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Tomorrow's news

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue December, December 1 - December 31, 2000 | BY Kerry Northrup 

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What will the news be like in the continuing evolving age of information? Ifra, an international association of newspaper organizations, has created a 10-minute video to provide a peek into the future of the newsroom while highlighting issues that present-day newsrooms must face in making the transition to the new publishing industry. Although early prototypes of the Daily Me have proven disappointing, "it cannot be ignored that the news industry, like most industries, is moving from a product-based business model to a service model under pressure of the Information Economy," writes Ifra's Kerry Northrup. "And good service requires some degree of personalization. The publisher of Tomorrow's News has profiled its readers, listeners, viewers and users sufficiently that it knows their collective interests and even individually where they work." Northrup, who plays a prominent role in Ifra's work as a worldwide leader in publishing strategies and technology, here provides Ubiquity a summary description of what lies ahead for the newspaper industry in the 21st Century.


What will the news be like in the continuing evolving age of information? Ifra, an international association of newspaper organizations, has created a 10-minute video to provide a peek into the future of the newsroom while highlighting issues that present-day newsrooms must face in making the transition to the new publishing industry. Although early prototypes of the Daily Me have proven disappointing, "it cannot be ignored that the news industry, like most industries, is moving from a product-based business model to a service model under pressure of the Information Economy," writes Ifra's Kerry Northrup. "And good service requires some degree of personalization. The publisher of Tomorrow's News has profiled its readers, listeners, viewers and users sufficiently that it knows their collective interests and even individually where they work." Northrup, who plays a prominent role in Ifra's work as a worldwide leader in publishing strategies and technology, here provides Ubiquity a summary description of what lies ahead for the newspaper industry in the 21st Century.



With so many different -- and sometimes conflicting -- ideas today concerning the future of news publishing, changes in the definition of news itself, expanded roles for journalists, new skills for editors, and the influence of technology, it is hard for even the most forward-thinking editorial manager to condense all the talk into a solid vision for his or her own newsroom.

Perhaps it would help to see it rather than just talk about it.

That is the thought behind the short-subject movie "Tomorrow's News" that Ifra premiered last month at its annual expo in Amsterdam.

The 10-minute video, more than a year in development, depicts two editors running a complex newsflow in a sophisticated, information-packed newsroom at some unspecified time in the near future. Communicating seamlessly with local staff and remote "e-lance" reporters, the editors coordinate newsgathering in many different media and the creation of convergent stories for distribution through a variety of integrated print and electronic services. Content is live-linked to the newsroom database, allowing every angle to be covered simultaneously depending on a subscriber's interest, while information alerts are sent out to mobiles and PDAs. A central "newsmap" gives the editors a topographic-like understanding of their news wires, Internet resources and even reader feedback, graphically indicating stories breaking and growing on one topic or another.

While "Tomorrow's News" may have something of a sci-fi feel to it -- at least from the viewpoint of traditionally labored newspapers -- all the concepts and technology it shows are viable today. It is an extrapolation, not a prediction, about how newsrooms can work. It highlights topics and raises issues that present-day newsrooms must face in transitioning to the new publishing industry. Its intent is to spur constructive discussion about the new roles and new methods of journalistic organizations in the Information Economy.

An information-based newsroom

In the opening scenes, editors in the role of newsflow coordinators are shown consulting numerous information displays of live broadcast feeds cycling Internet pages, layouts in production and digital photo selections, video conference links to colleagues in the next office and the next town, online story agendas, and a graphic presentation of the wealth of news and information at their command.

There are a couple messages being conveyed here.

One is that this newsroom is built for information management and content manipulation, not just the assembly-line production of pages. Most of the tasks that the two central editors are seen performing have little to do with the final form of news presentation but everything to do with ensuring that their news packages contain a wealth of material to support many different and simultaneous means of distribution. In this newsroom, specific production tasks occupy a second tier of news management.

Another message is that modern news handling is, more than ever before, a technologically enabled process. Traditional journalistic values and expertise are still center stage -- the ability to recognize a good story, skill in finding the right sources and asking the right questions, talent at putting it together in the most effective and compelling way. But the pace, the 24/7 reporting cycle, the explosion of information sources within reach of even the most local news organization, and the parallel explosion in how and when news can reach subscribers and users -- these are attributes of contemporary journalism that cannot be managed without being comfortable with and in control of the technology.

Enabling technology

While the movie's two editors go through their shift-turnover briefing, they distinguish between stories being actively managed and material that they have decided to assign for automatic handling. Automation is a sensitive topic with many journalists, who question whether a computer-programmed agent is really capable of making human-quality news judgments for consumers or of creating aesthetically appealing and appropriate presentations.

