Through a glass, darkly: the media in 2010 (from the vantages of 2004 and ’06)

McCormick Tribune Foundation Scholars luncheon, April 7, 2006
Owen Youngman, VP/Development, Chicago Tribune

Two years ago, The Medill Magazine asked me to opine on the state of media in the year 2021. Now, the most confusing thing about the request was the choice of year: 17 years in the future is quite an untraditional time frame for such a crystal-ball exercise. I mean, let’s say the goal was to pick a prime number – 5 would have gotten us to 2009 (the 40th anniversary of the ARPANET), and 7 would have put us in 2011 (the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web). But 17? Also, a smaller number may have led to better answers.

On the other hand, as I often observe about the strategic planning business, by 2021 no one will probably be interested in holding me accountable for being either right or wrong. Instead we’ll all be celebrating my 50th anniversary at the Tribune.

Anyway, reviewing my 2004 answers from the perspective of today, I do think they are reasonable jumping-off points for a vision of media in 2010, my assigned topic for today and a date that really is just around the corner. Here is a selection of questions, answers, and updates. Remember: Your mileage may vary.

Medill asked: Who will be the key players in the future of media?

I answered then: As a group, the consumers of media will be key. It’s going to be much less about Michael Eisner, Bill Gates and Leslie Moonves and much more about you and me.

I would add now: Hey, I’m right about Michael Eisner already; only 96,000 people watched the debut of his talk show a couple weeks ago, compared to the average of 200,000 people who watch Amanda Congdon on Rocketboom on any given day. (Me, I’m watching her on my TiVo now instead of through iTunes.)

I think the biggest edit I need to make here is largely to acknowledge that the “consumers of media” are, now and forever, creators of content, too. This doesn’t change the fundamental point, that they’re “key players”; they’re just key in multiple ways. In a different question, I said that “the most exciting prospect in the future of media” was collaboration between and among users and media entities.

I don’t have to bore you by reciting statistics and anecdotes about consumer-generated content, blogs, podcasts, and so on, but I will say we should have seen this coming. As I observed in a seminar lecture in 1994, the difference between the Committees of Correspondence – who rode around New England, posting hand-printed broadsides – and people who post online (message boards then, blogs now) is pretty trivial, except that back then it was the horses who occasionally produced manure en route.

At the Tribune, we have seen the value that consumers bring to the party in America Online chat rooms, in Metromix user reviews, in guest book postings, and in the dialogue they create around our content. In the last century, the important discussions around Tribune content were limited by the number of people who could be in conversation together. Obviously, the asynchronous and persistent nature of those conversations today is a whole different thing, and challenges the professionals in our newsrooms not only to keep the conversation going, but to start new ones with compelling, relevant, difficult-to-discover information and analysis.

Medill asked: What do you hope will happen in media by the year 2021?

I answered then: What I like to say is, if you can imagine something, it can happen. The major forces that are at work today – the consolidation of ownership and the fragmentation of audience – I see nothing that’s going to change them.

What I would say now: Fragmentation has been with us for decades, thanks at first to FM radio and cable TV, but more recently thanks to IP technology and the interactivity it permits. Even as we retain a mass audience for the printed page (and I don’t see any way that by 2010 that we won’t), we will be serving more and more niche audiences, or helping them to serve themselves. My expectation would be that as consolidation along the lines of Knight-Ridder/McClatchy continues to occur, some of the cash that is freed up by the rationalization of redundant functions is channeled into serving those niches, in multiple products, in multiple channels, in multiple markets.

That’s where an expansion on this point is necessary, one to which I can speak from experience. In Chicago, the creation of RedEye and of Hoy has put us at the Tribune in the position of at least appearing to hammer our own business into fragments. In reality, however, the audience was already fragmented, by choice or habit or information preference – not to mention by mode of transportation, or age, or household income, or ethnicity. These separate audiences’ needs for particular kinds of news or advertising information . . . or their ability to be reached by a particular kind of marketing approach . . . is something we are merely acknowledging, not creating. Given the right kind of products, and goodness knows we don’t have them all today, the media company of 2010 will spend very little time fretting about cannibalization, because it will have lots more items on its media menu than just purée of journalism or julienne classified.

