By Steve Outing
I recently participated (well, sort of — via a remote Skype presentation) in the University of South Carolina’s “Journalism, Sustainability, and Media Regeneration Conference.” Its organizer, Professor Augie Grant, sent a survey to everyone who attended that opened with a couple questions that I should not answer but cannot resist:
“Think about all of the possible forms of delivering news and information online. In general, what ‘top of the mind’ ideas do you think ‘online news’ will look like in 20 years?”
“Now think about the type of device and where people will be accessing news. How do you think these factors will affect the format(s) of online news in terms of what the user wants?”
Twenty years?! Now there’s an opportunity to make a fool of myself with predictions that have a slim-to-none chance of turning out to be correct. But what the hell, it’s fun to try. And when I’m 74, I can chuckle at my prognostications while relaxing in my solar-powered rocking chair as my digital assistant finds this old blog item, reads each prediction, and explains where I went wrong (or was right).
[Note to future self's information assistant: Find this and bring it to my attention 20 years from today.]
1. We won’t call it “online news,” but simply news. Even today, I think “online news” is an outdated term; I prefer “digital news” in order to encompass news consumption whether online on a laptop or untethered on smartphone, tablet, or other wireless device.
2. News — my own personal version of “the news” — will be everywhere I go, and available on any device that I may encounter. Laptop (will they still be around then?), personal tablet, phone/communicator/personal assistant: They’ll all know what I’ve read or viewed (including how far into a story or a video); what important news and events I don’t yet know about but should; and know my preferences from having tracked my every bit of info consumption for years and offering choices that are for the most part spot on. This same personal data profile will be available on any media device that I come across. My (electric) rental car’s media device will identify me (and know me intimately) by communicating with my phone, and its screen will show my relevant news: the map to my hotel and driving time; photograph of the sunset at home from my wife; the soccer score of this afternoon’s game that my grandson played in; the top news stories in the city I’ve arrived in; local weather forecast; the top news headlines from my home city, national and international headlines. When I start driving the car, the media system will switch to audio, and respond to my commands.
3. What we call “news” today will have a different meaning in 20 years. As alluded to above, it means everything from what my wife and I are having for dinner, to the next-door neighbor’s cat was killed by a coyote, to today’s movement of my investment portfolio, to the more traditional news items (i.e., what’s happening in the world, near and far). Yes, it will be a lot of information, but I will be able to choose layers to focus on (say, family “news” or “just sports”); or have my stream filtered to show some of everything but at a high interest score based on my info profile. It might tailor what I see based on my mood: “I’m tired; don’t give me anything too depressing or complex.” … Note that 20 years from now this “news” will not be tied to a single news brand, but rather some “news+information system” or “agent” (with a brand) will find and deliver all that’s relevant to me, from many media brands. (Perhaps I’ll pay a monthly fee for this service, which will divvy up my money to pay bits to the various content sources included in my news stream. For “premium” content within my stream, I’ll pay this entity to include it in my stream rather than deal directly with lots of content or information purveyors.) Some “news” will be from friends, neighbors, strangers who are not journalists, and will not partake in the money-splitting; but I’ll be able to “tip” or donate money if I wish to. Their news will flow seamlessly into my news stream alongside professional sources, but I’ll always know at a glance what kind of source I’m viewing.
4. In 20 years, I think we will have figured out how to identify quality and credibility among the thousands and thousands of news sources vying for some of my attention. If my friend recommends an article from an author or news source that I’ve never heard of, I’ll see quality and credibility scores for the article and the source, and measures of bias that this source might exhibit. It won’t be enough, as it is today, to read a hot story because dozens of my friends have; I’ll have some better indicators of who and what’s worth my media time, and how good (or bad) they are, to add to my friends’ recommendations.
5. Along those same lines, my news tools will fact-check every news story I read, highlighting mistruths, mistakes, bias, etc., and providing citation links to back up highlighted problem areas in the content. If a news story is analyzed as getting too low of a credibility score, my news assistant will recommend that I skip it. (Perhaps this will develop into an industry of its own, as an important piece of the 2034 media environment.)
