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The coming disruption of television news

“When it comes to the future of news, as when it comes to so many other things, it is worth following the money.”

For commercial news media in the Western world, the underlying thrust in 2014 remains the same that it was 2013 and has been for a decade or more. It is a move towards a world in which we will have more media — including stakeholder media serving various special interests — but fewer resources for professionally produced, general-interest news journalism. None of the business models currently in place nor those being tried out generate the revenues common in the 1990s. In this environment, survival is success both for established legacy news media and for new entrants.

rasmus_kleis_nielsenThree things to watch as news media organizations old and new struggle to navigate this environment:

  • Will the full gale of creative digital destruction finally hit television? Is this going to be the year linear, programmed television on broadcast, satellite, and cable — after years of people crying wolf — begins to experience disruption on a scale comparable to what print publishing and the music business have already experienced? So far, evidence for cord-cutting is mixed and limited, and television continues to dominate most people’s media use.

    But broadband access and bandwidth is increasing, TV advertising is showing signs of weakness in the U.S. as audiences fragment further and move to other platforms, and in the U.K., streaming and various forms of catch-up services, often accessed via “second screens,” are increasing rapidly. There is also concern that many broadcasters so far have been missing out on the move to mobile platforms and that they, like newspaper publishers before them, may be losing touch with younger generations. Television broadcasters never invested as much in news reporting as newspapers did, but they did invest in news, and they do disseminate news to very large audiences. Both the investment and the dissemination will change if television is disrupted on a large scale.

  • What is happening with relations between content producers and social media? Publishers have long seen sites like Facebook and Twitter as frenemies. Publishers have complained that social media sites benefit disproportionally from their content, but have shied away from preventing people from sharing it freely, as they also want the audience social media can drive to news websites (a third or more of overall traffic in some cases).

    As established social media sites continue to adapt to serve their users and fend off new competitors, they have also begun to more explicitly recognize the real value of professionally produced quality content for their business. Just as Google in 2011 tweaked its algorithms to keep content farms and low-grade, search-engine-optimized fluff out of the top search results, Facebook in December 2013 announced changes to increase the amount of links to “high quality content” that appear in users’ feed (mentioning. among other things. news about current events from trusted sources). Twitter has talked very openly about the “special” relation it has to television and the centrality of the social media-legacy media relationship to its business model and future development. These developments may help publishers who have been struggling to make money online to sustain their investment in journalism.

  • How will pay models for digital news evolve? I don’t see any way in which the spread of digital pay models across much of the newspaper industry in North America and Western Europe points towards a near future in which these companies will make anything like the kind of money many of them made in the 1990s. But I’m cautiously optimistic that those organizations who produce genuinely distinct quality content, continue to serve their audiences, and are willing to invest in developing their digital products can reach a point where pay is one amongst several meaningful sources of revenue.

    Putting aside the often discussed highly non-representative examples of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, take three other cases: Axel Springer in Germany has just announced it has won almost 150,000 paying digital subscribers for its popular tabloid Bild after introducing a freemium model six months ago. The company reports 47,000 digital subscribers for its upmarket broadsheet Die Welt, which introduced a metered model about a year ago. The Helsingin Sanomat in Finland has introduced a metered paywall, sold digital subscriptions at an additional cost to close to half of its existing print subscribers (more than 130,000), and seen online advertising increase at the same time. News Corp, long ridiculed for the “hard” paywall around the London Times, now reports more than 100,000 digital subscribers for the upmarket Times and its sister paper the Sunday Times (both of which have been charging since 2010) and the same for the popular tabloid the Sun (which introduced its premium Sun+ four months ago).

    With the possible exception of the Helsingin Sanomat (130,000 paying digital subscribers in a country of less than 6 million!), none of these numbers are eye-popping success stories, and in most cases they pale by comparison to each title’s print readership, diminished as it is. But all of these figures are a heck of a lot better than nothing, and they may point towards a future where there is still some commercial basis for producing news.

It may be boring and slightly depressing to focus on these kinds of issues that continue to challenge the business of journalism, but when it comes to the future of news, as when it comes to so many other things, it is worth following the money.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is associate 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.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20