Part 2: The New Middle of the Newsroom
In Part 1 of this discussion, I talked about how the Associated Press’ decision to sell content to America Online, Yahoo! and Google – who then turned and gave away the content for free – gutted the three-legged revenue stool of traditional newspapers: newsstand sales, subscriptions, and advertising. Why would people pay for newsstand copies or subscribe when they could just read the stories online?
The disruption this caused to the traditional media, especially those news businesses that had a lot of debt on their books, was serious and pushed many iconic outlets like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune into bankruptcy. Unfortunately for the print news business, the sea change is still underway. Viewer/reader defection is in high gear. Over the past five years alone, newspaper readership has declined by 25 percent, while Internet viewership has increased by 105 percent.
If you’re really interested in how this affects the state of the media and want to get a glimpse of the pressure on the business, have a look at Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends presentation. She’s an analyst with Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers and does an incredible job showing us where things are headed: http://www.kpcb.com/internet-trends.
You don’t have to look through all 196 slides, although it’s not a bad use of time. Instead, hover on slide 16. Meeker’s chart shows the percentage of time that U.S. adults spend with media – print, radio, television, etc. – then compares that time with the amount of advertising spending for the medium. When it comes to print, the amount of attention it gets versus the amount of advertising money spent on it shows a gap of 14 percentage points.
That spend-to-attention gap upsets advertisers, and eventually, it’ll drive more of their dollars toward Internet-oriented eyeballs.
In Part 1 of my thinking on all of this, I argued that all of this has prompted news outlets to push their veteran reporters into “in-depth, investigative” roles. The consultants are telling news outlets that by raking the muck, they’ll retain the readership. But there’s another interesting dimension to what’s happening.
Realizing they can’t beat the Yahoo! and Google, newsrooms are joining them. Staffs are being converted from reporters into content creation groups and their role is to develop content that can be distributed across a few intra-news organizations. CNN, for example, has a news bureau called News Source. News Source develops content for more than 800 TV stations across the country. Not only does it feed a story that recipient stations pay for, but the bureau’s writers also develop the intro copy for news anchors to read. The results are depressing and hilarious at the same time. If you do nothing else with this blog post, take time to click on these Conan O’Brien reels to see the effect:
Yea. In the immortal words of Ricky Bobby (Talladega Nights), “that just happened.”
What this all amounts to is a shelling out of the middle of the newsroom and a kink in the media relations practice. On one side, the in-depth and investigative teams – the Joe Friday’s of the bullpen – are suspicious of anyone who does media relations. They don’t go to lunch with us anymore because just that simple act would skew their hard-bitten objectivity. On the other side of the newsroom are the content slingers. They don’t go to lunch with us anymore because they don’t have time. They’re in a hamster cage from the time they get in with the task of creating Internet-ready content. They’re ginning up Click-Bait; those “Top 5 things…,” and “15 celebrities then and now…” articles that we all wander into and find ourselves blowing 15 minutes of time on everyday.
So what’s filling the middle? Who is left to build stories?
Well, explanatory news (that’s its actual name) will still get reported. When a story breaks and deserves coverage, reporters from both sides of the newsroom get pulled into the middle to work as an ad hoc team. That’s when you see promos that say, “Only our station covered the story from every angle…” But the bigger, long-term answer, however, is this: computers.
That’s right. The middle is being filled by algorithms. Outfits like Local Labs is one source, but go to the web page of a company called Automated Insights and say hello to our new journalistic overlord named Wordsmith. Wordsmith automatically generates news stories based on content like earnings reports filed with the SEC or box scores put together in NCAA locker rooms. The AP is using Wordsmith to automatically generate more than 3,000 earning’s report-based stories per quarter. Not too long ago, Kristian Hammond, chief technology officer of Automated Insights said that by 2025, 90 percent of news will be computer generated.
Computational journalists are filling in and once again, the business model is the reason. Robot reporters can produce thousands of articles with virtually no variable costs and what’s more, a number of academic studies have found that people can’t tell the difference between human-written and machine-written content.
You know what else? They don’t have to listen to me trying to pitch them, and they don’t do lunch.