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April 6, 2016, 7:01 p.m.

Digital disruption is coming quickly to TV news; how can broadcasters adapt and respond?

“The question should not be what will replace traditional television news. Nothing will. The question has to be: How can we move beyond television news as we know it?”

Television was supposed to be different, more resilient to digital disruption than print. For a long time, it was. It no longer is. Television today faces the full gales of creative destruction and digital disruption on a scale similar to what other media industries have faced. It is still an important medium, and will be so for years to come, but television will not remain the dominant force it was in the second half of the 20th century.

Viewing in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. has declined by three to four percent per year on average since 2012. These declines are directly comparable to the declines in print newspaper circulation in the 2000s. If compounded over 10 years, the result is a decline in viewing of a quarter or more. The average audience of many television news programs is by now older than the average audience of many print newspapers. The decline in viewing among younger people is far more pronounced, both for television viewing in general and for television news specifically.

Meanwhile, we see a rapid rise in online video viewing driven by video-sharing sites, video-on-demand services, and the integration of video into social media sites. The move to a “post-broadcast democracy” heralded by the rise of cable and satellite multichannel television in the 1990s and 2000s now point towards a “post-television democracy” as digital media are on track to overtake television as the most important sources of news.

The implications for journalism are potentially profound. Even as newspapers waned and digital media waxed in the 1990s and early 2000s, television remained the single most important and most widely used platform for news in many countries, and both private and public television news providers invested serious money in journalism serving international, national, and local audiences. Both the reach and the revenue will decline in the years ahead.

As television overall changes, television journalism too will have to change. Today, better Internet connections, better devices, and better file compression formats, combined with an aggressive expansion in online video offerings from both video on demand services like Netflix and social media platforms like Facebook means that things are changing, and that the pace of change facing television and television news providers is accelerating.

As we move towards a more and more competitive, more and more distributed, and more and more on-demand media environment, television journalism will benefit less and less from large lead-in audiences from other programs and the resources invested in television journalism are likely to drop further.

In some ways this is a golden age of television content — think Game of Thrones and House of Cards, or Downton Abbey and The Night Manager — and certainly online video on the whole is growing rapidly and becoming more and more central to our digital media experience.

It is much less clear that television news specifically has its place in this changing environment.

In a new Reuters Institute report, we analyze what is happening to traditional television viewing, examine the rise of online video, and look at examples of how news providers — including both traditional broadcasters, newspapers, established digital pure players, and new startups — are developing new ways of doing and distributing digital video journalism building on, and going beyond, older forms of television journalism.

Though many traditional television providers have made only limited investments in digital media and have smaller audiences online than offline, there are a range of interesting experiments underway in online video journalism, including work at both for-profit media like CNN and public media like the BBC, as well as new initiatives by both newspapers like The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph, established digital players like Vice, and startups like NowThis News.

While there are many impressive initiatives underway, the clearest takeaway from our review is that there is no one recipe for online video news.

The fact that no one has found the right recipe for doing online video news in this rapidly changing environment takes nothing away from the urgency of adapting to it. There are no reasons to believe that a generation that has grown up with and enjoys digital, on-demand, social, and mobile video viewing across a range of connected devices will come to prefer live, linear, scheduled programming tied to a single device just because they grow older. If television news providers do not confront this head-on, now, they risk irrelevance.

Television news providers face the next wave of digital disruption with many strengths, including well-known brands, creative talent, and deep archives of quality content. But they also risk being constrained by their legacy organization and culture. Formats and organizational forms developed to deliver program packages or rolling news on large, high-definition screens primarily watched are home are unlikely to be ideal for delivering online video news distributed via apps and social media and often watched on mobile devices.

Because the environment is changing so rapidly right now, and because no clear set of best practices has been developed, the most important thing television news providers need to do to be in a position to respond effectively is to ensure that their organizations are capable of constant adaptation and change. Standard workflows and organizational forms can be very efficient, but they are rarely good at experimentation.

Here, television news providers can learn much from what we already know about innovation — for example Michael Tushman’s research on “ambidextrous organizations” built for both efficiency and exploration, David Stark’s work on the organization of reflexivity, or Lucy Küng’s research identifying some of the features innovative digital news organizations have in common.

These approaches to experimentation, exploration, and innovation can help television journalists and television news providers confront the challenges television news face after more than half a century of pretty much uninterrupted dominance — how to reinvent its core social and political mission in a new environment, and how to find ways of resourcing it. The question should not be what will replace traditional television news. Nothing will. The question has to be: How can we move beyond television news as we know it?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics.

Richard Sambrook is professor of journalism at Cardiff University and a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Photo by Steve Harwood used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 6, 2016, 7:01 p.m.
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