Our Editorial Director Andie Lowenstein gives us her take on the current state of news coverage in the digital age: what’s changed, where it’s going, and how publishers should adapt accordingly.
Remember when Dan Rather was a reliable friend? If you’re younger you may prefer Anderson Cooper or Brian Williams. You invited them into your home every night to tell you what was going on in the world. You trusted them to always have the inside scoop on what was going on at home or across the globe. Or maybe you preferred to set aside time first thing in the morning to sit down with a cup of coffee and read the newspaper.
While the core elements that manifest journalism and news remain unchanged, methods of delivery and reception have seen dramatic changes in the last few years. It’s strange to think 15 years ago there were no mobile phones or blogs. Now, digital innovation is becoming the backbone of news distribution and consumption.
The public’s pull toward digital created a large dilemma for the media industry. In 2015, newspapers had what may be the worst year since the recession and have continued on a steady decline since. Cord-cutting became more popular so broadcast companies had to adapt. Printless news media companies, like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Mashable, were the result of the digital transition, and pretty seamlessly made their way to the top of the food chain. Global financial institution ING found that 68 percent of journalists believe journalism can no longer operate without social media. The industry’s dependence on social media as a vehicle put humans in a position of having to figure out how to handle the constant overload of information. So, attention spans became shorter to make room for easier multitasking and quicker consumption.
Though a large number of millennials tend to receive news passively and incidentally, with 60 percent saying they “mostly bump into” news and information while engaging in other activity, the massive amount of information readily available has made them more informed than generations past. This new influx of information (and the vast amount of platforms available for receiving it) altered the way that audiences respond to news – and, in turn, how journalists cover it.
We’ve reached an interesting turning point: digital news media is conforming to its audience. The industry is coming to terms with the new ways that audiences’ brains digest information and shifting to their needs:
Tech companies and publishers join forces
The Pew Research Center found the bulk of digital ad revenue to be held by tech companies. Interestingly, none of them are natively journalism organizations, but Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo incorporate news into their consumer offerings. The influence tech companies are having on journalism began, in part, as a helping hand for news institutions struggling to find their way in this new world. It started with search engines and email, then moved to ad networks, app stores, audience engagement tools like Google’s AMP, and more recently Facebook’s “trending topics,” Snapchat Discover, and virtual reality.
Shorter, interactive, mobile-friendly formats
Mobile is driving more traffic than web so developing for small screens is increasingly becoming more of a priority. This, in turn, is shortening the average length of news articles and building investments in videos and interactive apps like Snapchat Discover, Facebook Messenger and New York Times virtual reality app. News stories can come piecemeal as links, shares, app notifications, or emails (like TheSkimm or Need2Know).
According to Cisco, by 2018, 69 percent of total Internet traffic will be video. Video is a brilliant solution for publishers in the era of TL;DR (Too Long, Didn’t Read). It’s momentum is in full speed with recent developments like live streaming video as seen on Periscope, Facebook and Instagram. The emergence of automation in the newsroom is an advanced game changer. An alternative to bite-sized articles, short-form videos cater to short attention spans and deliver the same news without sacrificing quality.
NewsWhip and Quartz both agree that despite shorter attention spans, audiences still are, and will continue, reading long-form pieces, so long as they are compelling and analytical.The majority of articles will become bite-sized and medium-length articles will disappear, but long-form is here to stay. Today’s digital publishers must find the right balance between short-form video and long-form content to cater to different types of audiences.
Virality & sensationalism
An Edelman study showed because of dependence on social media traffic, 75 percent of journalists feel heavy pressure to create content that has virality potential. This is dangerous territory with a fine line between truth and fake news. Just look at the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election as a result. Audiences spend most of their time scrolling through headlines and moving on as they try to keep up with the information flood. For journalists, this means headlines hold almost as much importance as the content that follows. It’s our responsibility to ensure these headlines are equally as eye-catching as they are truthful.
So how can journalists build real readership? Despite their news consumption method of choice, audiences share the same end goal as they always have: to receive meaningful information. By embracing new technologies for content creation and distribution, writing attention-grabbing headlines, and finding the sweet spot of balance between long-form content paired with shorter summaries or video, we can better appeal to the audiences of today – when the state of news coverage is controlled by the viewer.