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The end of news media?

25 May 2017

In our report written by Eden Stanley, Whatever Next? Public Engagement in 2022, we predict the rise of free and paid online content across a fragmented media landscape will continue to ramp up pressure on traditional news and consumer press, like newspapers and magazines.

Traditional media owners are still scrambling to find new business models to achieve financial sustainability, through online offerings, partnerships, selling premium content, advertising revenues, or subscription models, like the Guardian’s membership programme. By 2022, some brands may even be making it pay – while others will have disappeared entirely.

There is a generational aspect to this change in news media consumption – while TV is still the most popular source of news and information for all age groups, younger generations favour online sources.

It’s not just alternative free sources of news that threaten traditional media; it’s also the blurred boundaries between news, opinion, newsfeeds and entertainment – devaluing pure news offerings, while favouring content delivery via social media and platforms like Buzzfeed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of ‘clickbait’ – a distributed publishing model where writers are paid by the click – has created an online arms race of overinflated headlines (‘You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!’) that bear little resemblance to the content they link to.

A more extreme version of this trend is the rise of fake news – output from content producers who deliberately seed untrue stories through social media to advance their own commercial or political agendas. Social networks – especially Facebook – have been criticised for failing to distinguish between fake news and genuine content. By 2022, this may have been contained – but restoring trust in credible sources may take time.

While researching our report, the people we spoke to said the falling value of trustworthy content is a worrying trend, but it’s likely that many charities will also spot the opportunities here. For some of you, the best response will start with behaving more like the media – even becoming media, as one person described it to us. A former charity communicator, now working for a global consumer brand, told us:

I’m not drafting press releases any more. I take content and distribute it. Our engagement is online first and foremost. The media coverage follows. For me, that shift is where the future will go.

And then, looking ahead, building trust in content will be your prime concern. Expect to see more charities providing peer review, video ‘explainers’, or quality marks. Could a service like PolitiFact, that fact-checks statements from American politicians, or UK mythbusting charity be replicated or tailored for your sector?

Bursting the filter bubble

In 2022, you’ll be competing for airtime in a world where consumers have unprecedented ability to filter out content they don’t want. And from on-demand TV to tailored shopping suggestions, they are accustomed to personalised and responsive content accessible at a time that suits them. So, as we noted earlier, it’ll be much harder to ‘interrupt’ people with your charity’s messages.

The ability to choose which content to pay attention to is natural. But there is a lively debate about the consequences of life in a ‘filter bubble’. We populate our social networks with people who think like us, while advertising algorithms predict our interests, and Google offers search results according to what it ‘thinks’ we want to know. Our Facebook posts may only be seen by a small proportion of our friends and followers – with gaps in their newsfeeds filled in by promoted content. The result can be a narrower, self-reinforcing view of the world, where commercial interests have a growing stake. Recently, Brexit and the Trump victory have been attributed in part to the filter bubble phenomenon. Two opposing world views had become insulated from each other, and the liberal/left consensus didn’t see it coming. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni points out:

By bookmarking given blogs and personalising social media feeds, we customise the news we consume and the political beliefs we’re exposed to as never before. And this colours our days, or rather bleeds them of colour, reducing them to a single hue. We construct precisely contoured echo chambers of affirmation that turn conviction into zeal, passion into fury, disagreements with the other side into the demonisation of it.

One communicator told us:

It often feels like we are only talking to ourselves. How do we cut through to people who aren’t in the algorithm to get our stuff?

The obvious consequence of the filter bubble is that it’s harder to connect with audiences beyond your traditional supporter base, because they are filtered out before you reach them. Another is that – even if you do reach them – you may not understand them or the world they occupy well enough to engage them, because you too are exposed to a limited view of the world.

Breaking out of the filter bubble will be an ever more important challenge for charities in the coming years. After all, communicating with ‘people like us’ is easy, but being a professional communicator – by definition – means engaging people that are different from us. That is going to matter more. As one digital transformation expert told us:

We always like to communicate with people who are like us. We will have to understand who we’re talking to much more than we do now.

This article is an extract from Whatever Next? Public Engagement in 2022 by Sarah Fitzgerald and Eden Stanley. Download the report for free.

Sarah Fitzgerald

director, Self Communications

Sarah Fitzgerald is director of Self Communications, developing ambitious communications strategies for charities and not-for-profits. She has more than a decade of senior communications experience in the third sector.