Nevertheless, it seems a clear trend that increased automation of content handling will be a high priority for future newsrooms and news publishing systems. Only automation and/or outsourcing of journalistic activities will enable publishers to transition into the multiple-media news industry without prohibitively expensive staff expansions. The upside of this trend is that it will allow and encourage newsrooms to devote the bulk of their journalistic resources to dealing with their most significant news content, that which will most differentiate the news organizations from their competitors. Today, by contrast, it is too common that there are more people in a newsroom processing news content than there are people creating it.

As the movie's editors run down a list of their top stories, we learn that this local newsroom has expended the effort to track world financial markets as they reacted to an issue of local interest. This is the "global village" effect, which increasingly is giving almost any significant news event anywhere in the world a local impact, as well as giving even the most local news organization the means to directly report it for their own subscribers. It seems likely that many of today's distinctions between national, regional and local publications will be rewritten as local media progressively exercise their new reach.

This financial analysis story, distributed primarily via print services, also indicates that for this future newsroom print has become a multi-dimensional medium, with the article being enhanced with links to online current market statistics. A number of technologies are appearing already today for accomplishing such a feat, usually involving bar codes, glyphs, and scanners of one design or another. It is not yet clear how readily the reading public will embrace these or later-generation enhancements. However, it does seem likely that print as a popular vehicle for news distribution has a future beyond just ink on paper.

A level of service

The other stories discussed by the editors reflect the future publishing industry's development of a considered balance between mass consumption and personalized content. The military aircraft story is being offered from a variety of angles ranging from political appraisal to technical evaluation, depending on a particular reader's interest. And a story on local traffic patterns has been augmented with individualized driving directions based on where a subscriber lives and works. Both approaches combine the effectiveness of general news coverage on topics of interest to identifiable groups of news consumers with the customization made possible by database technologies.

It is apparent today that the heavily touted completely customized "Daily Me" newspaper with articles only on topics that a reader has pre-specified to an automated news server is a concept unappealing to most people as a primary source of information. Despite the application of "neural networks" and "fuzzy logic" to the process, consumers have not found it of any greater value than a more general selection of news reports and not worth their effort to set up. Most business people, for example, want to read what their competitors are reading and not be blindsided by a pre-structured selection of information.

Nonetheless, it cannot be ignored that the news industry, like most every other industry in the world, is moving from a product-based business model to a service model under pressure of the Information Economy. And good service requires some degree of personalization to the customer. The publisher in "Tomorrow's News" has profiled its readers, listeners, viewers and users sufficiently that it knows their collective interests and even individually where they work. Of course, this raises the privacy issue of how personal someone is willing to get with his local news provider.

Tools and Systems

Specific developments in technology are a hard thing to extrapolate, and the major issues facing tomorrow's newsroom are really less technical than they are organizational and centered around implementing a multiple-media newsflow. But the movie does try to spotlight some of the likely evolutions in editorial tools and systems.

Computers are shown as less complicated to operate and more tailored to the editorial tasks at hand, intuitively controlled by touch and voice. Most tools are wirelessly networked, like the prototype Linux-based FreePads from ScreenMedia, and interconnect via protocols such as Bluetooth, used by the prototype Ericsson earset.

Software is shown directly supporting the new newsroom's cross-format news-management and content-building priorities. An online newsflow manager provides story summaries and iconic indicators of the different media in which content is available. The storymap interface allows an editor to link different elements together into an integrated package by simply drawing lines between them. And reference is made to an editorial knowledge base that captures and retains the newsroom's expertise, including story ideas from past news coverage efforts.

There are clear indications throughout the script that at the core of this entire near-future news operation is a powerful server and database setup, able to store and retrieve all the newsroom's resources with instantaneous response in whatever format is required -- which is a trend in editorial systems development that is presently materializing. The newsmap, described earlier, prototypes a new class of editorial tool that will be essential in helping editors visualize and manage their increasingly immense information flow. The movie version of this tool is an advanced extrapolation of currently available ThemeScape technology from Cartia.

Staffing concepts

"Tomorrow's News" advances several staffing concepts that are already today drawing interest from transitioning newsrooms.

The news staff as depicted is apparently distributed over a number of locations yet comprises a very cohesive team through the use of sophisticated communications and collaboration technologies, including instant videoconferencing.

