Happy Thanksgiving. Now, where were we? Ah yes: I spent Monday at the Said Business School, where various high-tech honchos were summoned as part of “Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford.” In the evening I had the choice of attending one of the three panels: "Young Entrepreneurs," “The Next Big Thing” or “Innovation & Media.” While I have the greatest respect for young entrepreneurs, and it would have been nice to know what the next big thing will be (sandpaper trousers? Do-it-yourself laser eye surgery? Splunge?), I felt compelled, in my role as newspaper savant, to attend the “Innovation & Media” session.
These are depressing times for newspapers. Circulations are down. Revenue is down. Classified advertising is being siphoned away by the likes of Craigslist and Monster.com. Readership of papers like The Washington Post may be up, thanks to the global reach and access provided by the Web, but no one has figured out how to make money from all these eyeballs, or, rather, enough money. Thinks aren't much better for the networks.
Mike Malone (history’s first daily technology columnist, doncha know) is convinced the printed paper is terminally ill, with no chance of recovery. Papers that economized by laying off senior staff did the wrong thing, he argued, since they hacked off their knowledge base and continued to pump money into expensive newsprint production. Better, Malone said, to have jumped to the Web immediately.
Some in the audience didn’t agree. They pointed out that newspapers possess an easy readability that computers will never match and that circulation is skyrocketing in places like India and China, where rising literacy rates are driving the boom.
Perhaps, said Malone, but that isn’t the case in the U.S. There’s still hope for newspaper Web sites, he said, since alternative media—blogs and the like—dropped the ball early on. Selling ads, the life blood of most media, depends on having detailed knowledge about readers. Blogs haven’t been providing that. Newspapers have. Malone predicted that whoever cracks the challenge first—newspapers that offer the sort of creative coverage that blogs do or blogs that deliver the detailed metrics that advertisers crave—will prevail.
Jonah Peretti, co-founder of the Huffington Post, predicted we would see the once-sacred wall between advertising and editorial breached, not in the form of advertorials or payola, but by each side of the divide borrowing tactics and practices from the other.
“If you look at advertising, it’s highly optimized,” he said. The obsession of marketers is in how to maximize clicks. “Whereas in editorial, you just cover the important story and give readers, not what they want, but what’s important for society. That only drives traffic so much."
Said Peretti: “I think we’re going to see some of the tools from advertising get transferred to media." Headlines will be written with search engines in mind. Stories will be commissioned on the basis of what people are already searching for, since this sort of bandwagon-jumping increases links. Linkbait in the form of shorter , more polemical pieces will become more common. Peretti saw methods migrating in the other direction, too, such as Web advertisers linking to other content, the way newspapers link outside their own sites.
I got the feeling that Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, felt a twinge of sadness at the prospect of the mainstream media crumbling, possibly taking with it the objectivity and care with which it does its job. It pisses him off that sites like ValleyWag print any bit of scurrilous gossip that comes along. Even so, he said that, as an investor, "I try to look for businesses where I’m not holding up the dam." The water's rising on the traditional media.
Stanford's David Nordfors, the leading proponent of something called "innovation journalism," said the media is stuck in old ways of doing things. I was unable to grasp exactly what innovation journalism is meant to me (innovatively-produced journalism? journalism about innovation?), but Nordfors has a snappy abbreviation for it: "injo." Isn't that the name of Jonny Quest's sidekick. Or is it an Ethiopian flat bread?
Whatever it is, Nordfors thinks there should be more of it. The traditional media, he said, are "not only losing their business model, they're also drifting toward telling less relevant stories."
After the panel ended, I drifted outside, where a cold rain was soaking Oxford. I unlocked my bicycle, climbed aboard and pedaled home in the dark, thoughts of innovation journalism competing with fantasies about stripping off my sodden clothes and changing into something warm and dry.