By Pius Onobhayedo
Media entrepreneurs and professionals are no longer indifferent to the disruptive nature of the so-called new media. The primary pain point may be captured by the question, “where is the money?” I personally arrived at this conclusion having participated in a summit where various stakeholders in the Nigerian media industry shared their concerns about the feasibility of deriving meaningful economic value from audience engagement on social networking sites and other new media platforms.
Thanks to Taiwo Obe, the summit convener and United Bank for Africa (UBA), the summit host and sponsor, several journalists and media house executives were gathered on the 20th of February, 2014 to answer some pertinent questions with the goal of paving the way for a new sense of direction.
Faced with the proliferation of various forms of new media like social network services, blogs as well as the growing consumption of news online, media practitioners may be quick to ask the questions, what do these platforms profit us? Which forms of social media should we adopt? Do we have the requisite skills to compete in this space? Does professional ethics still matter? These questions formed the core of the debate by panelists and other participants at the summit. Besides sharing some experiences related by the summit panelists, this article is inspired by the perceived need to provide some clarifications and further insight into the way forward.
As consumer habits change, commensurate change in the media industry is inevitable. Back in 2009, I came across some data which drew my attention to the fact that target audience is no longer made up of only readers (traditional to newspapers), listeners (traditional to radio) or viewers (traditional to television), they have also become users (traditional to new media).
The said data further presented a rate of adoption of new media forms which dwarfs what the world experienced with newspapers, radio or even the television – it took 38 years to reach 50 million listeners, terrestrial TV took 13 years to reach 50 million viewers, in less than nine months, a platform like Facebook added 100 million users.
As communication professionals and media business owners, the strong presence of our target audience on social networks and other digital media platforms can hardly be ignored – Facebook alone is known to be home to about 1.2 billion monthly active users; more than 500 million tweets are sent on Twitter platform daily; Linkedin represents the world’s largest professional network on the Internet with more than 277 million members; over nine million pages are viewed per hour on Wikipedia (English version alone); over 100 million blogs exist on the Web; more than 4 billion searches occur per day on the Web; discounting the word Nigeria, news is now the most search for word from Nigeria on Google search engine service. The foregoing data point to a phenomenal end user adoption of new media forms and for a media practitioner, Marshall McLuhan’s advice comes handy: “The only way out of the media pervasiveness is to understand it … ”.
As the media businesses (especially the news media businesses) face disruption induced by technological innovations, we must engrave in our minds the fact that the media industry as a whole is richer than ever today. We can however only understand this position if we recognize the fact that part of the disruption is the admittance of new players into the media industry.
Contrary to what typically obtains in the traditional media world like the newspaper, radio, television, audience aggregation is no longer a prerogative of media organizations. Technology firms that produce the new media systems proceed to aggregate the audience on their respective platforms. Logically, their valuation largely emerges from their capacity to aggregate large audiences. Herein lies the driver of current global inflow of investment into the media world.
The recent Initial Public Offering (IPO) of Twitter and the 19 billion dollar acquisition of Whatsapp by Facebook speak to the subject. In the new media world, the power of aggregation matters. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, to name a few, have all entered into the media value chain.
Connectivity providers like mobile services providers are also recognizing their power of aggregation and are beginning to offer Value Added Services (VAS) erstwhile associated only with news media houses. My prediction is that such VAS will eventually become Core Services. Welcome to the world of convergence! Bloggers and online forum providers have also entered into the audience aggregation game. Based on data from Alexa.com, the top 15 most visited online sites from Nigeria include a discussion forum – nairaland.com – and a blog, lindaikeji.blogspot.com, both directly targeting the Nigerian audience.
The need for strategic rethink by news media organizations especially the newspapers cannot be overemphasized. The presence of new competitors in the media industry landscape coupled with the growing number of consumers that seem unwilling to pay for news online are valid sources of concern. News media organizations are traditionally known to obtain money from three sources – consumers, advertisers/sponsors as well as investors (beware! Capital is a liability but there is also immediate cash reward for owners that choose to give up shares in the process).
To paint a gloomy picture for the traditional media, in the online space, investors and advertisers are chasing audience aggregators while consumers that are looking for news online seem unwilling to pay for novelty as a basic news value. Alternative sources of fresh news abound in the online space. It is common knowledge that the death of Whitney Houston was first broken on Twitter several minutes before Press.
The novelty value of privileged access to institutional Press Releases prior to publication has also been watered down by direct institutional Tweet Releases to the public. A case in hand is Reuben Abati’s tweets (@abati1990) as the President’s spokesman. What’s the way forward for newspapers houses and journalists?
Traditional media practitioners ought to approach the new media landscape with an attitude or disposition that is not only optimistic but also realistic. If the so-called citizen journalists can be empowered, professional journalists ought to be more empowered. Such optimism must however be accompanied by reality check – the new competitors must be recognized vis-a-vis their competencies, the consumers must be better profiled so as to understand what they will be willing to pay for, the basis for new media empowerment must be sufficiently understood so as to be able to leverage on it, media practitioners must be sufficiently savvy in order to maintain a good level of distinctive competence required to succeed in the new media world.
I have deliberately used the word new media rather than focus on social media because the emerging media landscape goes beyond the so-called social media and I believe that a good grasp of the conceptual distinctions between the buzzwords would go a long way to identifying the empowerment inherent in such media forms as well as their disruptive nature. People sometimes use the phrases social media, digital media and new media interchangeably however, there are some distinctions. In the first place, digital media simply highlights digital technology as foundation.