Medill: What tools/devices will be available in the year 2021? How will they be useful?

Owen, 2004: Trends in devices will continue. They’ll be smaller, faster and more pervasive. What we don’t know is what business models are going to put information in consumers’ hands. Are people going to pay for the device or the information? Today, people pay for the device and not the information. In the future, I think it will be the other way around.

Owen, 2006: I may well be accused of Pollyannaism for believing this, but I still believe this in part because think it has actual precedents. I’ll give you three:

  • The famous razors-and-razor blades business model, from the days when Gillette was sponsoring the Yankees;
  • From the late 1990s, the inkjet printer-and-cartridge business model, even though H-P is not quite giving away the printers yet; and
  • From today, the ringtone and cell-phone service business model.

There are also more than a handful of iTunes users who have paid more for their music than they did for their iPods, depending of course on how many iPods they have bought so far.

In addition, I think that devices have got to converge, because consumers will sacrifice perfection for convenience. A cell phone is not perfect at taking pictures, nor a BlackBerry currently perfect for surfing the Web. But how many devices can you really clip to your belt or carry in your purse? As devices converge and delivery systems coalesce, the material that is being delivered will be what is differentiable. So then why wouldn’t I, as a publisher of great content and mediator of valuable interaction among members of my audience, be happy to give you a device that lets you in on this? After all, if you participate at all, you are going to create value.

Medill: What should journalists do to adapt to the changing face of media?

Owen, 2004: What journalists should do is learn to listen to consumers. Not to act on everything they tell them, but to treat every reader’s phone call, letter, or email as a point of data. Technology has given the journalists the ability to be in contact with thousands of people every day. At the end of the day, it doesn’t change what we do, but how we do it.

Owen, 2006: I certainly wouldn’t say that my soundbite was ever meant to be complete. Here’s a more complete list of skills that the journalist of 2010 will require to create value for her employer, her audience, and herself.

  1. Accuracy. This is probably not a surprise. But it does not mean, for instance, “just the facts, ma’am.” It means understanding the context for every fact. It means that understanding what gets left out of a report (whether a text report, a sound bite, a video clip, a multimedia combination of all these and more) is every bit as important as what goes in, and contributes to whether or not that particular report not only is perceived as being accurate, but also actually is accurate With so much unaccountability and inaccuracy so freely available to all through the Web, the journalist must re-establish the primacy of accuracy, an openness to accountability, and the transparency of accepting correction without complaint.
  2. Self-awareness, which leads to self-editing. While I obviously stop short of Janet Malcolm – “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” as she famously wrote – I do think that no journalist can afford to be full of himself any more as so many have been in my experience. The journalist of the near future understands the job she has been sent to do; the difference between her and the people she is reporting upon/observing/interviewing; how her selection of details will influence how her audience will view the people or situation in question; and that the accountability for the accuracy of those perceptions is largely hers. In my experience too many journalists have been trained to say, “But that’s what I saw” or “But that’s what she said” or “But I needed to get the other side.” The well trained journalist soon will not be permitted to fall back on such easy rationalizations, and therefore must be trained to step outside herself and do the kind of self-editing that loops right back to . . . accuracy.
  3. Numeracy. John Allen Paulos has written at least two whole books that are required reading in my idealized 21st Century journalism school: Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. I won’t belabor this one, given that I don’t have time even to summarize two volumes in one after-lunch speech. Suffice it to say that the two things that drive the vast majority of journalism are people and numbers, and news organizations shouldn’t hire anyone who can’t understand what either of the two is saying.
  4. Appropriateness – by which I mean “Choosing the right tool for the right task.” When text? When video? When a user-searchable database? When a reporter-assembled, but available-for-inspection, private database? When a carefully structured query that a user can insert into his/her search engine of choice? The journalist of the near future must select among them, depending on the needs of the story (and of course her employer), and be able either to use them or to direct their use.
  5. Business knowledge. As you see I am moving slightly farther away from tradition the longer I continue. In a departure from 20 years ago, no one should set foot in a journalistic enterprise without knowing the economics of that business, the role that he/she plays in it, the role that each type of customer plays in it, and the role that aggregations of customers play in it. “I just take photos, I don’t know where my paycheck comes from” doesn’t work any more, if it ever did.
  6. Audience awareness. This is a longer version of what I told Medill. Not only must we actively listen for the reader’s/viewer’s/user’s feedback and preferences, but we also must seek them out. Use them as data points in refining your view of your story, your beat, your publication, whatever level of responsibility you have. Do not abdicate the responsibility to push beyond that feedback and those preferences; instead, understand that they are additional data points that make what you do more relevant, more meaningful, more satisfying, and more irreplaceable.
  7. Adaptability. OK, this is kind of self-referential, since we are talking about “adaptable” journalists, but here is the key idea: A large number of the things we “know” today will turn out to be wrong tomorrow. Trouble is, we aren’t aware of which ones they are. Journalists must have as a core competency the ability to reject what they think they “know” in favor of better information, the way that a scientist does when a new discovery or equation Changes Everything. By the way, this is different than flexibility, which I define as contorting oneself to do whatever a situation or a boss requires at a given time.

