Big Media is at the mercy of the tech giants and it’s their own fault

How are changes in technology and audience behaviour affecting news values, shapes and structures?

This is a question I have been asked to answer. Well, not answer, but at least research the issues enough to stimulate some debate. So over the course of a few blog posts I intend to share some of what I uncovered and solicit some feedback. Am I on the right track? You decide.

I think the best place to start is where technology in journalism is, and where it could or should be. I really liked this extract from Jeff Jarvis’ new book Public Parts and I think it gets to heart of the problem with what most media companies are trying.

Today, publishers as a breed have so far tried little more than reproducing their old content and business models in new forms, from CD-ROMs to the web to iPads. It was the same in the Renaissance. The earliest publishers made books to mimic the work of scribes, even designing their typefaces to look like scribes’ handwriting. Printing was promoted as automated writing. “They appear not to have perceived the printed book as a fundamentally different form, but rather as a manuscript book that could be produced with greater speed and convenience,” Leah Marcus says in “Cyberspace Renaissance.” They didn’t yet see the possibilities.

Matthew Ingram at GigaOM remarks on the pride media companies are taking in creating new Facebook applications.

But there’s another aspect of these launches that’s troubling, and that’s the pride so many publishers seem to take in having produced a Facebook app, as though it’s the pinnacle of media innovation.

and

But if all you are doing is creating widgets for people who live inside a specific walled garden, then I think you are missing the boat.

This is part of a larger worrying trend.  Media companies are relying on technology companies for solutions to their problems. There were no doubt “Hallelujahs!” from media proprietors  as Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad and Jeff Bezos the Kindle. But where is the innovation from within?

Amazon did not sit around and wait for the decline of its book selling business. It took the initiative and created its own hardware and content ecosystem, ensuring its own longterm future. Where are the media companies doing this?

By relying on technology companies, media companies are setting themselves up for a great fall. This was perfectly illustrated when Apple decided it wanted to take 30% of the subscription revenue for publications on the iPad. Companies had to pay up or remove subscriptions and in-app purchases from their apps.

This video from 1994 was produced by American newspaper giants Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy Company). They had their own design lab working on technologies that are remarkably similar to the tablet devices of today. What happened to this innovation and foresight?

“If the readers felt more empowered, more listened to and more part of the process they would be less fighty”

Trinity Mirror journalist, David Higgerson, blogged yesterday discussing whether online comments were worth the bother.

Trolls, nastiness, timewasters, spam are all potential problems when news stories and opinion pieces are open to user comments. But despite these problems, turning comments off is the last thing news orgs should be doing.

Sarah Hartley in the comments made this great point:

With news, if the only invite is to comment on what’s been delivered from on high it could be quite frustrating for a reader who knows something about the topic. If the readers felt more empowered, more listened to and more part of the process they would be less fighty. Bloggers are generally more willing to involve the reader in the process – something that news sites could learn from perhaps?

There are countless reasons for trollish behaviour and this won’t solve all of them. But so much could be solved by making users feel involved and part of the story.

The article is not the end of the story, it’s the beginning of a conversation. A great story should spark some debate. The best, most informed story ever written could still be improved by another expert’s opinion.

There are times when comments make you want to tear your hair out. But ignoring them isn’t the answer.