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Pivot to people

What was produced will take a back seat to the all-important question of who was informed and how it served them.”

We believe 2019 will mark the beginning of a significant shift in the news industry: the year when newsrooms stop pivoting to formats and platforms and start building relationships for the future. Already we’re seeing the rumblings of a seismic change, as digital bubbles built upon illusory metrics begin to burst and the organizations that have put in the unsexy but necessary groundwork to directly understand and serve their audiences are reaping rewards.

As newsrooms define their missions explicitly around service-first approaches and align around value-based business models, we can imagine how this could play out in the coming year.

A pivot to people

Finally — finally! — a pivot that actually works. Although truth be told, this isn’t a pivot — it’s the rediscovery of the force that drove us to j-school many years ago. That force: the commitment to inform the public about their world so they can fully participate in and understand it. By refocusing attention on the audiences we serve, newsrooms will develop deep, sustaining relationships that will begin to repair the outdated, broken business models. Newsrooms are becoming increasingly sophisticated in developing the relationship between audience members and revenue. With a wealth of experience and nothing left to lose, 2019 will be the year this approach breaks through from theory into practice.

An ethical code for engagement

Newsrooms have guidelines around how they treat sources. But as co-created content blurs the line between maker and decision-maker, public and staff, newsrooms will need more sophisticated rules for how they work alongside, feature, credit, reward, compensate and protect the people engaging with them pre-publication. We predict the Gather community of engaged journalists will play a key role in building out the work started at SRCCON toward developing an ethical framework for engagement. (That is: In 2019, newsrooms will start to recognize and correct when they’re being askholes.)

Shifting from stories to service

Serving the audience means understanding what they need to know, which breaks journalism free from the restrictions of which platform they use and their medium of publication. The new answer: whatever makes sense for the audience. The end result of reporting will no longer necessarily be a story. It could be a community event, or a conversation, or even a puppet show (wait, that one already happened). What was produced will take a back seat to the all-important question of who was informed and how it served them.

The birth of an editorial CRM

If you know what the acronym CRM means, you’re more likely to be working on the revenue side of journalism or be in a management or innovation position. In 2019, editorial staffers will learn about customer relationship management systems and start to understand how CRMs can benefit their work. (If you don’t know, a CRM helps you track user data and communication, with an eye toward deepening people’s relationship with your organization.)

We predict that as newsrooms continue to open up to their communities, the public won’t just be supporting what newsrooms do by contributing financially (through subscriptions, donations, or membership programs) — they’ll be contributing on the front end to shape and enrich coverage, to provide content and insight for the journalism newsrooms are producing.

This will create the need for editorial relationship management systems so content and revenue departments can understand the full “user journey” with their brand. Creating a universal system will be no small technical task, but the tremendous insights it will yield will justify the investment. Beyond high-level trends of how public engagement leads to revenue, newsrooms will be able to see and value the public as more than a click or a dollar amount, but start to understand individuals holistically and serve them accordingly. (If you’re interested in this, holler.)

Engagement: From archaeology to anthropology

Content consumption metrics and analytics platforms like Chartbeat and Parse.ly were early to the gate in shaping newsroom priorities and their understanding of engagement. But trying to make sense of people’s behaviors, desires and impulses by the digital traces (archaeology) they leave behind will be understood as just one blurry half of the picture. In 2019, the anthropological arm of journalism will continue to develop, and more newsrooms will make it a priority to actually talk to their living, breathing audience members in deeper and more sustained ways to understand and serve their needs. The work of Spaceship Media, The Free Press’ News Voices, and pioneering practitioners like jesikah maria ross at Capital Public Radio and Ashley Alvarado at KPCC will start to be recognized and valued at a premium. While reconstructing the public’s needs and wants via their digital traces and artificial intelligence will continue to attract interest for how “clean” and efficient it can be, the inherent limits and dangers of flattening the public to datasets will be felt, and so will the lack of trust-building that is created through real-life engagement.

Coalescing around new metrics to show journalism’s value

As pageview-driven business models continue to struggle, newsrooms will try to identify and agree upon what’s useful (and realistic) to measure about their journalism, in order to show its value to different stakeholders, like the audience (subscriber or member models), advertisers or sponsors, and grant funders. In 2019, journalists — and the people on the business side of their organizations — will share what’s working from their own experiments, and learn from research (such as that by the Center for Media Engagement, Pew Research Center, Trusting News, Membership Puzzle Project, and others). As the Membership Puzzle Project says, the “metrics for evaluating success and deliverables at the conclusion of the experiment should themselves be part of the experiment” a newsroom undertakes. We predict this experimentation culture with metrics will begin bearing fruit by the end of 2019. These new metrics likely will take more effort to measure than the industry’s previous golden metrics (circulation, pageviews, time on page).

Getting real about source diversity

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Newsrooms are moving at a glacial pace to diversify their staff and retain journalists who come from underrepresented or marginalized communities. So newsrooms leaders? Do better.

