Nic Newman’s 2018 survey of the future was almost reassuring. There’s plenty of disruption still to come and some alarming ideas doing the rounds. Switzerland is planning a referendum on scrapping its public service broadcaster’s licence fee.
But on the basic questions of what kind of content people want and how they’re prepared to pay for it, the wind seems to be blowing in the right direction for established broadcasters and news organisations.
Newman (above) has been looking into the future for the Reuters Institute since 2012. His annual findings usually provide a bracing reminder to big media that the ground is shifting beneath their feet.
This year, it felt as though it would be the newer players and the online platforms who’d be reading Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2018 with more trepidation. One distinguished colleague I spoke to after Newman’s talk to BBC staff in London agreed that it hadn’t been as “doom-laden” as usual.
In terms of business models, there’s a trend away from online advertising and towards charging for premium content. Newman predicts a move back to “quality content and quality experience”.
As if on cue, Facebook announced a new year shake up of the algorithms that power its Newsfeed. Founder Mark Zuckerberg says the effect will be to show us more “personal moments” – posts from friends and family – and reduce the amount of “public content”, including posts from media and brands.
Whilst the changes won’t directly affect advertising, they do represent a shift in Facebook’s thinking, away from exploiting every commercial opportunity to the full. Zuckerberg says the changes may reduce the amount of time people spend on Facebook but he hopes what time they do spend will be “more valuable”. Wall Street has rewarded Facebook with a fall in its share price.
The same kind of trend was highlighted by Newman when he talked about Google releasing a new version of its Chrome browser with a built-in ad blocker – because people are less tolerant of intrusive advertising when they click on a web page, a view that industry leaders reflect in the report’s survey:
With less emphasis on ads online, there’ll be more use of subscription models and membership to give access to media content – although Newman’s report notes that the shift to subscription is “driven by a combination of desperation and hope”.
Alongside the trend towards registration and subscription – and made easier by it -, there’s the desire of media organisations to personalise content, taking advantage of what they know about their audience as individuals. So, for instance, the BBC’s database of 23 million signups for iPlayer can be used to personalise BBC news content and other offerings.
As Newman put it, media companies “need to move audiences from the ‘anonymous to the known’.”
That tailoring of content to individuals plays into a move back to media’s own platforms and away from the internet giants. There’s long been a tension between media brands giving their content to platforms like Facebook and YouTube – to ‘go where the audience is’ – and trying to use those platforms to draw the audience back to their own properties (websites, apps, iPlayer for the BBC).
This year “many publishers will be trying to break their dependence on platforms,” according to the report. Facebook’s latest move may help them to do that, even if in the short term, it means they lose out on exposure to Facebook’s massive audience. “It will continue to be a real balance,” Newman says. But the swing towards platforms may have gone too far: “I think the news industry needs to shift back a bit.”
Of course Newman’s report is not designed to either reassure or alarm media organisations and much of it is just interesting stuff which established media will have to figure out how to respond to. What, for instance, are the implications of the new Amazon Echo Show – a new version of the Echo digital assistant, but with a screen?
As Newman says, while voice may be a good way to pose a question rather than using a keyboard, a screen may be a better way of receiving the answer. So if you want to find out what’s on TV this evening, you probably don’t want the schedule read out if you could just glance at it on a screen.
Returning to the debate about public and private communications, it remains to be seen whether devices like the Echo Show will be more useful to check in with granny with a one-touch video call or as a way to access news or weather from the BBC.
Overall, for me, Newman’s report highlighted the shifting frontiers between private and public communications. Where once those two worlds lived pretty much in their own media (for instance, the telephone and the television set), today they jostle for space on the same devices and the same platforms.
Whether it’s up to individuals to set their own frontiers or whether Mark Zuckerberg should tilt the balance to give our personal lives a chance against big media and corporate interests, is a debate that’s likely to continue way beyond 2018.
The whole session can be watched by BBC staff on the BBC Academy website.
With thanks to Nic Newman for the use of his illustrations.