Editor’s note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with their new issue and there’s lots of great stuff in there to check out. I write a column for the print edition of the magazine; here’s my latest, looking back on the biggest stories we saw in journalism innovation in 2015.
Each year since Tim Berners-Lee put the first website online in 1991 has brought significant change to the news business. Looking back on 2015, the news about news was a little darker than usual, with tech companies extending their lead over publishers in determining how news reaches audiences. Even the shiny new digital startups that have seen nothing but growth the past few years started to get a little anxious, counting on consolidation and acquisitions to protect themselves from the coming shakeout of the online advertising business. Here’s a look back at one man’s view of the biggest areas of change in 2015 — and where they’ll take us in 2016.The year of distributed content: This was the trend above all others in 2015. Over the past decade, publisher websites lost their position as the place users headed for news online. First came search engines (but really just Google); then came social media (but really just Facebook). With readers’ attention committed elsewhere — the average American Facebook user spends 27 hours a month there — publishers bet on using social media as a traffic generator, often to much success. But 2015 was the year the platforms took their attention power to its logical next step. Why serve as a channel for publishers to share links when you can push them to publish their content directly on your platform? Facebook’s Instant Articles were the most prominent (and important) example, but we also saw Apple use the iPhone’s success to build its own News platform, and Snapchat use its hold on young people’s attention to get publishers to make custom content for its Discover.
There’s a good reason for platforms to be interested in news: News consumption is a habit, and if people think of your app as a place to get news, they’re likely to return to it more regularly. But the question in 2016 was whether it was a good deal for news organizations. The promise of global reach, faster load times, and a monetization strategy drew nearly every major American news publisher into at least one of these new products. Are they accelerating the decline of their own power to connect directly with audiences? Or are they simply following where attention has shifted and hoping to build sustainable relationships sharecropping on Silicon Valley’s land? We’ll find out a lot more about those questions in 2016.
The rise of adblockers: Talk to any old newspaper hand from the business side and you’ll hear it: Ads were just as important to customers as the news that flowed around them. That city hall investigation could sit nicely next to a department store ad, each reaching distinct but overlapping audiences, each reinforcing the value of the product.
That symbiosis never quite translated online, where publishers’ misaligned incentives and the enigmatic swarm of businesses collectively known as ad tech conspired to make so much of digital advertising annoying. Today’s ads load too slowly, use up too much of your mobile data, jank up your reading experience, and track you in ways you’d rather they not.In 2015, a rising share of readers decided to install adblockers as a clumsy solution. In September, for the first time, Apple allowed them to be installed on iPhones and iPads, chipping away at the most valuable slice of publishers’ mobile customers. With so many news sites relying almost existentially on advertising revenue, it’s a terrifying thought that those trend lines will continue up in 2016; many American sites could start to see the numbers their European peers do, with upwards of 30 percent of users blocking ads.
Publishers say they want to make their advertising better, which is welcome. But adblockers are ham-fisted tools — their default state is to block both the good ads and the bad ones. Figuring out the right mix of technology, revenue streams, and begging for whitelisting will be high on publishers’ agenda for the new year.
Hints of big changes in TV: As a former newspaper reporter, I was always a little miffed that my line of work got disrupted before our friends in television news. A tangle of factors — the higher production cost of video, the web of relationships between cable companies, networks, and producers — have let TV remain a money-printing machine.
We saw a few things in 2015 that suggested that tangle is unraveling more quickly than before. Networks high- (HBO) and middle-brow (CBS) started selling their content directly to consumers. A new generation of digital media players from Apple, Amazon, and Google shortened the distance between web video and your flatscreen. Cordcutters and cord-nevers — young people who’ve never paid for cable and think of their laptop or phone as their primary screen for video — continue to grow in numbers. (Cable stalwart ESPN has lost 7 percent of its paying subscribers over the past two years.) Even the NFL — the keystone of American paid live television — started talking about selling significant broadcast rights to streaming companies.
There’ll still be plenty of money in TV, of course, but it’s unclear what role news will play in this new world. Local TV news is the result of local TV stations; if our content comes increasingly from Netflix and Amazon rather than NBC or ABC, where does local news fit in? My concern is that the answer is nowhere.Podcasts in full flower: Serial’s season one ended in 2014, and season two barely caught the end of 2015, but the podcasting renaissance did just fine without its flagship. New startups found new funding and launched new shows; a few public media stalwarts like WNYC bet big on podcasts as a key area of expansion. Perhaps the biggest story was the continued exodus of top talent — often talent frustrated with station politics and hierarchy — from public radio to the newcomers.
The big question for 2016: Will podcast consumption continue to happen in mostly open platforms — places like the iPhone Podcasts app that any content creator can get access to? Or will it shift to individual apps like Acast or Midroll’s Howl that can offer user experience benefits or a more robust business model?A so-so year for wearables: The Apple Watch came out in 2015, and it quickly became the biggest smartwatch on the market. (Apple doesn’t release figures, but outside estimates are that somewhere around 12 million have been sold.) As someone who’s worn one since launch, I can attest that getting breaking news notifications on your wrist can be a nice little addition to your life, but it’s far from transformative. Perhaps future generations of wearables will make their usefulness more clear, but at this point the energy in wearables in 2016 is all centered on virtual reality headsets, with plenty of news organizations investing in immersive content. I’m bearish on VR for news, but perhaps we’ll see headsets get light enough that they can play a larger role.
A new/old kind of owner: The initial wave of billionaires buying up newspapers a few years back — John Henry in Boston, Jeff Bezos in Washington, Glen Taylor in Minneapolis — doesn’t seem to have inspired many of their peers to do the same. The most notable new newspaper owner in 2015 was Sheldon Adelson, whose secret-then-not-secret purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal seemed to augur a new reality: Newspapers are so cheap, and America’s wealthy so rich, that snapping up the local daily for political purposes will be a newly attractive option.
A newspaper owner with political intentions is not a new phenomenon, of course. But after many decades where the big fear was faceless corporate chain ownership, the Adelson buy could be the start of a return to an earlier 20th-century model. Not all billionaires are created equal.Meanwhile, down in the capital, Bezos’ promise of “runway” for The Washington Post has led that paper to new heights, with engineers integrated into the newsroom, broken traffic records, and a new swagger in its longstanding (though, for the past decade, fairly one-sided) rivalry with The New York Times. Whichever side you’re on, we’re all better off with another strong national and global news source.
Trump breaks the system: Finally, 2015 was the year that Donald Trump’s candidacy seemed to break what we thought were all the rules on how the media and a political campaign can interact. Trump has proven to be a master of social media, using it to connect directly to his base of supporters without relying on TV advertising. He’s shifted the rules of cable TV, becoming such an audience draw that channels are willing to let him call in for appearances they’d expect other candidates to show up for. His many untruths seem impervious to the factchecking infrastructure news organizations have built up, and he’s shoved ideas once considered fringe in mainstream media squarely into the common discourse. He’s a one-man filter bubble.
Journalists have had to figure out their own ways to respond, to reassert their place in informing the public. Their old role as gatekeepers has waned, for good and for ill. What’s the right role for the press, old and new, in that context? The decisions journalists reach on that question in 2016 will go a long way toward determining their position in public life going forward.