Now the first problem begets a second issue: the diversity of sources cited in reporting. As we advocate for radical transparency about the makeup of our newsrooms (slow as that may be), newsrooms will begin to track and talk more publicly about the diversity of their sources. The industry knows this is an issue because journalists like Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato and Greg Linch (among many others) are building databases to combat this. But consider this: Tracking source diversity will be a part of the monthly newsroom analytics report, presented to staff regularly and yes, made public. Let’s dream a little further here: What if AI evolved to a point where it could comb stories for these identifiers (without racist implications) and this data point became a staple in analytics dashboards?

Public media stations such as KUT in Austin, WHYY in Philadelphia, KUOW in Seattle, and KQED in San Francisco are already doing this work and confronting some of the unflattering numbers. If newsrooms are serious about building and gaining the trust of their audiences, they’ll be completely honest to the public about what their newsroom looks like and who they’re talking to in their stories.

Self-training and connecting in non-traditional professional development spaces

WIthout professional development budgets, journalists are seeking out and creating new spaces to learn from one another. For example, there are active Facebook Groups for public media millenials, diverse social media editors, and TV news producers, as well as Slack organizations for news nerds, audience engagement people, and journalists of color. In 2019, we’ll see continued growth in the number of Slack organizations and Facebook Groups related to journalists’ identities and roles. It’s also likely the existing digital groups will grow their membership, leading to the problems that inevitably emerge as a close-knit community scales from dozens to hundreds to thousands.

Through these other ways of connecting and learning, journalists may not see as much value in high-dollar professional organization memberships, or may cut back to only belonging to one rather than two or three. The professional organizations will be forced to assess what they can offer that these free and often well-moderated communities can’t, or partner with these communities to provide value. (Maybe improved moderation, or upgrading Slacks to the paid plans.)

The next-gen journalist

To better meet the demands of an audience-driven mission, newsrooms will begin seeking candidates from non-traditional backgrounds who bring an array of needed skills to the table.

  • For those engaged in community-building work, advocacy or grassroots skills will become central.
  • Business and editorial skills will continue to merge as everyone becomes responsible for the essential transformation of audience engagement into the organization’s financial stability and sustainability.
  • A wide variety of professional and life experiences will inform this group of newsroom newcomers, whose resumes will highlight very different skills from the ones needed 10, 15, or 20 years ago.

Libraries and newsrooms will have babies

As traditional institutions continue to battle market and cultural forces for relevance and sustainability, dalliances will turn into full-fledged partnerships, and new shared futures will emerge. Poised for the hookup are libraries and newsrooms. They both serve the function of helping people get the information they’re seeking, except one institution has more public trust, more geographic and demographic diversity, and a more stable tax-supported future. The other has a lot of eager people (employed and laid off) with skills and desire to generate new information and be of service to their communities.

In 2019, we’ll start to see more collaborations like this one between The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Public Library and this one between The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library that pave the way for actual mergers of functions, resources, talent, and service.

Thanks to Darryl Holliday from City Bureau and Simon Galperin from GroundSource and Community Information Cooperative for the conference lobby brainstorm session on this library-newsroom baby idea.

Journalists will look to and learn from other sectors for evolutionary answers

Beyond news outlets and libraries, what other institutions are responsible for providing trustworthy information to the public so they can make informed choices? All of them. The education, healthcare, policy, and financial sectors (to name a few) are wrestling with the same struggle: going from largely closed and autocratic decision-making systems to being more participatory and democratized. What might journalism learn from what’s working in these other fields? We’ll only find out if we start to ask those questions and intentionally co-mingle. We predict 2019 will bring at least one new interdisciplinary gathering.

Investors and news startups will stop trying to emulate “unicorn” models and turn to “zebras”

With the recent collapse of Mic, layoffs at Vox Media, and countless other examples of news startups raising huge and missing marks, the intrepid entrepreneurs building the next generation of media companies will think twice when considering venture capital models and promising billion-dollar unicorn exits. Instead, they’ll align the investment dollars with the service values their companies espouse and turn to zebras. They’ll seek to balance profit and purpose, and like the actual zebra, will have competitive advantages not through being an outlier, but through cooperation. Instead of using “maximize shareholder revenue” as their north star, they’ll more creatively organize their companies to be able to pursue a double bottom line. Likewise, newly activated investors will look to support media companies working in this way. We’ll start to see philanthropy and others invest in revenue-based financing that supports the 81 percent of undercapitalized entrepreneurs.

Illustration by Arthur Jones courtesy Zebras Unite.

So those were a lot of predictions. And we’re going to be working toward making all of them come true. As can be gleaned from the fact this was a collaborative post, we love collaborating. So don’t be shy if you feel like creating this future together.

This prediction was written by Hearken staffers Jennifer Brandel, Julia Haslanger, Krystina Martinez, and Bridget Thoreson.

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