Newspapers in 2020

An essay by Jeff Jarvis written for the World Association of Newspapers:

By 2020, we had better hope that newspapers aren’t just papers anymore but are valued members of larger networks that enable their communities to gather, share, and make sense of the news they need.

So with all respect, I’d say the World Association of Newspapers is asking the wrong question here (and, by the way, may want to consider a new name): What will newspapers look like in 2020? Well, what’s a newspaper?

That’s what young people may well ask by then. Jeffrey Cole of the USC Annenberg School’s Center for the Digital Future concludes from his latest survey of internet use that people 12-to-25 years old today – who’ll be in the golden 25-to-38 demographic in 2020 – will “never read a newspaper.” Never is a strong word. Phil Meyer famously predicted in his book “The Vanishing Newspaper” that if current trend lines continue, the last American paper will be published in 2040. Let that word, too, sink in: Last.

So let’s get ahead of the curve for once. Let’s kill the newspaper ourselves. Pick a date in the less-distant-than-you-think future and unplug the press. And then ask: What’s a newspaper? What’s its real value? And how does that value live on and grow past paper?

Oh, printed products may well continue and in some countries still grow. But I wouldn’t mourn their death so long as we find ways for their journalism to live on and prosper. For a newspaper mustn’t define itself by its medium. It isn’t just paper. Its strength and value do not come from controlling content or distribution. And protecting those dwindling advantages is not a viable strategy for growth – or survival.

I’ll argue that a newspaper isn’t even a product. Journalism is a service, a process, an organizing principle. And thanks to the technology that some think is a threat to newspapers – namely, the internet – that service can now expand in so many ways, turning a newspaper into something new and something more – at a lower cost. So rather than asking what a newspaper will be, I think we should ask what a news organization’s relationship with its community can be.

Consider that we are being asked to predict the fate of newspapers 13 years from now. Yet it was exactly 13 years ago, on Oct. 13, 1994, that the commercial browser was released by Netscape. Think of all the change that has occurred since then and the accelerated pace of that change now. Think of the profoundly disruptive impact this has already had on many industries, especially ours – and that will only quicken. It is a fool’s mission to predict the shape of technology tomorrow. But it is not impossible to define and perhaps predict the scope, shape, and value of journalism in our communities, where I believe we will become organizers more than producers.

I am reminded of a moment at the 2007 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. In a session of the International Media Council, a leading newspaper publisher beseeched the young founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, for advice on how his newspaper could create a community, as Facebook had. The famously laconic Zuckerberg’s response: “You can’t.” Full stop. Later, Zuckerberg explained that communities already exist and are already doing what they want to do, so the question we should ask is how we can help them do that better. Zuckerberg’s prescription: Bring them “elegant organization.” That is what he did with Facebook and Harvard, then college communities, and next the world. And when you think about it, that is the essence of what journalism has tried to do since its birth: It helps organize a community’s knowledge so that a better-informed society can accomplish the goals it sets for itself. So how can we do that now with the new tools available to us?

Well, first, we have to assure that news organizations survive, and to do that we must exploit the new efficiencies made possible by the internet, by the new architecture of news in the era of the link. The link frees us from the need to waste our ever-dwindling resources on commodity information the community already knows. We no longer need to recreate the same news everyone else has. We can link to it. We no longer need to be all things to all people. We can link to niche coverage that is better than what we could have afforded to offer ourselves. We also no longer need to waste resources on ego, on all having our own television critics or golf columnists, on sending one-too-many reporters to the big story that is all over TV just so we can say we have our byline there.

We need to do what we do best and link to the rest. And what do we do best? Report, of course. If we create superb and unique journalism, the public will come to us when other news organizations, bloggers, search engines, and readers link to us. The link is the key to our survival and prosperity in the future. Thus, I believe, the newspapers of 2020 will need to both aggregate and be aggregated. They will point to what others do well and save the expense of doing it themselves. They will do what they so best so others will link to them.

We must find other efficiencies in the organization as well. Having pulled that hypothetical plug on our presses, we can now ask how much we would save in not only paper, ink, printing, and distribution but also in marketing of a paid product. The scale of our businesses changes. Practically every week, I hear news executives mournfully wonder how the revenue will come from online to support the organizations they now have. It won’t. They will be managing smaller – but more efficient and perhaps even more profitable – enterprises.

But how can we even survive online, you ask, with the lower value of internet advertising? The hard truth is that we are now operating in the post-scarcity media economy. Local newspapers are no longer monopolies and cannot count on charging the premium such controlled allowed. We also have left behind the age of mass media, and so large, national organizations – including and especially television – can no longer offer one-stop-shopping for marketers.

So how do we make sufficient revenue in the future? I argue that we need to operate advertising networks, finding and selling the best of what exists both within and without of our walls and sites. And if we do that quickly, we have a few timely advantages: First, we have the relationships with and the trust of advertisers; if we assemble the best networks, we are well-positioned to sell them. Second, advertisers have been even more timid about this new age than we have, and so we can be their guides. If we do not do this, be assured that Google will.

