When news trickled to Twitter about a possible deal between The New York Times and Facebook to host the paper’s news content directly on everyone’s favorite depository of pregnancy announcements and listicles, reaction wavered between hysterical and something akin to a 140-character eulogy. Media pundits and prognosticators have been predicting the death of the traditional journalism model for awhile. That’s nothing new. But the sheer surprise that media outfits would trade the only leverage many have left — eyeballs — seems perplexing until it doesn’t.
If you are truly worried about your job in the post-Facebook era, you are correct to be worried. Your job probably won’t exist and that’s okay, because neither will Felix Salmon’s. But there will be all new jobs and a lot of them.
Let me preface this piece by emphasizing that I do not believe the sky is falling. Long-form journalism will survive, but only the tippy-top writers will make enough to pay their bills. Nonprofits will keep alive certain elements of traditional journalism. Merit remains in investigative journalism. Just like people still buy vinyl records, some folks will still pay to read traditional journalism. They’ll just be a fraction of a minority.
Certain media companies and digital natives have been preparing for the day the Titanic hits the iceberg. None of this will surprise them. I know many smart people out there doing great work. Others are simply rearranging the deck chairs.
The rest of us need to swallow some hard truths and recognize reality. If we can acknowledge these truths, we will all be okay.
Publishers that don’t become brands will be extinct within a decade.
Several media companies have already begun to pivot and recognize brand growth is equally as important as content. It is a natural survival mechanism, especially as Facebook assumes the role of content publisher. And eventually, when Facebook tires of playing with its food, it will cut out the middleman and hire its own editorial team (probably from woebegone news publishers) to produce original content. Publishers not successfully transitioned during this period will be reduced to a Wikipedia entry for the history of journalism.
But brands have to be different to succeed; the market allows for few imitators and demands such imitators survive at some sort of cost value. Hundreds of similar entities churning out vanilla-style copy covering the same terrain provide little value to the consumer. The consumer is no longer confined to time zones or geographic location. The consumer does not care about tradition, nor adhering to old views about what kind of content people need. It just consumes and is overwhelmed by the redundancy of options.
This does not mean I believe all content will become global or national, but the repetitiveness of dailies will mark many for extinction. I am a fervent believer in a market for consumers who want to gain and act on information relevant to their behaviors, culture and geographic location.
No one publisher mastered branding in the 21st century better than BuzzFeed. It recognized early on the value of social media and altered its editorial direction accordingly — but at a cost. Once an audience develops brand awareness and recognition, it is incredibly difficult to shake that initial perception. Jonah Peretti’s outfit is now struggling to shake its perception as a lightweight in media circles even while it invests heavily into the more serious-minded BuzzFeed News. In time, BuzzFeed will probably recognize its brand as an asset and not a stigma to be shed.
Brands need to consider not just how they present content, but what content to offer the consumer. But more importantly, the experience must be dramatically different. Editorial voice will become even more significant. Brands that satisfy the audience beyond what can be found in abundance will strike it rich. Many voices equate to noise. Elevated ones will seem like beacons in the night for ravenous content consumers.
Many news publishers will die because they have no voice, no distinct brand value and no identifiable experience that separates them from others. Once they are all funneling content directly on Facebook, it will become painfully apparent who will not survive. And that’s okay, because we need bloodletting to recognize how overvalued traditional journalism is by the establishment and how underrated the audience is.
The market value for traditional journalism is approaching zero.
It pains me to see proud journalism schools and other fine institutions sending its students off a cliff, hurtling toward the ground with style books in hand. Kids absorb thousands of dollars of debt to learn antiquated skills for employers who probably won’t be around in 10 years. And it’s not because of the decay of society or a lack of appreciation for quality journalism, but quite the contrary—there is an abundance of journalism!
We are up to our eyeballs in journalism, and a lot of it is free, so why should a consumer jump over the paywall? It’s the Netflix effect; once upon a time, media empires thought the substandard bitrate of streaming media would never replace the superiority and reliability of physical media. Netflix now accounts for 35 percent of web traffic. And why is that? Because the value of convenience made the deficiencies of Netflix ‘good enough’ for the average consumer. We have reached a point where blogs, Facebook and Meerkat are ‘good enough’ for many consumers. They will not pay for traditional journalism—it will find them, and often for free.