Some of the staffing resources, such as the reporter at the airport, are not fulltime staff at all but instead are "e-lancing" journalists who, via the Internet, can quickly and easily be contracted and incorporated into a coverage effort as needed. Groups of subeditors and reporters in the United Kingdom and the United States are already organizing to hire themselves out in this manner. It is an outsourcing practice that could become quite popular as journalists take advantage of their newfound ability to market their content and services almost anywhere and as publishers take advantage of a means to cut labor costs while expanding into multiple media.

The movie strikes a careful balance on the touchy issue of multiskilled journalists -- the idea of expecting one reporter to work in several or all media so that a news organization does not have to send several people to cover an event. In the movie, the airport reporter is apparently trained and equipped not only to write the story but also to gather video news content. Even so, the editors ask him whether they should send a designated videojournalist to help with the assignment, indicating that media specialists -- presumably also for photos, audio and text -- are still needed and valued in this future.

Going beyond traditional journalistic talents, the movie depicts several areas in which new skill sets will be needed in tomorrow's newsroom.

Most obvious is the job being performed by the two central newsflow coordinators. These editors demonstrate a level of cross-media news management that would be wholly unnatural for most contemporary journalists, who tend to hold one medium as superior and to view all others as competitors. There is no talk on this newsflow desk about repurposing content from one use to another. Instead these editors plan from the outset how to collect and present content in many formats simultaneously. And at the point that they decide the airline computer virus story is of major interest to their subscribers, they put all of their available news distribution services into play so as to present a well integrated and coordinated branded report.

Values and Concerns

The movie raises several other instances in which traditional newsroom values or skills can come into conflict with the expanded capabilities of this near future.

For instance, the traditional dilemma between accuracy and speed in getting the story is certainly aggravated by the instant distribution possibilities of the Internet. The airport reporter acknowledges this when he says that if his source is wrong, the correction will never catch up with the story as it circulates online. There is no easy answer to this increasingly troublesome quandary, today or tomorrow.

In another instance, one of the newsflow coordinators discusses the availability of real-time feedback from readers concerning what kind of coverage they want on a breaking story. There is reference to a story development desk, the job of which in part is to monitor reader input to help ensure that the news organization's content satisfies subscriber demands. Certainly, this increasingly networked world makes it possible and practical for newsrooms to know almost instantaneously how people are reading and reacting to the news. Some journalists see this as a great boon in helping to fine-tune news coverage to the greatest effect and satisfaction. Others worry about the prospects of professional news judgment being subjugated to popularity polls.

The overriding message of "Tomorrow's News," however, concerns the multiple-media nature of the future news publishing business.

In accordance with all available trend indications today, print is shown as a continued effective distribution vehicle, albeit an evolved vehicle. Apparently there are many editions of the printed paper in this future, each with a particular focus and readership. Reference is made to a commuter edition, for instance, perhaps a successor to today's quick-read free-distribution metro papers. Later the editors talk about distinct local, international, business and sport editions -- versions apparently tailored to particular personality groups within the overall subscriber base. And a special print edition is delivered directly into homes and offices through personal digital news printers, a press technology much in discussion at the present time.

An evolved format for printed newspapers is also hinted in some of the movie's scenes. Continuing today's trend in downsizing the page, the paper appears to be the size and general appearance of a popular magazine, including an aggressively designed cover and a concentration on perspective rather than breaking renditions of the news. The print editions also seem to serve as a daily directory to content available in companion media.

Those companion media include everything from the Web, fax and e-mail to interactive cable television. As the editors discuss how the airport virus story will be assembled, it becomes clear that an emphasis is being placed on positioning particular elements of content where they will be most effective while also ensuring that each distribution service integrates with all the others to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

At the core of it all "Tomorrow's News" foretells a sophisticated, wirelessly connected, always-on news user who expects event advisories instantly delivered over her small broadband mobile phone or PDA, with detailed reports accessible via larger-format on-demand conduits. This 21st Century consumer apparently uses a mix of news services to satisfy his expanding information needs at different times of the day, in different locations and to different depths of detail.

To match this future, heretofore single-purpose news organizations around the world will want to recast themselves to be involved in as many of these media as possible. Changing the newsroom, perhaps along the lines demonstrated in "Tomorrow's News," will be key to a successful transformation.






Copies of "Tomorrow's News" may be requested on CD by email to Ifra Marketing Director Jamie Davies at Jamie@ifra.com. The Ifra Centre for Advanced News Operations is a resource for innovation in editorial strategy and news technology. Comments on this article or related topics may be directed to Kerry J. Northrup via email at northrup@ifra.com.

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