This is where Google is a threat to newspapers: in targeted and local advertising. Google is not – repeat, not – a threat as an aggregator. Indeed, aggregating and linking to our content is the greatest gift Google can give us; without its contribution as the new newsstand, newspapers online will surely die. If we can’t be searched and linked, we won’t be found. Newspapers that are fighting Google on aggregation are dangerous, suicidal fools. Aggregation isn’t the issue, advertising is. Google is making its fortune beating us to giving better service to the advertisers that should be ours. We should be following their example, asking, ‘What would Google do?’ WWGD? Well, Google has created a larger, distributed ad network over content it need not own. We must do the same.

So by 2020, I predict, the surviving news organizations will be built on large and efficient advertising networks. They will place advertising not only on the content they create but, in far greater volume, on the content others create. This means they need to encourage others to create more quality content. That, I argue, is the key strategic challenge for newspapers: how to gather more and produce less, how to enable others to produce more content so we can build a larger network around them. This reduces our cost while increasing content for our communities. It also reduces our cost while increasing our potential for revenue.

So we become networks of content and content creators. By 2020, most news coverage will not be created by people employed by our organizations. Much of it will still be created by professionals, by people making a living off journalism. But many of those will be independent. All over the world, I see journalists laid off from their jobs who start their own independent news ventures, and many are starting to make an economic go of it. I also see newcomers creating their own enterprises.

In our very first week at the year-old City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, I scared my students, perhaps too much, as I outlined all the challenges facing the business of journalism. One student held her head in her hands and lamented, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” But the following week, I pulled her off the cliff as we outlined all the opportunities we have to gather and share news in new ways. The students began to embrace the idea that many of them would likely be working independently – and not just as freelance contributors but as proprietors of their own minimedia. This fall, I am teaching a course in entrepreneurial journalism with the students creating plans for new, sustainable journalistic products and businesses.

So some journalists will be employees and some will be independent agents. And, yes, some gatherers of news will be amateurs: bloggers, vloggers, and whatever comes next. The more of this we can encourage – and the better we help make it – the better off we will be. So why not hand out recorders to enable citizens to broadcast (rather, podcast) their local government meetings? Let’s organize our communities to collect information no staff could gather on its own (see Jay Rosen’s experiment in such crowdsourced reporting). We already see this working with Bild’s thousands of citizen reporters, each armed with camera-phones.

There are other layers of information that come without classical reporting: data bases of crime or school test scores; communities of critics helping each other find the movies they want to watch; parents sharing scores and photos and videos from community sports; local businesses creating rich directories; citizens pinpointing spots on maps where streets have flooded, and so on.

So by 2020, I imagine that a wide network of people will report and the value we add is to organize and enable them: We promote their content and sell ads on it. We educate them (and they us). We moderate discussion. We find the best and most trustworthy new practitioners. And of course, we add journalism, engaging in the reporting, investigation, and editing that will always be needed. The more we increase the value of the network, the more each member’s value grows.

So we gather news in new ways and share it in new ways. We are becoming omnimedia, finally able to choose the best media to tell and deliver stories. But there is a more fundamental and disruptive change underway: Media are becoming atomized, hyperdistributed, turned into feeds, widgets, data bases, APIs, and links.

Again, ask WWGD? Google does not depend on us all coming to Google comes to us. The Google ad on my blog page makes me part of the Google network, and I spread Google every time I post a YouTube video or Google map. The very notions of the page and the site are beginning to collapse. This is why Nielsen in the U.S. just stopped counting pageviews, because a page can be infinitely deep with refreshed content. Any content can be turned into widgets that can be displayed anywhere. This is the future of distribution.

A few weeks ago, I sat at lunch with a newspaper executive and had my 15-year-old son, webmaster, and Facebook app programmer along. The executive was dismissing the value of Digg, the collaborative editing service. But at that moment, my bored son happened to be on his iPhone (bought with the fruits of his Facebook programming) using Digg. He explained to the executive that he never goes to sites directly to read them – not major news brands, not blogs (not even his father’s). He gets to all the news he reads – and here’s the good news: he reads a lot of it -through the links of his peers. So we in media have to be where he is. We must become hyperdistributed.

Thus the very architecture of news and media continue to shift in ways that are too complex and mind-boggling to predict today.

Who is best to get us there? No rule says that it will be the incumbents: today’s newspapers. If these products, brands, and companies are to survive and prosper in 13 years, they must aggressively innovate today, leading – not following – their readers and advertisers into the new universe, reimagining and revinventing their service – and journalism itself – to exploit this new architecture of media and news. Their advantage born of their control over content and distribution will become increasingly meaningless. Their businesses are losing value as circulation and advertising decline. Their brands are losing equity as trust declines (a recent Pew survey said 53 percent of Americans think news stories are often inaccurate). New competitors have the advantage of operating more nimbly, without the burden of infrastructure and with a keener understanding of – and no fear of – the new opportunities technology affords.

Sadly, I do not see enough innovation occurring inside the established companies; I still hear defensiveness and protection as strategies against – rather than for – change. But that need not be the case. The students I am teaching are thinking independently and inventively. That is what gives me hope. They must reimagine their roles in a networked architecture of news, not just reporting – which they still must do – but also enabling the public to gather and share news together. They need to add roles as community organizers, moderators, educators.

By 2020, I am firmly optimistic that we can have more journalism – more information and openness, more interest in news, more efficiency in the industry, more sustainable journalistic ventures – but not if we stick with the idea that any organization can or should own the news and not if we define ourselves by a single medium. Newspapers will survive and prosper only if they join in the larger, open network of news.