I’m a kind of excitable person who doesn’t find it easy to sit still, my mind moves faster than my body and I absolutely hated school and college. I have no love for offices either and prefer to be properly engaged, seeing things with my own eyes and touching the technology, and most importantly hearing the people speak. Because no matter what happens with technology, shiny new gadgets, social media and the next killer app, in general, it’s always going to be about the people. Relationships that feed my hunger for knowledge – and result in a story – are pure gold to me.
When you see the latest Twitter, Facebook, Ping.fm or Tweetdeck application that you absolutely must have, fundamentally it’s people connecting, getting the news, the gossip, getting on a stage to impress their views. It’s all quite clear to me. It’s not about having the must-have app or device – well not for everyone – but it’s the exchange of knowledge and connecting with people. The ‘social’ in media. When you think about it, that was quintessentially the role of the newspaper for the last 200 years.
The newspaper industry is going through a monumental change, some have folded and others are going ‘online only’. There’s a view that the newspaper industry is dying. I don’t believe it is at all. In fact, the future of newspapers, their brands in particular, is in fact potentially glorious.
When I fell in love with journalism I had no patience for theory and wanted to get practicing. I had a romantic notion of busy newsrooms and passionate suits for truth. Once, on my first visit to a newspaper office, I politely asked my guide where all the reporters were. “They’re out getting stories”, he grumbled in a tone that suggested I should have known better. This was two years before Veronica Guerin was shot and a world removed from journalism of today where people rarely seem to leave their offices.
After college, I wrote newspaper articles mostly for free for local newspapers. A kind news editor in a national newspaper always took my calls and pushed the odd little assignment my way; he never discouraged me.
Slowly, I built up enough work to have enough of a raison d’etre not to have to sign on at the local dole office. This was the early 1990s and at the time I didn’t have a computer. I would thumb lifts to nearby towns to attend a court case or an angry local community meeting.
Afterwards I would try to make sense of my scribbled notes, find a phone box and make a reverse-charge call to the newspaper where a middle-aged lady patiently typed up my dictated story. I would go home where I’d wait excitedly till the next morning and the paper appeared to see if my story was published. A local solicitor let me use his fax machine for free to file copy to magazines and I was aware of only one person in my town who had a modem which I judged it too complicated for me to use.
Today, I can write up a news story and send it to a sub-editor or as I do most mornings before 7am, input it directly into a content management system and by hitting a single button can broadcast it to the entire world.
The technologies of today are a pure marvel, and compared with my low-tech world of typewriters, faxes and reversed charges I can’t believe the sheer fire power the average teenager or adult has at their disposal. In mere seconds a person could send a video by Qik to thousands of people from their mobile phone, upload it on YouTube and share across social networks. Your Second Life avatar could attend a college lecture in a virtual world. A flash mob could organise itself to take over a railway station, dance wildly and put a smile on everyone’s face, even if it was a marketing stunt for T-Mobile.
The average person today has more firepower in their mobile phone to broadcast to the world in seconds than a TV camera crew had a decade ago. It used to be a matter of luck and being in the right place and right time with a camera or a notebook. Now the eyes and ears are everywhere.
If I feel strongly enough about something I could blog about it. I could ‘tweet’ a question to hundreds of ‘followers’ on Twitter and may get an answer. I could communicate with hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook some joke or ironic view.
You could argue that the newspaper, which for two or three hundred years was the fulcrum of such activity, as indeed were TV companies and radio stations for the past 50 years, have met their match in a few short years.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been working on a cover story for Marketing Age on the future of newspapers, which should be on shelves next week. During my conversations with people like Menno van Doorn, author of the brilliant book Me the Media as well as Damian Lawlor, head of Adwords at Google, I’ve come to realise that a consolidation of all the noise we hear is coming and that newspapers and magazines, and especially journalism, could thrive in this social media future.
Firstly, for reasons of firepower, all these tools and technologies will lead to a richer fabric, a more colourful world than ever for a treasure trove of stories. Oh, and in terms of fabric, a guy I was talking to this week suggested researchers are looking at putting LED technology into the fabric of clothes. Imagine teenagers walking around with videos playing on their T-shirts, or their Bebo front page emblazoned to say who they are.
But yes, there’s going to be a lot of noise. According to Menno’s book 2007 was a “memorable year” because more information was generated in that single year than in the entire history of writing since its inception in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago.
The ivory towers that journalists used to inhabit in the privileged role of being the sole disseminator of news are crumbling. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. On one hand this is how I make a living, on the other I see a wave of democratisation of media crashing everywhere. I see a wonderful world emerging. Because people are people, this path was inevitable. The technologies evolve, people like to connect and express themselves. Take your mind off the ‘next big thing’ and see it for what it is.
- The more technologies we create that bring people together the more disruptive forces will assail media or media as it was. It’s inevitable, let’s just accept that.
It’s a question of adapting and seeing things for what they are. Who knows? The service or solution that will outshine Facebook, Google, YouTube and MySpace all together is probably a germ of an idea in a 15 year-old’s bedroom as I write. Maybe that child is Irish, maybe he or she is Korean or Russian. And in 10 years time their idea will be surpassed by something else. Change is constant.
But back to newspapers, I believe they do have a promising future. The problems they face today have less to do with the internet than the over-reliance on property advertising and the fact that a global recession is under way. The most damaging truth about today’s media is that under 30s have not developed a habit of buying papers on a daily basis and access their audio via Blip.fm or video on YouTube and Qik.
If anything, the internet is possibly saving traditional media. News aggregators like Google News actually drive people to newspaper websites and with the addition of YouTube into the Google News engine it will drive people to broadcasts from services like NBC, BBC and RTE.
A consolidation of all this noise is coming. Searches for news or content very soon will be skewed in the direction of quality content from specific sources. Brands and quality will separate the wheat from the chaff and magazines from Forbes to Newsweek and newspapers that embrace the social media future as a way of disseminating quality content will indeed thrive.
The key is connecting the virtual with the physical:
A marketing campaign that features components that results in people buying newspapers and magazines, unlocking prizes or clues by scanning their phone over a 3-D image and instantly have them interacting with the publisher’s website
Tuning into a TV show that also features 3D imagery that only your phone can unlock for a puzzle, text back and win your prize
Tweeting rather than texting answers to quizzes or giving views on TV and radio shows like Primetime and showing these views alongside the live broadcast
Augmented reality where if you look through your phone’s camera screen for a sign or symbol in a TV show or in a newspaper report you are pointing your phone at you get additional information or link straight to supporting knowledge
Local newspapers, in particular, could have a very vibrant future if they got with the latest tools. Menno described a very compelling idea to me whereby if I’m a visitor to a local town and am equipped with an Android phone, by pointing it at a local point of interest the telematics in the device could know where I’m standing, what direction I’m facing and algorithms in the device could interact with the local newspaper office to give me information on the monument as well as direct me to local services like restaurants, hotels and bars, providing an advertising value-add for businesses.
The adage ‘never waste a good recession’ is as true for media houses as it is for anyone in business. Change is constant, change is good. But fear paralyses.