historical pattern in which upscale and downscale audiences create a bipolar market for news products. The upscale have historically preferred news of government and business, and the downscale news that is more local, more sensational, and more of human interest.

Third, and most critically for Jefferson’s vision, we ought to see more voices across the ideological spectrum, ranging from the far left to the far right, with audience sizes shifting regularly based on public opinion.

3. News Frameworkers
This category will include organizations who provide the hardware, software, and services that allow News Leders, News Associators, and news audiences to communicate. News Frameworkers will be indifferent to the news content itself. Current day examples of this emerging role include Social Computing providers MySpace and YouTube, blogging service WordPress, search engine Google News, and Digg, a user-powered news service. Much of their compensation is likely to come from advertising embedded in the material, or through the sale of user information they acquire as part of their business processes.

4. News Consolidators
This category will represent the Internet equivalent of newspaper chains. News Consolidators will acquire and create News Associators as a strategy to maximize profits. These consolidations will provide opportunities to reduce risks, gain economies of scale, and maximize economies of learning.

As this blog chronicles emerging developments in the news media, this vision will be refined and updated. The thoughts of readers will always be welcome.


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