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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Rebuilding the crumbling news Infrastructure

Media technology evolution is nothing new and it never stops. It inevitably causes growing pains but sometimes it requires a reckoning. This is one of those times.

May 23, 2024 | By Delano R. Massey, Managing Editor – Axios Local @DelanoMassey
When aspiring journalists ask me whether the media is dead, I always say no.

I remind them that while the menu might change, the hunger for news and information never vanishes. To stick with the food analogy, news these days is like UberEats: far more options are available at your fingertips.

Here’s the thing: evolution in the media is constant and ongoing.

Historically, the delivery method has evolved in this industry, from horseback to telegraph and radio to television. Cable news, the internet and social media caused disruptive waves over time. These days, news is on a 24-hour cycle that is no longer limited to cable news. And, now, Artificial Intelligence has entered the chat. (And they are here whether we like it or not.) 

Newsrooms ignore the emergence of AI at their peril, as history shows that transformative technologies don’t disappear simply because they’re ignored. Remember in 1995 when Newsweek predicted the Internet would fail? It was already decades into its inevitable march to dominate media consumption.

Technology usually gets better in time, and it has only improved in my 22 years in this industry. We have a greater reach than we could have imagined. I can instantly read what’s happening in any part of this country—or the world. All from a device that fits in my pocket. 

Technology and journalism will always travel hand-in-hand. However right now, a lot about the relationship is toxic. It’s not serving us and we need to do some soul searching to fix what’s not working.

Change can be a painful experience

News and information is everywhere, and everyone can share their perception of news. It’s transforming in real time and the growing pains are unrelenting.

The year started with over 500 journalists losing their jobs, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. About 2,681 journalism jobs were eliminated in 2023 alone. That’s a 48% increase from 2022 and a staggering 77% increase from 2021.

Circulation, viewership and listeners have steadily declined for newspapers, broadcast TV news, and public radio. Major online news outlets are trying to stave off website traffic and engagement decreases. The shift to social media platforms for news consumption is particularly noticeable among younger generations. All this before we get to the fallout from tarnished community trust and news avoidance.

Everyone is looking for sustainability. 

Same old traffic metrics 

Meanwhile, social media referral traffic has plummeted globally over the past two years.

The big picture: News organizations invested heavily in social media for two decades, relying on platforms like Facebook and Twitter/X, but the algorithms were not in our favor. They never loved us half as much as we loved them. We infiltrated these platforms, but social media prioritized advertising over truth and accountability.

Now, logic tells us that AI search could be a death knell for search traffic. Search has served as a major entry point for metrics that have helped newsrooms drive advertising revenue. Audiences have grown accustomed to using Google searches to find links to information. AI, however, can directly answer most questions, and it’s getting smarter by the hour.

The WSJ has reported that publishers might lose 20-40% of their website traffic when Google’s AI products are fully implemented. The loss of traffic from social media and search will likely have devastating effects on this industry. 

Some local shops still rely on the same old metrics – the volume of web traffic and the value of a click or pageview – because that’s what we’ve always done. But given how much the landscape has changed, that well is drying up and we need to find a new source. 

Rather than wait and see and react to the technological changes coming at us, the industry must redefine its relationship with technology and take some control. Some news organizations have come to terms with this, and others see the value in creating new revenue streams. Diversifying revenue sources is key.

But beyond that, the industry has to be more entrepreneurial and less traditional. Doubling down on the old models is simply not enough. 

When we think about rebuilding the infrastructure for news, we should ask ourselves: Could we build our own pipeline to traffic? Is there a way we can empower audiences to share content by building a trusted social media platform for distribution? That’s the thing: We – the news and media industry – have to take responsibility and build the infrastructure we need to create new habits for readers.

Provide audiences with utility 

The reality is that news organizations have done a decent job building brand presence across platforms, but there’s no measurement for the value of that. Unfortunately, our success is housed under decaying pillars of success. The entire model must be flipped on its ear. We must reimagine everything. That mindset is why some startups have done more than survive and become a new breed of media success story. There’s a there there.

We spend a lot of time curating audiences we already have and need to spend more of our days figuring out how to capture the ones we don’t. Live events, office hours and panel discussions center the news and make it accessible to more people. It’s a way to expand your brand in a three-dimensional way. Lean into your personalities and their subject matter expertise to establish a more potent value proposition. And recognize that not all change is bad. The trick is harnessing it in ways that attract and satisfy audiences. 

We must pay closer attention to evolving media consumption habits. Some people do have shorter attention spans and want brevity. However, that’s not absolute; there’s room for it all. 

We use our phones to do everything and email is a new form of currency. Delivering news to a consumer’s inbox via newsletters just makes sense. We have to develop content creation and delivery strategies that fit today’s lifestyles. And then be ready to do it again as things inevitably change. 

Newspapers are going the way of the tablet—not the ones Apple makes, but the ones Moses carried when he descended from Mount Sinai. Hieroglyphics, papyrus and wood had a place in history, as did quill pens. We can appreciate Johannes Gutenberg’s contribution and still embrace all the waves of technology that followed.

Diverse perspectives

The pandemic showed us that people need the expertise journalists wield. However, at the same time we see that people increasingly value the perspectives of social media influencers over journalists. We may not like it, but this needs to teach us something. Rather than ask our journalists to be invisible or unobtrusive, perhaps we need to re-examine ways to humanize them for audiences. 

The plethora of free options suggests that every media outlet needs to focus on offering more distinctive coverage. No, it shouldn’t be harmful or polarizing. But it has to be inclusive, reflecting more communities that demand to be heard. That’s why so many niche and local publishers have cropped up; to fill a void that was created by arrogance, neglect and an unwillingness to change – a poisonous recipe. 

Media has to marry new technology, develop a trustworthy infrastructure for news distribution and create a steady diet of distinctive coverage mixed with utility and expertise and get back into communities. 

The media landscape will look different by the end of this year (and the next, and the one after that), but you can’t point to a time in history when information didn’t matter. And you cannot point to a time in civilization when news – no matter its platform – didn’t make a difference. 

If we haven’t learned anything else, history tells us we should pay attention. 

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