That gives you an idea of where I think we need to go, and where we have begun to go. When I was a college newspaper editor, I had a sign on my desk that explained, “Muckraking is very tiring.” Guess what: Instilling change in a great big media organization isn’t exactly done from an easy chair. Great editors and visionary business executives alike . . . and I am not referring to myself in either case . . . have to work very, very hard not only to make the case for change, but also to create the context in which it can occur.

Here’s a telling but not trivial example. Not so long ago, as part of our editorial department’s never-ceasing efforts to reinvigorate the Chicago Tribune by engaging readers deeply in our content, I was invited to come and discuss readership research with a broad group of top editors. When I was done I sat and listened to them discuss many opportunities that they could see, and many ideas that they could conjure up. And near the end, my friend Ann Marie Lipinski, the editor, said, “One of the things I am hearing is that our headlines are not conveying the excitement about our stories that comes through every day in the 4 o’clock news meeting. We’re passionate about what we put in the paper; our readers should know that right away! What would it take to make every head in the paper 50% better? I don’t know what that means, exactly – not today. But that sounds like a goal, and I want you to help me figure out how to reach it.”

And next thing I knew, that goal appeared in our annual operating plan – not the strategic plan, the one where the goals are important but designed to be achieved over a few years, but the operating plan . . . the budget, for crying out loud. We were going to manage to “50% better headlines” as surely as we managed to expense targets. And what has happened?

Well, how about “Stroger wins (period). Now what?” That led the paper shortly after the primary election. Perhaps less grandly, but just as powerfully, what about “School orders mom to spank son—or else”? I don’t know how you don’t read either of those stories. We had training; we have contests; we do research. We have introduced change. And you know what, it’s not something that either the readers, or the writers, or the desk is likely to get tired of anytime soon. Is it 50% improvement? I don’t know – but I also don’t know that it isn’t 100%, either.

That’s what we need to do throughout all our media businesses, adapt to changing consumer needs and an exploding competitive environment. That’s what media industry leaders need to do, whether in content or advertising or technology. That’s what journalism and business schools need to do as they train the leaders of tomorrow. And, I trust, that is what McCormick Tribune Foundation is seeking to encourage by endowing the scholarships that have brought you to this luncheon today.

I’ll see you in 2010 – and, Lord willing, in 2021.

©2006 Owen R. Youngman. All rights reserved.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.