Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

“There will be experimentation with a Netflix model, where organizations start with what users want and then understand the economics of each area for journalism. Netflix has demonstrated very clearly that following users’ needs does not need to result in a drop in quality.”

Most news organizations have failed to truly transform over the past few years. Any innovation and change initiatives have been little more than tinkering.

2017 was a particularly bad year for this, with numerous publishers apparently pursuing a strategy of howling in protest against Google and Facebook as well loudly as shouting “I told you so” with the recent news of revenue disappointment and cutbacks at firms such as BuzzFeed.

2018 will undoubtedly bring more of the same — but the industry will finally see the first seeds of radical reinvention. We will see most change in 2018 in three main areas:

  • A radical shift in the topics covered in mainstream journalism. The industry agrees there is too much replication of the same content — sometimes even within the same publication. I counted countless articles on the day of the royal engagement announcement from one U.K. newspaper alone. Even the comment thread was full of readers complaining “enough is enough.”
    • The traditional genres of news, lifestyle, business, and sport will begin to break apart. After all, these topic areas represent the staffing structure of a newspaper from 100-plus years ago
    • Instead, there will be experimentation with a Netflix model, where organizations start with what users want and then understand the economics of each area for journalism. Netflix has demonstrated very clearly that following users’ needs does not need to result in a drop in quality.
    • As a result, there will be a blossoming of widely different topics that move beyond fringe interest groups, whether bio-hacking, mindfulness, or extending human lifespan.
    • And this approach will likely lead most publishers to begin to manage their journalism much more tightly through the lens of the long tail.
  • The rise (or return) of journalism that has been written off as uneconomical: Everybody in the industry feels regret that local news coverage has been hit hardest by the industry’s tough times, despite continued evidence of significant user desire for good local news reporting and a real need to hold local politicians to account. But the economics of employing legions of local journalists to cover relevant local government meetings does not work. However, with the rise of machine learning, the economics can change. Imagine if you could automate the journalism of local authority decisions through the machine learning of official meeting minutes. Suddenly, local journalism could become economically viable again. 2018 should herald at least one new startup experimenting with local news at scale.
  • We will see advertising abandoned and/or reinvented by a handful of leading publishers.
    • Some publishers will abandon advertising as it continues to generate diminishing returns and increasingly dismays users.
    • More sophisticated publishers will halt advertising on pages where it hinders long-term economic performance (in terms of loyalty or other revenue opportunities). And they will reinvent advertising on the pages where it provides value to the users (especially in those new emerging topics for mainstream journalism).
    • The consumer revolt against advertising will continue with paywall publications coming under increasing pressure to stop intrusive ads appearing to customers who have already paid to access content.
    • Finally, in 2018, we may see the first major news organization relaunch a section of its coverage, such as travel, with an e-commerce-first offering (rather than the traditional model of journalism with commerce on the sides). This will be in recognition of e-commerce in some areas being an equal partner to journalism in the eyes of the users. Curated commerce offerings will provide as much value to readers as the articles surrounding it.

Tanya Cordrey is a digital non-executive director, former Schibsted board member, and former chief digital officer at Guardian News & Media.

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