News media in 2013 looks like 2009 all over again

By Paul Armstrong , written on January 4, 2013

From The News Desk

It was just over four years ago that, out of frustration, I mis-grammatically registered a -- then anonymous -- Twitter account called @themediaisdying. Today more than 25,000 followers and some pretty turbulent times have taught me a lot about how a broken industry judders on.

The feed itself is pretty simple. There is no agenda or raison d'être, although there is a slight “personality” of snarky frustration and utter disbelief at the media's reluctance to evolve. It has made scoops, posted rumours for verification, and curated interesting trends, most of which are sent by followers.

Thousands of Tweets later and recently garnering its second highest Retweeted Tweet (regarding the demise of The Daily) since it launched, @themediaisdying continues to grow with new editors, journalists, students, Publishers, pundits, and writers following every day. It is the speed of growth that is interesting, growing more rapidly than in previous years (per Peoplebrowsr). That is, except for 2009.

For anyone in the media world, 2009 was the year things drastically changed. Hundreds of titles (many huge names with even larger legacies) went out of business, and many more went online only. We’re starting to see that trend return as we move into 2013. Newsweek is going out of print (the feed’s most Retweeted Tweet to date); Martha's Whole Living and most recently NewsCorp’s much fan-fared, iPad-only The Daily shuttered.

Recently I was asked if it was 2009 all over again – it sure looks like it. Updates on @themedisiadying network are up, and circs are usually always down. Although overall, per MediaFinder, print magazine launches are up a whopping 14 more than last years’ 181. Quality and plans for longevity notwithstanding, the writing is on the wall for all these noobs, as more and more time shifts online, and subs and newsstand circs continue to dwindle. Year over year circulations in the UK (bar one newspaper, the i) were down – most in double digits.

I could wax lyrical about how the i has gotten it so right with its slim-form, mobile strategy, distribution deal with Starbucks, and people-focused writing, but that wouldn’t help answer why readers seem to be running away from print like they just discovered it has leprosy. As in all good tragedies, the answer is not one-dimensional -- it’s more complex than simple circulation declines, greater mobile usage, and a continually fracturing ecosystem. People are changing, but their needs are not. People still need news. They just need it to be more on their terms. So with this in mind, what does the next four years hold for media?

1) This will be the year of the aggregator. We remain simple creatures with finite attention and ability to remember things. News products still do extremely little to help us better either of these things. Qwiki is probably the most perfect product that just needs a bigger vision to really help it explode. It’s a great product (already integrated with Bing) – it takes a slew of information and creates a sci-fi-like video information burst on that subject.

This is one example of how people’s tastes in receiving news could quickly change. I believe 2013 will be the year algorithms and aggregators combine to form some impressive products – the mass newsblurt that is Flipboard (while gorgeous) is replaced with a more "burst right now, please" mentality with the likes of CircaSummlyKon*FabTapTu, and Undrip. It’s the mentality how you read on a Sunday vs. how you read the rest of the time.

2) We are about to enter a golden age of mass-market "actual attention" measurement. Advertisers (and media agencies), like people, want a simple life, they want to see what they are placing is being seen and affecting their bottom lines (for as little money as possible). The vast majority of this is increasingly becoming computerized, which is great. Adaptive planning is a big part of the future of how media is bought.

But here’s where the disconnect occurs. It’s currently difficult to get hard numbers that weren’t horribly multiplied somewhere along the line. Yet, exactly this will soon be standard as new waves of possibilities are quickly emerging. We are seeing great improvements (and acquisitions – Facebook recently bought Gazehawk) in webcam eye-tracking (imagine the focus on desktop shifting to your mobile devices), augmented reality (requiring active participation) and finally, Project Glass (only requiring passive participation).

Soon everything will, in some, way, shape, or form help refine Ashton’s Internet of Things even further. We’ll be able to see exactly who saw your advert, for how long and potentially track them all the way to purchase (not to mention retarget etc). Used in real-time, this could mean editorial is about to get a lot more relevant to the individual. Imagine the next time you open your phone, it displays a ‘’Would you like an update on X?” Wouldn’t that be ultimate value?

As usual, my advice to the media industry is to invest outside the newsroom beyond its haloed borders into the technology space. A focus on mobile will only get you so far, an obsession with being a loved utility will get you that much further. I still have yet to find a news application that offers me the perfect package of a weather report, alarm clock, and a news blast. But news outlets are still expecting people to care about them – even after years of evidence against this proposition.

Unless you’ve got millions to spend on strong brand campaigns, clinging to this ideal feels like the wrong move. Instead, a better fixation on emerging technologies, and the way people use them, will stand media in a better place than simply fighting for diminishing returns. Only then will the media stand a chance of making the masses come to them and stay. Because the product knows (and grows) with them, it’s impossible for them to leave it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Serve the reader, not the business model.

[Image courtesy Dentsu London]