By Ken Doctor, Nieman Journalism Lab
Our 2014 stage is set, and oh what a marvelous assortment of characters will be walking across it. Many of these characters — the Bezoses, Henrys, Kushners, Omidyars, and Buffetts — are new non-newsies thrusting themselves into the news world, unexpectedly and in short order. The competition they face is unprecedented, as many media — news and entertainment — converge on the same models of digital advertising and revenue from readers, viewers, and listeners. There’s only so much money to go around, and the losers here are likely to outnumber the winners.
Sometimes, a few words can sum up the futility of a competition. As Ukraine sadly fell back into the arms of the Russian bear this week, one commentator correctly noted that the “European Union had brought a baguette to a knife fight.” Now, as we celebrate 20 years since the first newspaper website, we see that the news industry early on armed itself in the digital wars with the First Amendment, the AP Stylebook, and a rate card — tools that have been little match for the power of databases, aggregation and digital scale.
2014 is Year One for some of the news novices — and Year 21 for those in the print/digital transition since the first news sites launched. Let’s take a look at the year ahead, looking at the big actors, major themes, and tests of the year ahead. Consider these nine big themes that will further separate the winners from the losers when we look back a year from now:
Braveheart meets newsies
The future is staring down the news industry, and the business doesn’t have an eternity of blinks left. Best practice strategies and their execution — the core of what I cover — are the only way forward, but this year has surfaced the intangible of what I’ve called “outrageous confidence.” Jeff Bezos’ buying of the Post (and the Grahams’ selling) startled people in the press worldwide and crystallized the sense that a new generation of owners may seem a real future in the news business. In 2013, all the new owners — Buffett and his growing BH Media, John Henry and his Globe, Bezos and his Post — have been consumed with getting-to-know-events and rearranging the furniture.
The test for 2014: Will these owners beat their chests, open their wallets, and most importantly fund and support new products, new kinds of customer engagement and new thinking not invented here in Newspaperland? Will they not settle for incremental small experiments but, while staying within journalistic values, make some big new bets?
The Last Man Standing theory of local media
Here’s our most Darwinian theme. The theory: As first newspaper print and then local broadcast advertising continue to winnow down, there just won’t be enough left to support the number of local media news outlets we have today. Digital advertising and even TV paywalls could help with funding. If you want to be running a local newsroom of significant size in 2020, be prepared to be one of only two or three that may then exist. It’s a only-the-paranoid way of looking at the Blade Runner news future, but it’s also, unfortunately, a logical extrapolation of the last half-decade.