Monday, August 31, 2015

Future of news blog: 5 trends shaping the future of news

Kwami Ahiabenu, II 

In the last in the series of future of news blog, we explore “5 key trends shaping the future of news” In the future, news producers and journalists will have to evolve significantly in order to stay influential, relevant and respected by news consumers. Here are five trends that newsrooms must watch out for as they embark on this exciting journey into the future

Trend 1: Internet of things and net neutrality 

In days gone by, internet access was only possible on computers. The new trend is the internet of things; people, objects and even animals are provided with unique identifiers which enable them to transfer data over a network directly without the need for human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.   A pace maker,  a self-driving car, a T-shirt that can talk to your washing machine, or a farm animal with a tracker to enable its owner monitor its movement especially on a large farm are all slowly but steadily becoming the new normal. The key principle is the ability to transfer data over a network using Internet Protocol(IP) addresses assigned to the natural or man-made object which then makes them smart. Your fridge at home, with this capability can notify your supermarket that you have run out of tomatoes to enable them stock up for your next visit. For newsrooms, it means there can more devices to deliver news to over 100 billion devices which will be connected to private networks or the internet by 2020 ( ).  Also as “things” in the internet of things focus are rapidly changing from machine and system performance to people it will open doors for newsrooms to understand how human lives, societies and economies function in order to produce relevant content for them through analyzing data that is provided by the Internet of things. The power of the internet of things is ability to connect “things” via networks and crunch the rich data which is generated for varied decision making processes.

Another trend which newsrooms must be on the lookout for is net neutrality which describes the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites. The future of news is bound up with the future of the Internet. Therefore any new trend such as net neutrality has impact on journalism. For newsrooms,  if net neutrality is thrown out of the window it will mean internet service providers and telecom companies will decide on where users should go to consume news and what stories can get blocked or buried.

Trend 2: Mobile phones and social media

There are currently over 8 billion users of mobile phones in the world with Ghana having more mobile phones (31,028,253 as at February 2015-National Communication Authority) than its population of 25.9 million (2013). Also more and more users are now accessing internet on their phones and other mobile devices.  Social media is growing in leaps and bounds with more and more users consuming news from Facebook or Twitter.  Combining mobile phones and social media is going to become a very important channel for news production and distribution in the near future. Newsrooms must therefore invest heavily in understanding and making use of mobile technology and social media in order to stay relevant.

Trend 3: The algorithmic newsroom 

An algorithm can be defined as a procedure or formula for solving a problem. When it comes to the world of new digital technologies, it refers to a small procedure that solves a recurrent problem. Every user online one way or the other has come across search engines, with google being the most popular. Complex algorithms are the heart of these search engines combing the web to solve the users need for answers to search questions using keywords. Typical newsrooms are manned by editors, these group of persons play a critical role in determining what constitute news, however, the shift is now on how news is produced and consumed rather than on what it is made up of.

Due to the advent of a myriad of digital technology tools, algorithms are now playing a key gate keeping role by providing input to newsroom on a moment-by-moment basis, generating top news leads, story ideas and trending topics. Some argue that in the future, the editors role will be played by algorithms- aided decision making systems on what constitute news.
Another school of thought suggests that algorithms know you better than you know yourself. In relation to news, this means having the news you care about, where you want it and when you want it. A good starting point is for newsrooms to understand that the reader is the best editor-in-chief and using algorithms they can learn more audience needs and deliver news which is important for these audiences.

In direction, the total freedom of choice is brought to the doorstep of news consumers. The newsroom aided by input from semantic engine powered by algorithms can generate and promote the right content to the right audience in a more precise manner. The caveat though is that, algorithms can only go so far. Human filters are still very important to ensure news consumers can have access to news they need to know. Also algorithms are not neutral, they are loaded with biases based on input from engineers who design such systems, so it is important to keep this in mind in relying on them.

Trend 4: Mobile money powered micro-payments 

The future of news driven by new digital technologies is very bright in Ghana, only if monetisation mechanism becomes more available to support development of “always on” news for the insatiable appetite of highly informed news consumers. The solution lies in the ability to take micro-payments; this is to say that instead of charging a couple of Cedis, newsrooms should aim for payment options in which they can charge pesewas for audiences consuming their content. The challenge is, people are not always willing nor able to pay for high quality journalism. Designing a decent micropayment system can make it easy for such users to pay for news content. Given the growth in mobile money platforms on the continent, such micropayment systems should be powered by mobile money.

Trend 5: What Skills Will Newsrooms of the Future Need?

A million Ghana cedi question? What skills are required by journalists or whatever name they will be called in the future?

Three key skills come to mind, being a very good journalists, will require the fundamental ability to tell compelling stories in more than words in order to cope with changes in the news ecosystem. Though one must discard long-form journalistic content generation style and produce content which will not only fit multiple devices but respond intimately to news consumer behavior in the connected age.

Also, beyond basic computer literacy, there is a need to invest in more advanced skills in new digital technologies including programming and systems development. An ability to develop news apps and products is indispensable for survival in the newsroom of the future.  Furthermore, a newsroom’s ability to undertake curation using both humans and automated systems can make a difference to survival in a rapid information overloaded society, where news consumers need newsrooms to help them separate the wheat from the chaff. Multitasking, constantly interacting and engaging with audiences is a key prerequisite for survival in the new disruptive news ecosystem. Lastly, journalists must specialise, instead of being "Jacks of all trades”. The journalist who is highly skilled, specialised and highly trained in new digital technologies will not only be highly respected but very valuable for the newsroom of the future.

Future of news - The next chapter

In the future, are we going to have news services without journalists? Journalists and newsrooms are not going to vanish overnight however their characteristics will experience profound changes., Their unique ability to tell truth to power, identify facts, cross check them, verify and provide a balanced analysis will place the new journalist in a timeless position in the eyes of news consumers. More importantly we cannot have democracy without news and without journalists there will be no news as we know it.

In conclusion, news, newsrooms, journalism and the media ecosystem are changing in a very disruptive way, however, the trade of good old journalism is going to stand the test of time.
Watch out for an upcoming book on “future of news”. The conversation continues #futureofnews

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