The industry failed to adjust to the fact that ordinary citizens engage in acts of traditional journalism for free and that publishers offered premium content at no cost for so long. Now we expect folks to pay for traditional news content when the tools to create free content have matured and been adopted to a point analogous to the traditional experience for many consumers.
Several companies that survive this transition period will be curators of this free content, filtering the spigot of social media for the best content. Andy Carvin and his team at reported.ly comes to mind. But the demand for such curators has a ceiling and journalists looking to become curators will find themselves fighting for few open jobs. The rest of us will have to find new work.
We all need to apply for new jobs anyway.
Traditional journalism is dead and it will take more than data visualization to save people’s jobs. It requires a complete retooling of what journalism is, because the old model has been absorbed into the populace and it is unrealistic to expect to get paid for what ordinary people are willing to produce for free.
In many ways, this is the same challenge faced by many of the legacy publishing houses in the book world. The barrier of entry for authors has been reduced to zero; I can publish an eBook and reach a wide audience without going to a major publishing house. The firms that survive will be brands that can promise consumers an unparalleled reading experience (and vastly different from current standards) that cannot be fulfilled by individual self-published authors at a lower cost.
Many soon-to-be-extinct news publishers believe they do just that—produce an unparalleled reading experience consumers cannot find elsewhere. They are overrating the value of their content. Most content is simply built on repackaging the article, one of the earliest art-forms mastered by the collective Internet. This article has a map. This article has an interactive timeline. But the Emperor is still without clothes, and gussying up an outdated form of journalism mastered by ordinary citizens will not save publishers or newsrooms.
Let me be clear before you send a nasty email: I have a great deal of respect for editors and writers who have mastered their craft and expect to be paid. Just as I admire people who have mastered calligraphy and basket-weaving. But I would never counsel anyone to pursue those art-forms as careers if they have bills to pay.
However, there is value in professional news judgment and analytic thinking, two things that will lend themselves to the new world. We need those people — storytellers capable of thinking outside-the-box—to help craft and execute the editorial products that simply do not exist. I am encouraging all of my peers to think about answering the problem often facing the audience of traditional journalism: how to create actionable content.
We must, and can, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted without the inverted pyramid.
Historians often claim that without the press, the Revolutionary War would have been a failure. During the battle for America’s independence, a single newspaper was said to be “in the present state of affairs … equal to at least two regiments.”
The press, relative to the time, produced actionable content. Up until the second-half of the 20th century, articles could mobilize an audience because actions were relatively straightforward and required no more than a few steps. The barriers between people in power and those who have none were considerably less imposing.
But as the world has evolved and the powerful have erected mountains to protect a fortress of influence, the article has been rendered impotent. There are so many actions required for a reader to take upon consuming an article to do anything of consequence, that the only likely outcome is passive enlightenment. Now we can share it, often to tell friends and family how terrible this person is or how awful this thing is, still with very little consequence.
On occasion, this sharing creates a maelstrom of discontent that spills over in real-life, but these occasions are fleeting and often act as an event for desperate publishers to exploit more nonpractical content for.
The journalism jobs of tomorrow will be about embedding and creating actionable editorial products that circumvent or overcome obstacles imposed by the powerful. The sooner we start to believe we can afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted without 800 words and a file photo, the sooner we can rebuild a stable profession for our peers.
This really requires a total reinvention of journalism, in addition to some deep reflection as an industry. We can’t be hung up on knowing better than the audience, nor condescending in our analysis. It means instead of engaging in self-pity and hand-wringing over “disruption,” we must focus said disruption on those who stymie and obstruct the audience. The true calling of any great journalist is to afford the reader the benefit of context and the ability to act upon that information. We have mastered the former, but are failing miserably at the latter.
There are people, start-ups and legacy outfits that are confronting this future. This is not news to any of them. Many of these future-journalists don’t look anything like the old ones. Some don’t even come from legacy newsrooms or overpriced journalism schools. But they are building the bedrock upon which your new profession will be constructed.
And the sooner Facebook razes the old model, the sooner you can get back to work.
Follow Will Federman on Twitter. You can also email him with an angry response, but he will only reply if the subject line is funny.