Learning about the future of news at Consumer Electronics Show

This week I am attending CES (Consumer Electronics Show; http://www.cesweb.org) in Las Vegas as a guest of IRTS (International Radio and Television Society Foundation; http://irtsfoundation.org). For day one, IRTS organized a great event where academics who study and teach social media could meet with leaders of the profession. The topic of the conversation was “The art of reaching consumers in the digital age” but since many of the professors as well as speakers were from the journalism field, the conversation kept returning to the future of news organizations. And I have to admit that after today I do not see a happy future for today’s news organizations in any shape or form – not in print, not on TV, not even online – despite some professionals and academics cheerful comments. So, here is my quick one-sentence summary of each speaker’s presentations and then, at the end, my conclusion.

First, Jack Myers (https://twitter.com/JackMyerscom), Chairman of Media Advisory Group, talked about the convergence of brain, heart, and gut and the new generation that embraces this convergence – they do not want just to know they want to feel as well.

Then, David Poltrack, head of research at CBS, tried to persuade us how great networks are adapting to the changes in media consumption – DVRs, video on demand, streaming TV shows – he had plenty of data available, but it sounded more like explaining why the numbers in TV viewership are going down rather than explaining why the numbers of total viewership are going up.

Rob Barnett (https://twitter.com/DamnRob) of My Damn Channel focused on branded entertainment versus commercial-paid model of interruption marketing and proposed that advertisers do not need to rely on networks.

Michael Terpin (https://twitter.com/michaelterpin), founder and CEO of SocialRadius, talked about different types of social media and how brands can use them instead of doing any outreach to the traditional media.

Michael Zimbalist (https://twitter.com/zimbalist) who is in charge of research for the New York Times Company tried to defend the “old” media proposing that it can become interactive and occupy various surfaces: instead of paper New York Times can be on a mirror in your bathroom answering your questions about the day ahead.

Dave Morgan (https://twitter.com/davemorgannyc), founder and CEO of Simulmedia, concluded the day by saying that news organizations thrived in a scarce distribution environment – with 2-3 newspapers and 2-3 TV stations, there was hardly any competition and advertisers had to pay them no matter what. Today, however, distribution is not scarce but plentiful; instead, attention is scarce. He did not believe newspapers could adapt and survive, but broadcast networks would thrive in this entertainment. I was not sure why he made that claim.

So, what did I think at the end? Newspapers, TV stations, and journalism in general are all in trouble! None of the speakers could explain what the added value of a journalist is. New York Times stock dropped from almost $50 to under $10 in the last 10 years and I think it is still overvalued. When Michael Zimbalist talked about the successes New York Times had playing with convergence and online distribution – he talked about the things, such as Infographics, slide shows, and so on, that college students do for fun and for free and post them to Facebook. And New York Times had teams of 10-20 people (all getting salaries and maybe even benefits!) working on those.

Journalists are also in close and symbiotic relationships with their sources – they depend on each other. So, there is not much of “controlling the government” function left any more. Again, regular people can do a way better job than professional journalists.

Another answer suggested by David Poltrack was that content is king. People will have to watch CBS in some way to see the good shows. So, TV networks will survive. But how long before content creators go directly to YouTube? How long before they make a website where they would release a new episode of their show once a week instead of selling it to CBS? How long before they decide they want 100% control over the show and revenues? Why do you need networks if more and more people are watching the shows on their computers, tablets, and cell phones? Same can apply to journalism. If you have a great story about the corruption in the White House why sell it to CBS or New York Times, if you can put it on your web site and have control over everything?

Finally, news. Dave Morgan said that networks and local news stations are essential for that. In fact, the success of networks is attributed to the fact that they delivered news faster than newspapers. But are they still the fastest? Jack Myers in his speech said he had been able to call the election results before any of the networks did by just following Twitter. When something happens I see the information on Twitter and Tumblr and YouTube before I see it on networks. In fact, I often see networks showing the same footage I already saw on YouTube or Twitter earlier. I’d rather believe that in 10 years people will be able to zoom in on Benghazi from space to see what is happening there live(!) using Google maps and then switching to live feeds from cell phones of people located there than they would turn on CBS news to learn about the events in Benghazi at 6pm. And for local news Dave Morgan himself said that a passionate parent can do a better job posting about the little league baseball game than a local newspaper. How about local restaurants? Or road constructions? Or any other topics? In 10 years, when current University and high school students who do everything with a smartphone in their hands turn into adults, they are not going to drop their devices – they will continue taking pictures and videos of the world around them, posting them, tagging them, commenting on them and especially things they are passionate about.

And I think the coverage they would produce, would satisfy brain, gut, and heart as the first speaker, Jack Myers, demanded for the next generation.

So, then, what is the added value of journalism? What does it produce for the society that people should pay for?

A few notes: Huge thanks to all the speakers – your experience and knowledge of the industry was eye-opening. It is of course possible that I misunderstood and/or misinterpreted what the speakers were saying – if this was case, I am sorry about that. Huge thanks to IRTS for this unique opportunity. I know I can serve my students better now when my mind was expanded. Looking forward to Day Two tomorrow (or actually already today)...

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