Jon Bernstein, editor, writer and digital media consultant, former digital director at the New Statesman and multimedia editor at Channel 4 News
What’s the biggest challenge facing legacy media in 2017?
A major challenge for them comes from a sourcing point of view. How do they decide what to trust and what not to trust? So many sources can now be turned into news and in fact are now competitors as news sources.
So if you were covering the evacuation of eastern Aleppo last year, would you follow the BBC, Reuters news wires or the Twitter feed of the international Red Cross?
The guys on the ground are now able to tell their story unmediated. Once the source of your news, they’re now broadcasting directly as a consequence of the internet.
But even the Red Cross has its own agenda – so how do you supply the mediating context and interpretation, the all sides considered view of the story?
Must legacy media choose between opinion and fact?
Social media behaviour shows that people gather around the opinions and sources they trust, but it was ever thus, in terms of the newspaper they once chose.
One of the problems that newspapers have is that news has become so generic and vanilla that opinion, analysis and insight became the point of difference – answering that question, ‘I know what happens, tell me what it means’.
I ran Channel 4’s FactCheck website during the 2005 general election and it was incredibly easy to put your hand in the proverbial black bag and pull out a lie. But it didn’t stop the politicians repeating the untruths because they knew they had salience – in other words, they felt true.
The difference is that back then the information was presented in some sort of context – within a newspaper or the running order of a news programme.
So sophisticated consumers of news would know to take a headline in the Sun, for example, with a pinch of salt.
What’s the best current business model for journalism?
I don’t think anybody knows. The subscription model is based on a community of interest but I’m not sure that’s enough.
The guts were ripped out of the original magazine and newspaper model in the early to mid 1990s, when the commercial internet killed classified ads. Newspapers still run display ads, but they can charge much less for them.
Blendl could be a way forward. [Dutch tech company Blendl aggregates journalism behind a single paywall and charges micropayments to users for access. Calling themselves ‘the iTunes of journalism’, Blendl now has 250,000 users in the Netherlands, most under 35 years old, and recently signed licenses to sell The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.]
What can legacy media learn from digital-born media?
Broadcasters are relearning storytelling. It used to be structured purely an inverted pyramid. You get one shot at it until the top line changes, and then you redo it.
The whole notion of live blogging and tweeting has changed all that, atomising news and breaking up the linearity of the old rolling news model. [The BBC has an Atomised News R&D workstream, with a long-term vision ‘for news to be tailored to the individual by being delivered in different formats depending on devices, location, lifestyle, age and preferences’]
Broadcasters should also consider going niche. A global audience makes even the smallest niche sizeable and potentially profitable. The internet means no geographical boundaries and no distribution costs.
Just as TV packages have been ‘unbundled’ by users who watch their chosen shows online, so audiences have also been unbundled. There are fewer watercooler moments [where a single show brings in a huge national audience] but if you can work out how to monetise the local that’s fertile territory.
You also perform a valuable service by holding local authorities to account.
What in your experience makes it difficult for legacy media to adapt to digital?
I think it’s workplace culture that gets in the way. We’re all guilty of that if we’ve come from a different platform. When I went to work for a dotcom in the late 1990s, I had to learn that writing and editing for the web is kind of the same but not exactly the same. And there’s inevitable resistance, especially if people feel, well, my bread and butter is broadcasting, why should I mess about with blogging or social media.
Are you optimistic about the future of journalism?
A free press is a societal issue, and the fact is good journalism costs money. So do you have a generous benefactor, or do you crowd source it, or do you invent a new business model?
The FT now makes more money from digital than they do from print but I suspect that’s because their readership can expense account the costs of subscription. I’m not sure that’s a sustainable business model for most of the media.
Propublica are an interesting case in point. [ProPublica describes itself as ‘an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest’. It is funded by philanthropic bodies and by donation.] They are able to join forces with some of the newspapers for specific stories, which is a solution of sorts.