Everything Broken Will Be New Again – Professor Jeffrey Cole on the Future of Media
In today’s Crikey email I have given the headlines on a public lecture I attended yesterday by Professor Jeffrey Cole, who is one of the world experts on the Internet and its impact. Cole is the founder and moving force behind the World Internet Project ,which is one of the most extensive and authoratative sources of data on how people use the new technology, and what impact it has. The Australian WIP partner is the ARC’s Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation based at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University where, as regular readers will know, I work part time..
While in Australia Cole has, among other things, addressed a Fairfax strategy meeting. As I say in the Crikey email today, it would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall at that meeting, because Cole is predicting the end of Australian newspapers as print products within the next decade. He is even more pessimistic about USA newspapers. He gives them six years tops. But he is optimistic about the future of news. It’s the platforms that are in decline, not the appetite for the content.
But headlines aside, there was a great deal else in Cole’s speech, which was titled “Falling Apart or Coming Together: Media and Advertising in a Deregulated Era” and drew directly on the most up to date data from the WIP.
The internet, he said, is now so all pervasive that in the developed world just about anyone who wants to be online is online. For those who are not yet internet users, the barriers are no longer to do with cost, but about fear and lack of perceived need. Contrary to popular belief, older people are enthusiastic internet users, and as the population ages internet use will become, he predicts, as ubiquitous as television, and even more powerful.
Under the heaading “falling apart” Cole catalogued the woes with which readers of this blog will be all too familiar. Navigating the media world used to be predictable and easy. Schedules were important. Newspapers were published once a day, and families sat down to watch television together at defined times. The music business was able to make people buy a whole album just to get a song they liked, and album releases happened on a predictable 18-24 month schedule.
All that has gone. We now have near endless choice. The data, Cole says, suggets that faced with this choice most people fail to process all the options. Ninety per cent of the time, internet users stick to about 15 sites. Nevertheless they expect instant responses. A newspapser on line must be up to the minute. Any more than a two minute delay between news breaking and it being online will lead to news organisations losing audiences, he says.
As for newspapers, in print form, their death is at hand and most magazines are not far behind. The exceptions will be magazines where the experience of reading a print product is part of the experience. Weekend newspapers may hang on longer than weekday ones, partly because they are like magazines. Once upon a time it was recognised that teenagers did not read newspapers, but would do so once they aged and settled down. Today’s teenagers, Cole says, will never be newspaper readers. As the readers of today die, they will not be replaced.
In fact, most of today’s media platforms will disappear. Cloud computing, in which music listeners will pay to access music stored remotely, will replace CD and DVD ownership. Music will become “almost free” if, and it is a big if, music comapnies can convince consumers to pay at all. The new business model for music is based around merchandising and live touring, not around album sales.
As for news businesses, Cole made some comment on Murdoch’s recently announced decision to put content behind pay walls online. He doesn’t think it will work, or at least not in the short term. His research suggets it will be at least five years before people are prepared to pay for digital content. After that new business models may emerge, but for the moment advertising will continue to be the main way of meeting the cost of providing media content.
So much for things falling apart. How will they be brought together again, and what will they look like?
Cole has been researching the impact of the Internet for ten years, which means he has seen the transition from dial up Internet access to Broadband. The difference is immense, he says. Households on dial-up had the computer in a separate room, remote from family life. Now broadband is “always on” it has moved back into the centre of life. People use it while watching television, which is good news for tv. They also use it while talking to and spending time with the family, rather than shutting themselves away.
(In an urky but fascinating part of the speech, Cole said that of those who have wi-fi internet access at home, almost half use access the internet while in the bathroom – and not while taking a shower or a bath.)
Broadband time, in other words, doesn’t take away from time spent doing other things, but instead becomes part of the way that other things are done.
Then there is social networking. Cole says social networking is the “real deal” of internet and media futures. He referred to the famous 2006 Time magazine mirror cover, that assertedthat the person of the of the future was “you”. Time had it wrong, said Cole. Social networking online means that “the person of the future is not you, it is us. It is community.”
Social networking will drive what people want in their media. It will change how journalism is done. Reassuringly, though, Cole believes that professional journalists and editors will always be needed.
Advertisers will also have to become part of the social network. Ads will have to be engaging, and unless privacy legislation gets in the way, will be able to be targetted with unerring precision.
Cole didn’t say this, but it seemed to me that a necessary result of this is that it will be harder and harder to tell the difference between advertising and editorial content. This is already happening of course, but it’s going to get worse.
Cole did not offer many, or any, answers to the question that most concerns journalists – how are our salaries going to be paid?
On the upside, he pointed out that there is no declining appetite for news. It is the platforms and the business models that are in trouble, not the demand for content.
Yet we all know that it is not possible to charge as much for an ad online as you used to be able to charge for an ad in print or in television prime time. This is the reason why Murdoch is exploring pay-per-view models. If Cole is right in thinking that Murdoch’s plan won’t work, then who will pay for the journalism?
Cole predicts fewer, bigger news businesses – a massive consolidation.
He may be right. I tend to think that he is, but that at the same time journalism will be done in many new ways and in many new places as well as within established media businesses. Journalism will be something that many people do, without necessarily calling themselves full time journalists.
I am also optimistic that new subscription based business models will emerge, and I think it will happen faster than Cole suggests.
So, an interesting lecture, even if the truth is that we have not yet worked out how to put journalism back together again.