6. If you think that there aren’t enough hours in the day, today, just wait 20 years! With exponentially more news and information, I’ll need a killer filtering system that identifies the best media content with little to no effort on my part. I’ll also have at my disposal information tools that will condense the news and information I need or want to consume. “Information assistant: Give me Boulder, national, and technology news headlines of the last 12 hours in 15 minutes, audio format” (the time I have on my drive to the office). “I have 30 minutes to read on this train trip. Condense my book to be read in 30 minutes, text format.” Algorithms will be sophisticated enough that an e-book that normally would be read in 4 hours will in 30 minutes give me a pretty good summary, and likewise select the most important pieces of news stories to fit into my desired, limited time. Much if not most content will be available in multiple formats, to suit my desire to read, listen, watch, or interact with a news story or other information.
7. What about platforms? This one is so difficult to predict, but even 20 years hence I can’t imagine a pocket-size device (today’s smartphone, evolved ) being able to do everything. My future handheld assistant can be my window to the news of the world and the neighborhood; it can be my ultimate communicate-with-anyone-in-any-format device; it can replace my expensive dedicated camera and video-cam; it can replace my wallet (ID, credit cards, cash, membership cards, medical history); and much, much more. But I think we’ll always want a larger screen, both for more pleasant and enjoyable media consumption (especially video and movies) and for getting work accomplished, as well as for reading books, catalogs, and documents. If there’s a popular device today that’s probably toast in 20 years, it’s the laptop computer. I think we’ll see such tremendous gains in tablets that they will replace laptops as most people’s primary work device. This MacBook Pro that I’m typing on today, in 20 years will probably be looked on like we woud a manual typewriter today. … So, two primary personal media devices. That’s my prediction, but seriously, who knows what other grand devices will emerge that we can’t live without.
8. Location, location, location. In 20 years, I expect that just about every physical object in our world will have data attached to it, in multiple layers of information type. Walk past a building: Your phone/personal assistant will know who’s in it (companies as well as people in your friends networks), what recent news and historical events are associated with it; etc. Walk down the street in a high-crime urban neighborhood and you’ll be able to view to physical locations of past murders, assaults, drug arrests. Come upon a statue while strolling a new city and view its story, including a short video documentary; leave a digital “I was here” message to add to the statue’s location data. Walk down the street, unsuspectingly, toward a crime scene, and you’ll be alerted to reroute, and receive what information is available about the incident, including photos and accounts from eyewitnesses.
9. I do still think that we will have, two decades from now, some major, important, well-respected, credible serious-news organizations. They will do the hard stuff — the costly investigative reporting; the constant monitoring of governments and corporations, exposing misdeeds and mistakes. I think that they will be public media entities, mostly, not commercial, because we will have gotten fed up with the mediocrity that news organizations supported by corporate interests gave us for so many years. From today’s vantage point, I see continued decline of “traditional” news media, which will force public media to step up their game. Wealthy technology companies, not with malice but simply by the nature of their businesses having disrupted news business models and not leaving alternative or new models sufficient to fund quality journalism, will steer their foundations to support public news organizations. At the local level, community foundations will have come to understand that low-quality local journalism has a negative impact on many facets of their communities, and they will fund local public media to a degree sufficient to have a strong local media watchdog. Of course, foundations won’t fund all this, and in 20 years public news organizations will have figured out how to sustain themselves with the help of foundations, but not be dependent on them.
10. Finally, I think that in 20 years many of the functions done by human journalists will be accomplished with automation. That’s a trend that’s been happening in most industries for many decades, so it’s a pretty safe prediction. Today, social-media content (e.g., the Twitter stream) often surfaces news events, which get noticed by humans and eventually spread to reach mainstream media. It’s not difficult to imagine an algorithm that automatically identifies significant news events that surface within the Twitter “firehose” (if Twitter is still around and/or relevant in 20 years) and publishes early “breaking-news” reports automatically. It probably will have enough built-in smarts to spot hoaxes. And to hark back to earlier mentions of personalization, this auto-spotted news from the social stream will be delivered to you the news consumer when it matches your interests or is happening in your neck of the woods. A “news algorithm” might monitor the huge network of live video cameras likely to be ubiquitous in cities 20 years hence, identifying and live-streaming news events that it spots (accidents, fires, crimes in progress, etc.). … And the human journalists? This prediction in no way presupposes that there will be fewer employed journalists. Rather, they will be freed from mundane tasks and be able to concentrate more of their time on producing “enterprise,” investigative, and feature reporting. And certainly there will be more journalists making a living covering niche topics that today go uncovered.
OK, enough fun — or is it enough making a fool of myself for even attempting to look 20 years ahead. Actually, looking back over my words above, I think some of this is possible in another five years.
Whatever. The future of media will be what it will be. I just hope to continue playing a small role in shaping it for the next 20 years.