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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

A year of more of the same?

“The future usually turns out to be weirder than we think.”

Linear projections are always dangerous, but well established and deeply rooted overarching trends are also too often overlooked and forgotten as more exciting new developments attract our attention — so let me highlight five basic features of recent media developments I think will continue to shape the news throughout 2013.

  1. Further cost-cutting in a newspaper industry faced with persistent structural (digital transition) and cyclical (global economic crisis) pressures.
  2. Further reduction in many commercial broadcasters’ investment in news as they recalibrate to match audience and advertisers’ interest.
  3. Increased political pressure on public service media, in some cases (the U.S.) from conservatives ideologically opposed to state intervention in media markets, in some cases (much of Western Europe) from private sector media lobbies concerned with what they regard as unfair competition.
  4. More journalistic content-producing startups, nonprofit as well as for-profit, launched to great fanfare only to struggle to make ends meet and draw much of an audience.
  5. Major digital intermediaries like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google presenting content producers (both private and public) with a growing number of tactical challenges in terms of access to users, data, control over pricing, etc.

I’m sure there will also be at least one major surprise, potentially a game-changer that bucks these trends. Maybe an easily replicated and scalable model for collaborative, quality, low-cost journalism; maybe a significant shift in willingness to pay as more people wake up to the differences between freely available content and stuff only available at a price; maybe a yet-to-be-foreseen technological shift; or maybe a legal development (on fair use, for example — keep an eye on the French and German attempts to change the terms of trade for online news, and on Google’s attempts to fight these moves).

I’m not predicting either of these latter things — just recognizing that the future usually turns out to be weirder than we think. That said, it’s also built on the past, and the past has a way of repeating itself, especially if we forget it, so let’s keep the basic features of recent years in mind.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is assistant professor of communications at Roskilde University in Denmark and research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.