While not discounting the digital foundation, new media is a generational term, which places emphasis on the innovative nature of the emerging media forms that continue to shape the way we now consume and share information. In this regard, social media can be said to be part of new media. Social media usage evolved from the innovations that facilitate User Generated Content (UGC) on the Web by supporting multiple and easy ways of interacting and collaborating. Today, audiences can be easily engaged on the basis of one-to-one (e.g. Facebook Inbox), one-to-many (e.g. Facebook Wall, Tweets) and many-to-many (e.g. Comments threads, Forums), even on the same platform.
Although the emergence of various social media forms could been an empowerment for communicators and has fueled the growth of citizens journalism, it does not exhaust the spectrum of new media innovations that has disrupted the traditional media businesses. The manipulable nature of digital information has given rise to a broader set of innovations that permeate the media value chain.
Thanks to such a nature, media innovations have become almost synonymous with innovations in software development. Arguably, the most significant competition for traditional media industries comes from the entry of logistical or organizational media innovators like Google into the media value chain. As John D. Peters, a Communications theorist would say, the job of logistical or organizational media is to organize and orient. They are rarely content-driven.
Indexes, maps, catalogs, inventories are examples of such media. To draw an analogy from physical libraries, perhaps the most visited medium is the catalog. If only the librarians were pounds wise, they would have recognized the catalog section as a valuable position for advert placement in the library premises.
In the online space, something similar happens, people go to the “catalog section” to get orientation for where to source their news and other resources. Google is presently best positioned globally for this role on the Web and Google is certainly pounds wise – the Company feeds fat on advertisements. I would not argue that traditional media organizations challenge Google in that space, however, if they so wish, they must build the highly technical distinctive competence. At the very least, recognize the fact that Google’s main economic power comes from the media value chain. Such recognition is important for strategic decisions.
Another competing form of audience aggregation is the provision of platform for communicators to place their content and engage their respective audiences. WordPress.com, Blogspot.com for example, are well positioned to earn advertisement revenue on their platforms. Such opportunity becomes more lucrative for platform owners as competent content providers leverage “freely” on such platforms.
Twitter, Facebook, Youtube also leverage on such aggregation possibilities. I wonder why traditional media practitioners have not explored the power of aggregation from this angle perhaps in a competitive manner. More could be said about audience aggregation but I would like at this stage to redirect the attention of the reader to the consumers’ willingness or unwillingness to pay for media resources in the new media world.
Just as it would be a misconception for anyone to assume that technology disruption implies less money in the media industry, it’s also a misconception to think that the so-called free readers may not be willing to pay for any service along the emerging media value chain. Consumers of free news online do not hesitate for example to pay for connectivity in order to be able to access news items.
The ball is in the court of media practitioners to discover and provide information that consumers will be willing to pay for. As earlier suggested, willingness to pay for newness as a value may be dwindling as free alternatives abound in the online space. The situation calls for media practitioners to revisit those other elements of professionalism that are usually brought to bear in good journalism namely accuracy, fairness, attribution as well as relevance. On the one hand, consistency in accuracy and fairness has always been and will continue to be foundation for positioning as trusted source of news.
More than ever, due respect for intellectual property as implied in attribution ought to be more diligently guarded not only by the individuals but also by other stakeholder that feel the responsibility to protect the industry. Ethical behaviour still matters; it is often a matter of justice. I salute any institutional attempts to enforce copyrights. However, in order to truly benefit from such protection, relevance must be addressed as a critical success factor.
In the face of elevated competition, the importance of relevance may be accentuated as an element in professional journalism. The value of content to the consumer has become a significant determinant of their willingness to pay. In the context of decision making, information value has been defined as the amount a decision maker would be willing to pay for information before going ahead to make a decision.
Demand for information of high value suggests that Journalists must redefine their competence, perhaps transform themselves into journanalysts with demonstrable domain expertise. Not only will this imply proper schooling in data analysis, skills in multimedia presentations across various channels have also become indispensable. Multimedia may well be a salvation for future newspapers. There is a whole body of research that suggest the advantages of multimedia in communication effectiveness (I’ll write more about this in another article).
Today, consumers do pay for content online even in Nigeria – Technology Times enjoys over 200,000 subscribers online; the Economist offers subscription channel for both print and digital versions online. No doubt that willingness to pay depends on the value placed on the content.
A good test of true value creation is the ability to successfully run a Freemium model which implies the provision of a Free basic offering and Premium offerings. Premium services are not available for free and consumers will only opt for such services if they perceive their values. Knowing the audience demands good analytics combined with sound criteria. If a media organization does not know what their audience will be willing to pay for, they don’t know them well enough!
A lot more can be said about the vision of new media forms as empowerment for traditional media practitioners who choose to reinvent themselves and sharpen their distinctive competencies. In my next article, I intend to do some level of justice to multimedia, a significant part of the new media heritage, as well as other success factors like convergence journalism, newsroom efficiency, news brands, journalists as content curators and valuable attention conservers in this age of information overload. On a final note, I believe that the media industry is sustainable economically but only for those that are relevant to the emerging value chain. Step up!
Dr. Onobhayedo is with the School of Media and Communication, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, Nigeria.