Things I’d like to see in the media: closer merging of news and entertainment #auspol

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It is an oft heard complaint that there is too much overlap between news and entertainment.  It is not uncommon in Australia for news programs to promote reality television programs or to report on soap opera plot developments.  It is frequently opined that we treat politics like it’s a football match, that we turn politicians into celebrities by making them perform like dancing monkeys on prime time TV, and that we sacrifice intelligent, sober political analysis for clickbait.

People misdiagnose the problem.  These are examples of where news is sacrificed in the name of entertainment. It’s not really an ‘overlap’; it’s one dominating the other.

On the other hand, merging news platforms with entertainment platforms — entirely possible given recent technological developments — would improve the quality of our news output and the diet of people who regularly consume the news.  If done properly, it would also improve the quality and quantity of Australian made entertainment.  It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s more than possible.

I’ll admit that this is the idea which makes me seem most like a supervillain…

Written journalism/commentary is in trouble.  The internet age told the population at large that they were entitled to any cultural output that they wanted for free, and told advertisers as an industry that advertising online should be cheap.  As newspaper circulation fell, content that was cheaper to produce (inflammatory opinion pieces) was increasingly relied upon to fill pages that had previously been filled with long form journalism (which is expensive to produce).

It turns out that this approach is completely backwards if you want to improve your circulation rates.  If the Australian news industry had invested more in long form journalism as the economy shrank, they’d have better content to attract customers.  It’s one of those problems with decisions being profitable in the short term but detrimental over the long term (cf. the problem of reducing the proportion of younger academics in universities).

Today, the puzzle is how to make journalism and opinion writing profitable.  One of my projects over the past year has been to work out solutions to this problem.  It turns out that the best way of making a news company profitable and successful is to diversify the content of the company.

‘Proper’ journalism is profitable over the business cycle, but relies upon greater investment to get that return.  Companies that are starting up simply do not have the resources to invest in that sort of activity.  Companies that do (for example, Crikey) rely heavily on their Professors of Everythingology in order to produce the bulk of their content.  In other words, ‘proper’ journalism is the exception rather than the rule.  In these examples, the work of the Professors of Everythingology subsidises the work of the proper journalists.

This model, by and large, is being used by the larger, established companies as well, but with less risk to the organisation.  The Australian, for example, could afford to have a few wild goose chases.  Smaller news organisations would struggle to fund somebody to undertake work that resulted in very little.

But the problem is that the Professors of Everythingology model significantly contributes to the malaise afflicting the news media.  A good example is Andrew Bolt.  Despite the success of the ‘BoltComments’ Twitter feed, I struggle to find people who actually read Bolt’s column in the Herald Sun.  Like, I really struggle to find people who actually read his articles seriously and not just because they’re seeing what all the outrage is about.  I’ve sat in tea rooms and watched people with the tabloids: they don’t read them, they flick through until they see sport or news about celebrities.  I strongly suspect that most of the people posting inflammatory comments in support of Bolt are trolling the outraged lefties on Twitter.

Instead of diversifying into a two-stream news company, it’s possible to start up an organisation that diversified into news and entertainment.  And not just in the ‘I’m Rupert Murdoch and I use funds from my entertainment company to keep my newspapers afloat’ sense.  The trick is to create a buffet of media consumption that assists the consumer to go from one of your products to the next.

The ordinary person wakes up in the morning, probably to the sounds of a radio or music.  They might flick the morning news on the television so they can catch the weather.  If they’re old school, they might even flick through the newspaper with breakfast.  They jump in the car and listen to the radio.  At work, they will get e-mails sent from their friends with news content.  If they’re bored, they might even check out news websites once in a while.  If they’re bored and clever, they’ll have RSS readers delivering their news to them.  During breaks, they might flick through the newspaper in the tea room.  The travel home involves listening to the radio again, then some TV or reading before bed.

Each one of those products could be provided by the same organisation.  People could wake up to the sounds of podcasts that they’d downloaded during the night.  Over the next few years, we’ll see an increase in the number of people downloading television shows directly to their television.  And we’re familiar with the different ways of distributing text (I don’t even mind the ‘BuzzFeedification’ of some of the ABC’s stories, if it’s done well and precisely).

What you notice about each of these products is that they’re not necessarily ‘news’ products.  For the ordinary person, very few of them are news products.  They wake up to the sounds of music with soundbites of news (both heavy and light) littered throughout.  The ordinary person naturally transitions from news to entertainment throughout their day.

