Media pinball: The fragmentation and atomization of the news

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How the New York Times, the BBC and NPR can survive the age of Buzzfeed and TMZ

Linear news is not dead. But it is challenged as never before by the threats of fragmentation and atomization. Fragmentation in 2015 makes the notion of 500 channel television almost quaint, and you don’t need a lecture from me on the influence that digital channels have had on consumer choice.

But there are three less-obvious aspects of fragmentation that go overlooked.

The first is the threat to the middle ground by the rise of ‘yes, exactly’ news. This describes the phenomena of consuming only that news which affirms one's existing view of the world. More often than not, it’s hard to tell if Fox News and MSNBC are even covering the same story, such as is the diametric opposition of their points of view.

The second is the increasingly vertical nature of the news characterized by ESPN, Bloomberg, CNBC and TMZ.  As a consequence, like so much in the digital world, the center gets eroded. Perhaps this is the real world. Maybe people want a binge diet of Arsenal, UKIP, Closing Bell and One Direction. Maybe they always did and were only force-fed ‘what was good for them’ by the bandwidth constraints of the broadcast age.

Finally, there is the ongoing fusion of news and entertainment. The rise of millennial-slash-Gen Z creators like Vice and Buzzfeed alongside the longer established Daily Show pose fundamental challenges to how we think about news channels and shows.

Atomization and fragmentation are not the same thing. Atomization describes the uncoupling of content items from not just the channel, but the program as a whole. Our world now consists of short clips pin-balling around the system, from individual SNL sketches to movie trailers to every tweeted news item or recipe for butternut squash soup. The days of the ‘whole picture’ are dying as people assemble a personalized mosaic of the world around them.

Some publishers have engineered their businesses to embrace this change. Consumption is king. People are less concerned with the platform on which their content is consumed, obsessed instead with aggregate consumption. The New York Times and the Guardian will tell anyone who listens that the output of their journalists is now consumed by more people than at any time in their history. Indeed, the BBC is the world’s most shared news producer. A few years ago the notion of The New York Times being celebrated for its Instagram strategy would have seemed absurd. Buzzfeed claims to be completely agnostic as to where and how their content is consumed, as it is able to aggregate views across all platforms and charge for them.

Taken together, the shifts raise some tough questions about the future of the world’s long-standing public service broadcasters.

In some respects, these broadcasters have no choice. They are the middle; they are in the business of facts, not speculation; they put journalists and crews in harm’s way; they have to maintain a permanent presence in places where, on most days, the news simply will not rise to the top of the global agenda.

At the risk of butchering the language, they need to simultaneously ‘self-atomize’ and, from those atoms, retain structural molecular integrity.

What does this mean? Today every story is a multimedia and multi-platform event, every clip is a show and every tweet is both self-contained and a gateway to broader and deeper experiences. As a result, the art and science of promotion and the architecture, editing and sub-editing of stories themselves have changed.

My point is that atoms and the molecular structure to which they belong are of equal and symbiotic importance. The value of television goes up when we can massively distribute the most arresting pieces. The value of the channel goes up if we can connect the ‘now’ moment to wider context and the value pieces goes up when we can amplify them with additional visually arresting assets like data journalism.

This calls for the most holistic and micro of views, and a respect for all parts of the production and distribution process, and a sense that everything we do has to be wrapped in metaphorical Velcro at the atomic level in order to maximize its value.

Today, every story and every show needs a multimedia present and a connection to the past and to the future. Everything needs to have a chance to build its own audience, and a responsibility to build the overall audience. News creators need audience attachment everywhere. They need to be indispensable to their audience, their carriage partners and advertisers.

In the end there’ s nothing wrong with the middle, as long as it's distributed everywhere and provides a connection to the integrity, depth and texture that only broadcasters with a public service heritage can stand for.

This is an edited transcript of a speech given the BBC Global News Ltd team on May 14th 2015. 

Rob Norman is chief digital officer at GroupM. You can follow him on Twitter at @robnorman.


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