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Robert PicardOne of the biggest challenges facing news organizations is how to re-establish relevancy in their legacy news organizations for contemporary audiences. Of particular concern is how technology is changing the way people think and interact in life.

“If we don’t change with them, professional journalism is going to die out,” said Robert Picard, director of research at the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford. He is based in the United Kingdom and Boston, Mass.

Picard is a specialist in media economics and policy and has published extensively on these topics, as well as on media ownership and regulation. One of the projects he is working on at Oxford is the “reinvention” of local news in the UK using web-based technology.

He recently spoke to faculty, staff and students at the Missouri School of Journalism and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. Picard shed some light on three of the biggest challenges news providers are facing as they try to re-establish relevance.

1) The business characteristics and configuration have changed considerably since the 1980s and 90s

  • All news organizations are struggling financially, not just newspapers. The issue runs deeper than just finding new revenue streams, said Picard.

“What we’re fighting is a wholesale transformation of the underlying economics of the business and that’s what’s really disturbing the industry along the way,” said Picard.

Business characteristics:

1980s/90s

  • News products were “widely used, fast-moving, high-demand consumer goods.”
  • It was an inefficient market, which gave more power to advertisers than readers. Newspapers had asset heavy resources and higher cash flows. It was a great business to be in.

Today: News products are a “specialized, low-demand consumer good.”

  • The market has become more efficient because there’s “greater competition to provide news along the way.”
  • Many of the monopolies have disappeared.
  • Excess profits have receded to more normal profits.
  • Cash flow has diminished.
  • There is a reduced consumption of the products by readers/advertisers.
  • As news organizations work on debt reduction, it often results in downsizing.
  • News organizations are trying to become lighter in their assets. Ex. selling a newspaper press.

2) The value of news content is declining

  • Journalists are good at “pretending to do what they don’t do.” For example, instead of investigating a deep issue, they’re editing a press release.
  • People don’t read their newspaper to get necessary information like they used to – they go elsewhere.
  • Distribution platforms (ex. blogs) have opened up the possibilities for others in the community to share content. The content can be replicated over and over.
  • With so much content available online, it can be hard to see that there is less focus being put on complex and in-depth social issue articles and analyses.
  • Stemming the decline: News organizations need to focus more on specialization and localization of articles.
  • They also have to be thinking more about how to present articles in terms of ease and convenience of use. How can they tell stories via multiple platforms? How can they create a compelling experience?

3) There are unhealthy attitudes toward audiences

Unhealthy view: Journalists are here to "guide the thoughts and opinions of readers, protect social order and shelter the public."

“Much of journalism’s philosophy is incredibly paternalistic,” said Picard.

There has been a “wariness of social alliances” and of general trust of information sources, said Picard. This causes some detachment between the journalists and sources. This can create some problems in the online/networked world where collaboration is needed.

“In order to have that (collaboration) you have to have shared values,” said Picard. “You have to have shared interests. You have to have acceptance. You have to have reciprocity in communication flow and you have to have trust and that’s problematic given some of the ways we’ve traditionally approached the philosophy of journalism.”

Values of online, offline world:

Offline:

  • Privacy/concealment
  • Property heavy
  • Hierarchy
  • Formality

Online:

  • Transparency
  • Less property heavy — leading to debates and legal fights
  • Collaboration
  • Informality

“How is professional journalism going to respond to these kinds of changes?” asked Picard. “How is it going to do that but still maintain some of its fundamental purposes and roles?”

In the digital world, it’s not just about the changing technology, but also how the technology is changing audience’s behavior and social patterns, said Picard.



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