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Aug. 23, 2018, 8:30 a.m.

Through the looking glass, backwards: What Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2018 tell us about where we’re headed

An academic read through a bunch of smart people’s thoughts on the near-term future for news. Here are the trends he found.

At Nieman Lab, we’re usually the studiers. But here’s a case where we’re the studied. Or, more precisely, where the 176 (phew) contributions to our Predictions for Journalism 2018 package are the studied.

Every December, we ask a lot of smart people — journalists, technologists, academics, designers, strategists, and more — what they think 2018 will bring for our ever-disrupted industry. Their predictions — which, let’s be honest, are often closer to “wishes” or “complaints” or “concerns” than predictions — cover a range of issues, and while the people I pick are hardly a scientific sample, in toto they can be taken as a rough representation of what our field is thinking about at that snapshot in time.

This year, Juho Ruotsalainen, a PhD student at the Finland Futures Research Centre, decided to interrogate that snapshot by offering “an analytical framework for the anticipation of the futures of journalism by mapping out how experts see the current state and the future of journalism.” His findings have been published in the journal Futures.

Ruotsalainen says our predictions are useful raw material for this sort of work:

Although nominally the predictions are about the next year, many experts explicitly write about the (near) future. However, as the focus is on the next year, the predictions are rather concrete, plausible, and timely. They have a good balance of facts-based arguments and more imaginary approaches, employing both explicit and tacit futures knowledge.

Compared with similar report, the Nieman Lab predictions are arguably more diverse and qualitatively more rich — the experts can express their view on the future of journalism freely, without any predefined questions — less technology-centered, and not as strictly covering the next year only. On the other hand the Nieman Lab predictions lack in structure and focus as they are not categorised.

(Everybody’s a critic.)

What this paper provides, in part, is elevating the “raw data” of the Nieman Lab predictions by categorising them into groups, revealing hidden patterns and similarities within the data.

He identifies eight groupings within the corpus (note: I’ve removed the citations throughout, but you can find them in the paper):

  • Journalism diversifies, 69 predictions: “Many Nieman Lab experts believe especially in the diversification of formats – such as innovative developments in podcasts and video. The traditional, print article format will be increasingly deconstructed to be consumed mobile, and the form and style of journalism will be much more than before tailored to different platforms separately. This implicates that the skill requirements of journalists will also diversify.”
  • Post-truth is being tackled but persists, 39 predictions: “Whether people trust each other and institutions is decisive in combatting post-truth — the word trust is mentioned 122 times in the predictions. If trust in society is low, it is difficult to establish shared agreement about what is true and what is not, undermining also fact-checking. Building trust will become one of the core challenges of journalists, especially if social media continue to fragment.”
  • More collaboration and blurring boundaries, 23 predictions: “If collaboration is to become more common, profound changes in the culture and mind-sets iof newsrooms can be expected. Collaboration replaces clearly defined roles with cross-sectional hybrid ones that ‘connect departments and specialties and act as translators.’ Creating Commons, shared resources, may provide journalism with a new infrastructure, offering ‘open-ended systems for news production built around common pooled resources to collectively address critical issues.'”
  • Subscriptions, memberships and new business models replace advertising, 22 predictions: “Paywalls can help proliferate specialised niche journalism as the audiences often only pay for contents they cannot get anywhere else. This encourages to create contents, forms and styles that appeal to certain audience segments. Subscriptions, memberships, and other payment-models entice a more close and direct relationship between media organisations and their audiences. Such models require more accurate audience data and insights about their needs and tastes, fostering the development of data gathering and hyper-specialised journalism.”
  • Platforms become established in news distribution, 15 predictions: “Some algorithmically organised feeds will be moved back to real-time in order to allow more timely interaction with the news. Some platforms will decide that surfacing news is not worth it and reduce the number of news on them — in the case of Facebook this already happened in January 2018 as Facebook announced its algorithm changes that de-emphasise the role of news in users’ feeds.”
  • Quality over quantity, 11 predictions: “More and more media outlets start to build relationships with committed and engaged audiences instead of pushing out more and more content and improve the quality of journalism with the audiences. Many a media company will fall, and those left standing will publish less, validate information more carefully, plan for the long-term, and show relentlessly they can be trusted. Audiences are especially looking for analysis based on careful information gathering and curation.”
  • Artificial intelligence in journalism, 11 predictions: “Expectations are high especially on a precise personalisation of content, machine vision and hearing, automated curation, fact-checking, tackling mis- and dis-information, and natural language processing. If discussions on artificial intelligence still revolve around how much human work they will replace, in the near future the focus shifts to how artificial intelligence can support journalists in their work and help improve it. Keefe thinks that ‘big stories’ augmented by machine learning will soon be published, with ‘important truths and facts invisible to humans alone.'”
  • Journalists and the audiences get close, 11 predictions: “The traditional way of separating journalism outside and above the rest of society as an institutionalised outsider may begin to seem obsolete. The audiences will be taken seriously and journalists move from often shallow community engagement to comprehensive community collaboration. The get-close is driven partly by subscriptions, membership fees and events replacing income from advertisements. New journalistic enterprises are the forerunners of a new audience relationship which does not ‘stand apart from the public’ but begins to ‘rethink and recode their work as both reporters and relationship-builders.'”

First, I’d like to welcome Juho to the extremely small society of People Who Have Read All 174 Predictions for Journalism 2018. The monthly meetings were getting boring solo.

But I’ll also express general agreement with his categorization. One quibble would be that he treats “diversification of journalism” primarily as concerning diversification of formats, distribution platforms, and algorithmic presentation — whereas an awful lot of those predictions were about primarily about diversification in the classic race/gender/class American Studies sense.

Ruotsalainen also compares his predictions categorization to a similar future-of-news grouping done in 2014 and finds a lot of overlap:

He connects both groupings to Mark Deuze’s 15-year-old typology of online journalisms:

instrumental journalism: serves specific audience needs (editorial content, open journalistic culture),

orientating journalism: helps make sense of the world through commentary and analysis (editorial content, closed journalistic culture),

monitorial journalism: offers information top-down but connects to the public for instance by providing FAQ type of information (public connectivity, closed journalistic culture), and

dialogical journalism: no strict division remains between producers and consumers of news content, and journalism professionally amplifies the conversation of society and its citizens (public connectivity, open journalistic culture).

Ruotsalainen concludes by finding the predictions:

…show a shift away from centralised, unidirectional mass media to more diverse, specialised, subscriptions-funded, networked, collaborative, communal and at least to some extent platform-driven media. Journalists’ job descriptions are becoming blurred with other occupations. The networked and diversified nature of the emerging media ecology implies that different, often conflicting, views abound. This will presumably help the condition recently labelled “post-truth” persist. As a countertrend, well-known brands solidify their status, and many focus to offer non-tailored information of general interest.

In terms of journalism types, especially dialogical and instrumental journalism can be anticipated to proliferate. Dialogue is the other main ideal in Western journalism, objectivity being the other and to this day the dominant one. These two journalism types imply a much closer relationship between reporters and the audiences, a fracture in the traditional idea of journalism as a strictly autonomous and insulated practice. If such journalism becomes significantly more common than today, it would imply a discontinuation in the development of (Western) journalism, pointing to potentially radical changes in the values, culture and practice of journalism.

Image from Thrilling Life Stories for the Masses (1892) via the British Library.

POSTED     Aug. 23, 2018, 8:30 a.m.
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