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What's Next for Journalism?

frog holds digital innovation strategy workshop for Germany’s largest newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

“Journalism is not a profession anymore, it’s an activity,” I heard someone say at a conference in Paris a few weeks ago. Assuming that’s indeed the case – with news breaking on Twitter, commentary provided by popular bloggers, and both distributed via aggregators and social networks – you can imagine newsrooms becoming panic rooms, and the gatekeepers of the public turning into the horsemen of the apocalypse in private.

The profession’s common response to the burgeoning social web paradigm is “We may all be publishers, but we’re not all editors.” But that claim can be easily countered: Do we still need editors? “If the news is important, it will find you,” asserts Marissa Mayer of Google, and she refers to the emergence of hyper-personalized (maybe also hyper-local) news streams that you can opt into without an intermediary, and that come to you via one of the myriad social channels. Just one data point: In January 2010, visitors to nytimes.com spent an average 14 minutes on the site, whereas Facebook users stayed on Facebook.com for an average of seven hours. This begs the question of what’s more important to the newly empowered news consumer: Speed or credibility? Social aggregation or expert curation? Location-based delivery or correspondents on location?

Moreover, content farming (i.e. Demand Media) and other forms of on-demand journalism (i.e. Spot.Us) are fundamentally challenging the agenda-setting oligopoly of traditional media. Then there is the rise of the Mobile Internet: A recent Morgan Stanley report forecasts that it will have outgrown the Fixed Internet by 2015. And of course there is now the iPad and other tablets.

The future of journalism will be social and mobile, whether you like it or not, and it might likely require cross-platform storytelling. Consequently, news organizations are not only rushing to launch tablet versions, they are also shifting their expectations towards reporters: “Aggregating and curating content with attribution should become part of a BBC journalist’s assignment; and BBC’s journalists have to integrate and listen to feedback for a better understanding of how the audience is relating to the BBC brand. If you don’t like it, if you think that level of change or that different way of working isn’t right for me, then go and do something else, because it’s going to happen. You’re not going to be able to stop it.’” Said Peter Horrocks, Director of Global News, BBC.

In light of all these trends, innovation is no longer an extracurricular activity for newspapers; it has become a mandatory task for rescuing the profession of journalism. “Innovate or die” seems to be the only real option. Or, put more mildly: If newspapers don’t just want to age (and ultimately die) with their traditional readership, how do they render themselves relevant for future readers, that is, the generation of digital natives, and their vastly different media consumption habits? (see the random sample of interviews below, polled on the streets of Munich: “How do you receive your news?” – in German).

The good news is that the future of journalism doesn’t have to look all that grim. Every abundance creates scarcity, and for every asset given away for free there are assets for which you can charge. Whether these assets will still be content, well, that’s another question – one of the many questions we asked in an all-day digital innovation strategy workshop that frog (in collaboration with media consultant Markus Albers) held last week at the headquarters of Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s largest newspaper, in Munich. The paper is read throughout Germany by 1.1 million readers daily and boasts a high circulation abroad. Attendees of the workshop included, among others, the paper’s managing directors as well as the managing editors of the print and online newsroom (which are – unlike at many other news outlets – still separated at Sueddeutsche). The discussion was animated, critical of buzzwords and easy solutions, with lots of food for thought for both sides, and ultimately very encouraging.

With its stable circulation and ad revenue, its strong brand, and its immense popularity both among readers and journalists (Germans call it a “Leitmedium” – an agenda-setting publication that in recent surveys was even ranked ahead of the venerable SPIEGEL in terms of “authority”), Sueddeutsche Zeitung is uniquely positioned to view the digitization of content and the transformative principles of the social web less as an existential threat but a historic opportunity to reinvent journalism.

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.