The beat – and the business – of news media in the digital era ahead.
May 19, 2010 by ruediger

The Future Face of Media: Business Models for the Digital Era.

Frankfurt, May 18, 2010.

It was great fun and highly inspiring to moderate two panels with top media leaders on the “Future of news and news publishing” in Frankfurt organized by Mark Schiffhauer for the Maleki Group.

Rona Fairhead, Financial Times, Andrew Langhoff, Wall Street Journal Europe, Arthur O. Sulzberger, The New York Times.

Rona Fairhead, Financial Times, Andrew Langhoff, Wall Street Journal Europe , Arthur O. Sulzberger, The New York Times.

The prestigious group of speakers at the panels included the publishers of many of the top newspaper and agency brands globally and in Germany, notably Rona Fairhead of the Financial Times, Andrew Langhoff of the Wall Street Journal Europe, Arthur Sulzberger of The New York Times, Laurent Joffrin of Libération, Chris Ahern, of Thomson Reuters, Katharina Borchert of Spiegel Online, Christoph Keese of Axel Springer, Malte von Trotta of dpa, Google’s Kay Oberbeck, Hessische radio news editor Katja Marx, and old Perlentaucher chum Thierry Chervel (with Robin Meyer Lucht as my co-host).

What we learned was perhaps not the big surprises, but a first class survey of firsthand accounts of where several of the very top global media brands are set to go from this point – and that we most likely are at the crossroads, really.

There is not the one true model for the digital era ahead, was the gospel of NYTimes’ Sulzberger. But media (aka newspapers) need to be experimental, engage with readers, develop – and keep – their brand promise (“If we lose it, we are lost” – Langhoff of WSJEurope). “Information wants to be expensive”, according to Fairhead, FT, so introducing metering models and building pay walls is the way to go for everybody, at least at the top end of those media brands. And sure, everybody on the panel was excited about the closed system proposed by Apple’s iPad, which allows to retain exclusive control over a media’s brand, content and payments. This sweet promise appears to have triggered instant decisions to investing significant money for the development of dedicated services and formats for the new platform (e.g. at Axel Springer).

Really stunning was the overall optimistic outlook of almost everybody on the stage. The “religious wars” have been declared to be over (Langhoff). Reuters has hired 200 journalists as of last year (Ahearn) to develop high quality, notably for exclusive new interactive services for a post TV era elite, to be branded “Reuters Insider”.

“Citizen journalism” was remembered coolly as yesterday’s challenge. Solid professional quality journalism was declared to be the frontier of the future.

It was much harder though to find clear statements on the requirements for this good journalism to take off. So far, at least in Germany, “agenda setting” from the “crowd” – or twitter, blogs, anonymous voices from out there – are considered as a rare exception to the rule, while the main brands still rule – said at least the voices from the main brands. However, we desperately need a debate on the quality of journalism today and tomorrow (said Borchert of Spiegel Online).

While everybody seemed to nod at such good intentions, it was less obvious who would spend new money on the new journalism’s digital rise, aside from the recently formed 800 pound gorilla of Thomson Reuters (with its 12,997 million $ of revenue at an operating profit of 1,575 $ – this is really big global media!).

And your moderator – me – was criticized, a bit, by labeling some of the less innovative, less aggressive established media companies’ attitude to be “aristocratic” when they expected that the new entrants should politely knock at their doors (von Trotta, dpa, commenting on Google’s attitude).

Of course, bloggers and twitterers from the audience objected to the big media brand’s optimism, not only by pointing to poor salaries paid for most of today’s online journalism. They also deplored the more and more closed walls of those behemoths represented at the panel.

Conclusions:

NYTimes Sulzberger, the natural born leader of the panels’ pack, and Borchert of Spiegel Online, Germany’s youthful, bright and dangerously smiling new front runner in the digital rat race, both insisted that the future may be wide open for everybody who is prepared to move their bottoms vigorously, ready to learn, play pathfinder, take risk – and start all over again every other day.

But disregarding all the optimism which was displayed by the leaders, one other thing was made clear as well: The land ahead ain’t no level playing field. It won’t be offering the same rewards to all, to the many, be they big, medium or small. Instead, there will be winners – and losers – indeed.

Past the religious wars of who’s right – in the trenches of the past five years or so – a hardly original split seems to lay ahead, and the current economic crises will certainly highlight the differences ever more radically:

The landscape ahead – seen from some kind of ‘Moses angle’, knowing that there is a promised digital land out there, yet not knowing exactly who will be allowed to settle in this land, and who is to go away before, in the painful process of finding this land – will be not only highly fragmented, but cascaded.

The boldest of the top media brands go for it in full force, massively investing money and gathering talent now – yet mostly organizational talent, and less often additional talented journalists. They combine muscle now with propositions and guts, so it is only reasonable to expect that some of them will make it, and even make it well.

On the other hand, the crowd out there is nothing less than opaque, or homogenous, in a solitarian “us vs. them” scheme. The crowd includes new entrants and new outcasts, new cowboys and new Indians. And of course, many within the big media fortresses are, at the same time, part of the crowd, as they connect and interact on all available channels, they facebook and twitter and blog and link.

But only a few from the crowds “out there” will be able to end up with a bottom line written in black ink, from providing profitable services, or by leveraging on their digital exposure with other chargeable services, directly or indirectly, from their writing and taping and aggregating and editing. Some will positively do so as niche players in the crowd, yet most will not.

The middle ground, or the majority of actors who used to form the core of “diversity” in the classical media, the local and regional newspapers and radio stations, were only marginally represented in the room and, if so, critically addressed in their desperate lobbying for life saving government regulation, as it is currently proposed in Germany or in France (as ‘Leistungsschutzrecht’, or ‘publisher’s rights’). Their actions will most likely produce some results, but perhaps this is more about buying time, than entering a new safe haven for the long term future.

Personally, I was most comforted – which I had not expected – by realizing that good journalism, broad and in depth coverage, nuances and diversity of angles and opinions seem to have many more realistic perspectives than one would assume from listening to most similar debates over the past few years.

But for those young aspirants who plan to take up such journalism as their profession and career, this is going to be a tough choice. The news and information business will be probably more competitive than ever. Competition will occur between all layers and factions, anywhere, anytime, anyhow, local and global, bringing about a profession that will be unforgiving for most.

At least for most of Europe, such strains will mean a deep change of a professional culture which used to be traditionally based more on a vocation and shared values, than on a struggle for survival. But it will have “manna” on offer for some – the most talented, the most aggressive, or the luckiest.

And a similar pattern may be true for the readers: Top quality journalism will continue to be on offer – at a price. All kinds of information as well as opinion will be available freely as well. But fine, yet clear distinctions will be prevalent, much more than ever before, in what will be accessible by whom, how quickly, under what rules, and at what cost.

For videos of the conference see at Carta;

for Twitter summaries see here and here;

for a German summary in Perlentaucher see here:

and for the complete program see here.

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