'Local will be very lekker'

2008-10-07 12:16
Once were visionaries

South African media will have its work cut out for it by 2018. There will be unprecedented competition for the eyeballs and eardrums - and other sensory organs - of audiences. Especially competition by what citizen journalism media guru Dan Gillmor calls "the people formerly known as the audience".

Even people with low literacy or poor command of the dominant languages will be posting content on line - especially video captured with their cellphones.

Of course, much will be of interest only to themselves and their mums. But, in total, every small scale contribution will add up to diminishing how much attention people in general are giving to mainstream content.

It's a certainty that many "prosumers" will be drawn to content - any content - in their mother tongues, something the mainstream will still struggle to deal in.

And "local" will be very "lekker" - another area of content that lends itself to production not by media companies, but by individuals, churches, schools, NGOs, sports groups and the like.

For the mainstream, your news will still be of the "man bites dog" variety. But at the neighbourhood level, you will also be devouring "dog bites man" - such as a local resident's dog named Rottie which has been captured in video on your street as it attacks that friendly jogger you've been greeting every day.

A continuous deluge of content generated from outside South Africa will complement the abundance of domestic information ten years from now. There will be seamless downloads of music, video, images and text from all over the world - and not least from the S'effrican diaspora spread across the globe.

There will be multiple devices for receiving and sending content, mostly electronic rather than paper-based. And people will be accessing, and producing, content on the move. Wireless connectivity will be ubiquitous and dirt-cheap.

Gigantic ocean of content

This scenario of escalating content creation and circulation is not to say that information saturation will be achieved. Given the dynamism of modern life, more and more data will continue to be captured about the things that are happening, no matter whether the issues are big or small.

For example, it will be standard for every school board meeting to be webcast live and then archived online for the record. A great deal of digitised history will keep on adding to the internet archive.

In this gigantic ocean of content, the lines between what is journalism and what is not will be very blurred. Already, there are many info types in cyberspace that come pretty close to journalism - as evident in some of the content originated by bloggers, companies, universities, foundations, etc.

Entertainment and information will shade into each other. The internet's offerings in e-governance and e-health will merge with online media content.

There will also be strong integration of ecommerce into online journalism. You will read a positive movie review and think nothing of instantly downloading the production for a small fee.

Commercialised content will also be evident in the form of product placement, games and pay-per-participation in creative reconstructions of events.

The business model ahead will not primarily be subscription-based, but rather driven by advertisements or other formulae. A great deal of content will be given away free or subsidised by people who pay their bills in ways that don't depend on old media economics.

A counter-culture movement inspired by the open-source model will be generating, sharing and sometimes pirating content big time. Spam will be a bigger problem than ever.

In this cluttered information universe, how people find their way around will be a major challenge. Media literacy levels will lag behind what's really needed for effective and critical navigation.

Citizen journalism

So online social and/or professional networks will reign supreme as trusted guides to what's hot (and what's not). Complementing them will be smart search engines (voice activated) that find precisely what people are looking for.

And more: data will be linked to other relevant data. You will find information on new aging treatment methods, and immediately move onto booking my generation of "ou toppies" into user-recommended clinics that offer the service.

In order to stay abreast of all these changes, media companies will need to have morphed.

There will be a much greater embrace by them of user-generated content, and smart media leaders will especially be focusing in upon the specific niche of citizen journalism within this expansive field.

The companies that will grow are those that also provide for interactivity, and which become places for continuous conversations around news, rather than static sanctuaries where one-way lectures are delivered from a podium.

Winning players will also nurture social networks around those news conversations, ensuring that their existing media brands are must-visit destinations, portals and newsparks.

What will also make a huge difference to survival and growth is the extent to which a media house understands the importance of meta-data - that is, the information about the information assets under their control.

Individual stories (in their multiple components and multiple format options) will need to be classified, categorised and tagged as a critical operation if they are to be easily located online.

Unique value-add

Against this backdrop, journalists of the future will show new skill sets. They will know how to keep editorial integrity in the face of potentially corrupting business models. Those who don't will see their enterprises fading into the general morass of sales-pitched content.

Most will have insight into how and when to ally with citizen journalists and engage with audiences for "crowd-sourced" journalism. Many will have expertise in building and managing niche online communities, and all will have to be super-savvy about the area they cover and the multiple media they use for story-telling.

Ten years hence, the journalism focus will be on unique value-add. As Buzzmachine.com pundit Jeff Jawitz has proposed, "do what you do best, and link to the rest". That will happen; inevitably, specialisation will be a trademark of professional reporters in a decade's time.

In 2001, Pete Rinearson - a Seattle journalist who ghostwrote Bill Gates' autobiography - observed that people classically overestimate what changes will happen in two years, but underestimate the difference in ten.

Once a visionary, Gates himself became so focused on individualised personal computers that he missed seeing the rise of the internet and its social potential.

It's a given that anyone predicting the media landscape in 2018 will also have blindspots. Alongside any scenario that is depicted, it's a dead cert there will be surprises. Not even old Nostradamus could have anticipated the internet?

  • Guy Berger heads up the School of Journalism & Media Studies at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

    Send your comments to Guy.

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