If data is the new oil, storytelling is the new plutonium and diversity the future of its core elements
It is an odd phrase, “the future of news”, popularised in part by desperation and then commerce. For a news industry hardly known for sharing, in early to mid-2000s one block after another rooms opened, rows of chairs sprung and shiny brochures with goody bags appeared proclaiming “here is future of news”.
The frequency of its use since 2000 has been staggering as this Ngram illustrates. A blip in the 1910s-20 as new broadcast technology e.g. radio and cinema was surfacing, a spike in the 1950s as television was coming into its own, and then in the 1970s satellite technology was in heat. From the 1990s pre-internet and cable there’s been a steady relentless climb to full on FON fever.
It’s a brand quotidian that many in the business of shifting information aspire to become synonymous with, but there’s a huge and deepening problem that’s being perennially ignored. More on that in a moment.
As new entrants, generally digital technologists, made their way into the news media business developing ways of selling information, storing, and accessing it at a fraction of analogue prices, what they knew was worth divulging to anyone — for a cost.
Capitalism under the rubic of “news” was finding new clients by a modest amount first, then by bucket loads. Information exchange was the new oil. The future of news was the life insurance policy sold under the understanding if you weren’t involved your future looked bleak. The winners could include attendants, like you and me, setting up new ventures having discovered any assortment of new tech or whatever.
However, the real victors were the entrepreneurs selling obsolescence, or the fear of overcoming it. This was, and is, a rerun of the slow-to-rampant consumerism post WWII with advertisers finding new ways of selling Jennifer and Jim a new fridge and garage because their current models would not cope with what the future would bring.
Just as new softwares became addicted, or launches of new products became celebratory regular events, the sleight of hand from new businesses was to convince you of a dependency. You would come to depend on knowing who was selling the future and which one of your competitors was attending. Conference attendants kept coming. Public speakers too had found new business ventures; the wheels of new commerce driving a new economy was turning.
I bumped into a senior news executive who’d been to half a dozen conferences, invariably meeting the same people and was beginning to tire hearing the same thing. Remember how even the diamond shaped newsrooms late-to-mid-2000s were introduced as a tech solution; workflows from the ne’er regions where agile productions that would challenge waterfall approaches.
Trust entrepreneurs to sniff the pending end of a profession ( journalism is dead!) only to propose various others. The future was and remains exclusively a tech-based solution to shifting units — except it isn’t and that’s the crisis elephant in the room. Human psychology within news, language, constructs of productions have all but stagnated. And the foe it faced in the 1950s, benign then, is in full dark spin.
Most, if not all, technologies propose a social change in behaviour. One informs the other. Imperceptible social change can be the reason why a new technology receives traction. If people weren’t willing to connect with total strangers would social media have taken off? Sociologists knew how people gathered around social identities, or that social proof meant you could tap into people’s psyche. Speed dating with sociology doesn’t quite cut it within a 30-min conference slot, so better left to shiny hooky things. These conference lots know their onions too.
In the 1990s as Thurman and Fletcher’s proposal of the death of newspapers became increasingly realistic, publishers like the Mirror Group and Associated Mail diversified. The future was in cable. I was part of that experiment working for a 24-hour cable news company in London. For Murdoch it was in satellite; either way it was about new platforms and the various technologies that underpinned them. So long as the news industry could defend its figures, the future contested as it was looked safe.
I’d describe my self as a creative technologist. I’ve been on the web since the mid 90s, sent my first email in 96 via AOL , built my first HTML site in 97 and did the dotcom route. I figured I knew my broadcast onions too, having worked in it since the late 80s. In mid- 2000, I collapsed all I knew into one — coding, shooting, and launching a video-site, before YouTube. It won one of the US’s major awards for innovation in journalism ( seen below, which we’re relaunching soon).
I’m a geek who thinks he’s playing it cool. At my Uni, I’m co-investigating the future of news as part of a UK-wide research grant. I’ve recently been invited and thrilled to join the advisory panel of the British Library’s news project, and am starting a collaborative project using A.I, behavioural and psychographic for a project we’re calling the Voyager project — on account it’s going into uncharted places.
But there’s a future that’s being ignored. If news is to survive as a tradable commodity, its relevance should be of value. Just as a doctor, engineer or plumber solves a problem, journalism or news to be more specific should. It should be scratching an itch you have, which might be a lack of information to complete a task or to satisfy an end.
If the Greeks or Romans of antiquity did journalism, and they did in their own way; news was not invented by the broadcast media, they just commoditised it as a drug, then…
Then the Romans as we know got how important understanding what others were doing was important. The Romans went so far as assimilating other cultures. They weren’t alone. As people have moved about and resettled, as trade and customs have travelled and been reciprocated, people have diversified their needs and their understandings. Knowledge is about diversity.
On a macro scale the world is a diverse petri dish; on a micro view within news and journalism it’s invisible. It’s perverse when you stand back and realise how solutions are sought, how news journalism exists by not seeing diversity as a way to better understanding world views, or people’s views.
Few films, such as Babel have been able to conjure up an image of how interconnected people are. How events like the Butterfly effect in chaos theory connect seemingly random events. But that’s it. It’s the forcefulness of narrative that shapes a story. That’s what the pros do and should do ethically.
Perhaps it’s too ethereal, but the source material stares us in the face. If the industry has done much to harness technology to understand the future of news, it’s equally been abject towards understand it;’s about people, cultures, behaviours, different people — diverse thoughts and people being represented as likely solutions.
At a time when nationalism is doing much to insulate views and opinions, how and who’s going to be responsible for widening alternative beliefs for solutions?
Data is the new oil, is the new mantra. If that’s so, storytelling is the new plutonium. Storytelling undergirds different cultures, societies, people. If you’re planning a future of news conference and diversity as a solution doesn’t weigh on your mind, then what else could you be thinking?
ff David @viewmagazine