AMITIAE - Thursday 14 April 2016

Cassandra: Traditional Media Forms Need to Adjust to Lower Audience Expectations

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Early this week, I had dinner with a friend from the UK. We were undergraduates together back in the 1980s. We went our separate ways but ended up here. I teach at a university; he works for a worldwide news organisation. Since 1990 I have been a freelance contributor to newspapers here. I also run my own website. I used to write about PCs for the Bangkok Post, but after 2003 focused on Apple when OS X became available.

With the exception of the rare hermit or those in some form of exile, most of us will access various forms of news. Media output ranges from traditional print and television to online access and modern formats, such as Twitter or Facebook. These newer means of communication are less reliable, but will usually provide the user with content that reinforces their views. When it does not, there is however a right to reply.

Many newspaper readers and television viewers likewise select titles or channels that support their respective world views. My grandparents used to read two newspapers every day: the Daily Herald for him (before it was turned into The Sun by Rupert Murdoch), and the Daily Mirror, which eventually followed The Sun downwards. These had initially been "his and hers" newspapers that supported the British Left, as did my grandparents. The Daily Telegraph was for Tories; The Guardian for Liberals. The Independent was a long way into the future.

The Internet has created massive change in the ways people access and create information. News has become instant and the paper versions of newspapers have suffered because of this. Unless you need a specific article or item, there is nothing as old as yesterday's newspaper. Some still prefer to access news via the traditional paper format and there is some value in archiving, but even in 1948 George Orwell was prescient enough to imagine computer terminals. In 1984 these were for editing already-published news so that it would match Party announcements. These days however, most will access "print" news via the Internet.

With corresponding reductions in sales, income from traditional forms of advertising has fallen and newspapers are not fully able to monetize their new digital outputs. In some areas there has been a successful switch to new media, particularly in the financial world, where consumers are willing to pay for up to date and timely economic intelligence.

Westlaw The legal profession also needs access to legal information and Westlaw, now part of the Thomson-Reuters Group is an online solution. In keeping with modern practices, there is now a Westlaw app available to subscribers.

Another solution is LexisNexis. This provider also has several apps for subscribers, including one for those in Asia. Subscriptions are not cheap, but those who rely on such services have always been willing to pay.

These, however, are unique in that the information they provide is critical to allow their subscribers to work efficiently. While Britain's Financial Times is essentially a newspaper - now part of the Nikkei group - it also falls in the area of essential economic and financial information. Like Bloomberg, it provides subscribers with information. A paywall exists for most of its online edition. It too is profitable.

Financial Times main page

In many countries people receive their information from a single television source. In some countries, viewers have no choice and are spoon-fed the news the government thinks fit. In other countries there may be a wide range of news and entertainment channels available. Despite this choice, many prefer a single news source (e.g. BBC, Fox News). Content selection and presentation may be slanted towards a particular demographic.

Netflix As with newspapers, forms of delivery are changing. While our parents use traditional forms of access, the switch to cable and (later) satellite delivery has spread the customer base thinner: traditional TV providers are having to compete for viewers. As with the Internet, content is king.

The traditional providers and cable/satellite are now also having to compete with internet access to programming. For example, I use Netflix either via a browser, an app on a mobile device, or with Apple TV. iFlix is also available (AppleTV App due soon) along with several other sources of news and entertainment.

As well as access to programming and movies that the cable provider does not have, there is more convenience: viewers may watch when (and where) they want; and may pause the delivery mid-stream. The only viewing that keeps me subscribed to the cable company is Formula One. MotoGP (motor cycle racing) has long had a a subscription service: Dorna recognizing the change to user preferences, which Formula One Management has not yet seen.


As viewer numbers diminish, so the TV advertising that F1 relies on will seem less attractive. Those who use internet sources will begin to question the need for them to subscribe to a cable source when more convenient viewing options are available to them. If Formula One Management fail to see the need to diversify its delivery methods, they may see profits decline.

Even before the recent tightening-up on journalist visas in Thailand, freelance contributors were having a hard time here and in many other countries. The professional who may turn up after an event (such as an explosion) cannot compete with the amateur who was there when it happened. With the massive spread of hand-held cameras and now smartphones, the man in the street is at an advantage.

Large events where video cameras are sent up in advance, and interviews by informed presenters, still have a place of course, but the immediacy that new technology can provide, means that traditional news providers are now competing among themselves and with amateur camera users.

This is no criticism of amateur output: the history of our time is not written in books or glossy magazines; it is now in media forms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or blogs. Most video of the Tsunami in December 2004 and the more recent 2011 Japanese Tsunami was taken by ordinary people (perhaps extraordinary in the circumstances). This wider access to output forms (especially the smartphone) along with reductions in TV viewer numbers is beginning to hit some companies. Al Jazeera has recently announced a 500-person reduction in staffing numbers, with most losses in the company's own Qatar base. The company had already pulled out of the USA, unable to compete there.

Earlier, in 2013, the Chicago Sun-Times sacked its entire photography department, including a Pulitzer Prize-winner. It was to provide reporters with iPhones instead, but later rehired four of the sacked staff. One of the factors behind the Sun-Times' decision was that users of the website preferred video to still images (and presumably the written word): a change that new media has wrought. Many now prefer their news in short video clips or sound-bites.

AppleTV - Image provided by Apple TV news providers are now learning the same lessons that the newspapers are still trying to absorb, particularly that online advertising is not a reliable source of income. Traditional media forms sell less: readers, or viewer numbers have reduced.

Most now access news via the internet, with more of these using handheld devices than computers. Except for certain types of news or information (see above), most expect to access content for free.

There is a huge gap between content providers and most consumers. Traditional providers - perhaps huge international organizations - have staff, buildings, costs and they require payment for their output. With a porous internet, if users are denied free content by one source, it may well be available through another (sooner or later).

While the large news organizations do not usually provide immediate online content (except via subscription services) they do need to sell it to news channels who will then transmit (and sometimes post online). With diminishing viewer numbers, the TV companies are likely to be more selective, putting more pressure on the news agencies: content, quality, timeliness. And price.

The pot is smaller than in years before. What will occur is a honing process. Personnel will be cut. This will reduce costs, but means that the same number of news stories will be chased by fewer professionals. The end result is likely to be a reduction in quality news content - not just the video or photography, but also expert comment.

An alternative may be to embrace the new media in the way that Netflix, Amazon, AppleTV and others are doing. With apps - paid or subscription - quality content provided for discerning users may be part of a multi-faceted solution that would ensure new sources of income.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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