For the most part, audiences manage the transitions between media themselves.  They choose the radio station.  They look up the websites they think will have stories of interest.  They sit down at the scheduled time to watch the evening news.  There’s really no reason why this should be the case.  If your goal is to attract audiences with your entertainment products and quality journalism, then the media organisation should make it easier for the audience to move between the types of content on offer.

Take the morning drive to work, for example.  Because paying attention to lengthy slabs of spoken word is a suboptimal way of processing information, news bulletins tend to be shorter, digested forms of news content.  When the audience transitions from the radio to, say, the website when they’re bored at work, media companies force the user to look up the story of their own initiative.  This, in turn, increases the likelihood that you’ll lose that part of the audience.  First, you’re hoping that they remember enough of the details to look up the story that interested them.  Second, you hope that they’ll come back to you (or one of your affiliates) for the rest of the story.  So a person who’s listening to the news on a Fairfax-owned radio station, for example, might end up on a News Corp website for the rest of the details.

The most optimal way of delivering news content is to have the audience tell you nothing more than what they’re interested in and when they’re ready to consume the information.  The role of the media company is to keep the audience’s attention and to provide the content in a way that best suits the audience at that particular time.

When you start to do the sums, you realise that there are ways to make this increasingly efficient.  We still use the inefficient mode of forcing audiences to sit down at a particular time in order to consume various pieces of content.  We’ve took this to all new levels of stupid when we started naming television programs after the time that they aired on television.  Although it was useful in an age when you needed people to remember when the show was screening, it’s less useful in an age when we expect pieces of information on demand.  Why should we wait until 7.30 for Leigh Sales to interview the Prime Minister, when we could have it as soon as it’s ready?

In order to fill 24 hours of broadcasting time, television stations purchase a vast amount of superfluous crap.  In June this year, the ABS released statistics revealing that the average Australian watches about 13 hours of television per week (on average, less than two hours a day).  So why do we produce so many hours of television?  Further, why do we produce so many hours of television only to prioritise particular shows by giving them exclusive use of a time slot?

I love science fiction, for example.  When a television station is playing a reality television programme about which made-for-mass-production ‘artist’ can result in the popular consumption of mass-media music, they’ve lost me as an audience.  Further, they’re making me wait until they’re ready for me to watch a show I’m interested in watching.  If they were producing and distributing media efficiently, they’d be able to have both the audience that wanted the sing-a-long-to-other-people’s-songs hour and the people who wanted their science fiction.

So that gives an idea of the end point.  An organisation that integrates its delivery of news and entertainment.  In order to reach that point, you need to build up an audience.  You can start with the media that are easiest to produce and distribute (text and audio) before moving into harder media (video, interactive stuff).  When you reach a particular volume of entertainment content, you can even redistribute older entertainment programmes as part of your weekly package.  Under a particularly sophisticated version of this model, you can even start to integrate functions in real life with the media delivery system also delivering tickets to public lectures, art exhibitions, public events… even theatre and cinema.  If you were feeling particularly ambitious, you could even partner up with universities for MOOCs and MOOC-like content.  Why not give new life to old media formats?  We could see a return of the radio play format that provided an entry point for artists like the Spike Milligan, Douglas Adams, and David Mitchell.  The same delivery system that gives you written news articles could also be used to serialise novels.  If I ever went down this path, I’d even start serialising classic, public domain works so that the population had no excuse for avoiding classic material.  And — because I’m not-so-secretly a future Bond villain — you could even integrate it into online dating services (which Fairfax already does, except my totally evil version involves being able to match people based on their consumption of media products and political interest).

The system works because the audience fundamentally wants to be lazy.  Most consumers only go to other providers of media content because they’re forced to.  Indeed, if you were being less of an evil genius about the whole thing, you could even work with providers of specialist media to increase the amount of content available to your audience.  Not only would the audience consume media which you produced, but the service would also link the audience to the best Australian content produced by other organisations.

But the hurdle is the heavy investment costs at the start.  The real value of an organisation like this is its ability to direct the attention of the audience, and attracting an audience from scratch is nearly impossible.  Almost perversely, the people who would be most capable of developing these sorts of organisations are the current media folk.

It’s only a matter of time before we start to see organisations like this.  If current trends continue, it’s not going to be long until Channel 10 ceases to exist in its current form.  It’s only a matter of time before radios stop broadcasting and people start streaming virtual radio services.  We have already begun to see companies amalgamate their media products.  We clearly have a disruptive moment in the media economy, but nobody seems capable of capitalising upon it.

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One thought on “Things I’d like to see in the media: closer merging of news and entertainment #auspol

  1. Pingback: Quick Post: Holmes uses the wrong framework to discuss @TheNewDaily_ #auspol | Only The Sangfroid

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