After NotW: what might the future of media look like?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

I’m loathe to join the general mob of bloggers posting about every little twist and turn of the phone-hacking scandal, and the closure of the News of the Screws World. That market niche is filled sufficiently. I’m more interested in trying to discern the long-term consequences of what’s happening now; how this might change the media landscape over the next 10 years or so.

Here’s three things playing on my mind right now:

Regulation’s Rise

In one area, I’m distinctly worried, as I suggested on Friday. The regulation system for journalism is under review, and it looks awfully like the days of the PCC are numbered. And what will replace it?

I can’t say I’d trust either main party on this – New Labour was just as busy sucking up to News International’s brands as Cameron’s Tory party has been, and it’s worth bearing in mind that for all the left’s accusations that Murdoch’s papers are essentially right-wing, they’ve supported Labour for three out of the four most recent general elections… As one of my colleagues pointed out over lunch, the LibDems have no skin in this game, but only because they were never considered significant enough.

Our politicians are smarting from the expenses scandal, and now they’re having their overly cosy relationship with elements of the media pulled apart. Will they respond with honour, justice and a regard for the good of political discourse in this country? Or will they try to emasculate the press so that an investigation like the expenses one would no longer be possible? Hope for the former, prepare to fight against the latter.  And maybe the LibDems have a chance to start redeeming themselves in the eyes of many of the public here.

And there’s a bigger challenge for them to consider: how can any regulation framework possibly function without some oversight of online-only publications? And how do you separate the powerhouses like Guido Fawkes and (possibly) the Huffington Post UK, from the thousands of independent bloggers doing their thing? Is it even feasible?

The Age of Social Publishing

However important or not you feel the role of social media was in the protests against the News of the World, we’re almost certainly seeing a shift in the relationship between the traditional media and the people formerly known as the audience. The advent of Facebook, Twitter and other forms of low-input social media has actually brought into being the concept of everyone being able to publish. While the visionaries of a decade ago might have envisaged the idea of one man, one blog as the primary means of creating that mass publication environment, social networks have actually delivered on the promise. Before now, people’s only option to show disapproval of journalists was not to buy the paper – and The Sun in Liverpool is a good example of that. Now they can target the advertisers, and other buyers of the paper, who might be unaware of what’s happening. And they can help bring down an entire newspaper.

The model of active publishers and passive audience is broken, and this is just another example of the “audience” beginning to wake up to its own power, and flex its new muscles. And, for us in the media, it’s a warning shot across our bows, a reminder that we’ll have far more success in the future working with the audience – Rusbridger’s “mutual media” – that merely talking at them. And that may require a different sort of journalist. The NotW crisis has been fuelled by that particular breed of news journalist for whom the adrenaline hit of getting the story outweighs everything else – morality, legality and relationship. This byline junkies can be incredibly powerful force in society if harnessed carefully – and an amoral disaster in the wrong context. We need journalists like these, but in an audience-empowered age, we can’t afford to let them run the show. That needs to be in the hands of those who understand and respect their audience, and know how to work with them.

A Habit, Broken

Also, I wonder how many of the people who were buying the News of the World are just going to walk away from newspapers? Will they just transfer their purchasing affections elsewhere, and perhaps return to a putative Sun on Sunday, or will they just use this as a “jumping off point” for the whole concept of Sunday newspaper buying? Will this be the critical event that breaks the habit?

Thanks to Paul Bradshaw for some impromptu post-publication subbing of this. 😉

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.