A trip down Memory Lane…to 2014

As the year starts to wind down, many of us will be thinking about what might lie ahead in the next 12 months.

Predictions about the future can make compelling reading, but I’m always surprised why we seldom go back and see how many of the last set of predictions came true.  If we did, we would quickly realize that predicting one year ahead or many years ahead is actually incredibly difficult to do.  

One massive event that I’m sure was missing from the many media previews of 2013 was the irony of digital media suddenly taking an interest in the newspaper industry, namely Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post (as well as a handful of other notable newspaper acquisitions and investments).  While Bezos has yet to show his hand in how he might disrupt the newspaper industry, Amazon did catch nearly everyone off-guard with their plans that could potentially disrupt the shipping industry by starting a Sunday deliver service in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as London.

One could argue that Digital taking an interest in Newspapers is not too unusual.  After all, 2013 has been more of the same – lots of disruption everywhere.  Not surprisingly, the headlines in the media gravitate to key media players causing that disruption.  This brings me to a timely segue – the memorable EPIC 2014 video, which centered around the predicted merging of Google and Amazon into Googlezon.  

The 8-minute video, created in 2004, was presented from the ficitional viewpoint of the Museum of Media History and explored how popular news aggregators such as Google News could combine with now ‘taken-for-granted’ Web 2.0 technologies such as blogging, social networking and user participation in news reporting.

Not surprisingly, many predictions in EPIC 2014 did not come true.  However, the overarching trends in the video were right.  That’s quite a feat given how difficult it is to accurately predict what might happen 10 years into the future, and then harder still when we are thinking media.  For example, back in 2004, two media giants of today had only just begun: Facebook users existed only among Mark Zuckerberg’s peers at Harvard University and Netflix was still shipping out (many) DVD’s, ultimately leading to the downfall of a former giant, Blockbuster.  In terms of current-day essential media devices in 2004, the first iPhone was still three years away, as was the first Kindle, and the first iPad still another three years later.

Still, the video is well worth the watch, assuming you have an idle eight-minutes to spare before the oncoming rush of holidays.  While many forecasts don’t come true, it’s fun to predict: what are your predictions for the media industry in 2014?

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A vision for a very different news media

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Imagine a news media where the impact of journalism was measured not by how many people who saw the news report or show, but instead by the impact and the outcome on the audience.

This is one of the goals being sought by The Media Impact Project, based out of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  The Media Impact Project aspires to “be the global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media.”

Such a change could be transformative for all of media.  Instead of today’s mainstream news organizations who get the most ears and eyes reaping the biggest share of advertising revenue, independent and non-profit news organizations who are doing investigative journalism to help create a more informed public might get more fairly rewarded.  These valued sources might also stand a better chance of surviving the current ‘cut-throat’ environment in which organizations live or die by the ratings.

Personally, I think this is one of the most exciting developments in all of media research right now, one that could change the industry’s understanding of its audience and change the content we consume each day.  Here’s why: the method you use to count the number of eyes and ears who see a news report, a documentary, a show, or a film determines what gets produced and what continues to be produced.  When you change the way you count, you can change where the advertising dollars go and you can change the comparative value of genres, demographic segments, stars, hosts, and entire industries.  As Jon Gertner succinctly explains, “change the way you measure [America’s] culture consumption and you change [America’s] culture business, maybe even the culture itself“.

The essence of this project points to the limitations of traditional media measurement – selecting a random sample, tracking their behavior, and then extrapolating that small sample across the entire population within the confines of standard demographic groups.  Media companies that can target their users precisely, such as Pandora which can target ads to specifc groups – such as Hispanic females, aged 25-44, in a US metro – might render the current ratings system obsolete much more quickly than many might realize, but until then, the industry is stuck with a less-than-ideal measurement system.

That’s not to say creating a new system of impact metrics will be easy.  The Media Impact Project will pull together the smartest minds using the power of “big data” generated by the many social media networks.  From this, they seek to create ‘open-source mechanisms and processes to measure the impact of media content – not just in terms of what they say and share about a story or a show, but what actions they take thereafter.  Many news organizations – big or small – likely have an untapped qualitative goldmine of data that is not being fully explored and one that is getting bigger by the day. There is no consensus, yet, on how best to do this, but already several big thinkers are already leading that conversation.

The challenge here will be immense.  Researchers are still only at the beginning of understanding what content is share-able and how different cultures share information differently.  While they will be closely monitoring what we say and share in our social networks, our eyes will be watching them to see how a very different measurement system can create a very different media.

This is not about earbuds

If you show a ratings chart that pulls people out of their comfort zone, then inevitably their reaction is to focus on what is missing and what was not counted.  After all, that would explain the demise in the ratings.

From afar, this has been the reaction I have seen to the RRC‘s recent report on broadcast radio listening trends for US public radio, as well as trends for all radio.

The chart below is a wake-up call for the entire radio industry because it shows that there has been a steady (but also alarmingly quick) decline in the percentage of persons aged 6+ who listen to any measured media, which in this case is effectively any measured FM/AM/HD station.

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The chart shows that radio usage has fallen by 13% on weekdays in the past three years across the 30 markets measured by Nielsen Audio’s PPM.

This naturally alarms anyone working in radio.  As a presenter of this type of “bad” news for many years in many settings, the reaction from readers and from those in the room is part-defensive and part-wanting to understand.

The defensiveness or denial stems from the worry that one’s own livelihood is on the line, that the data confirms their worst fear that though their own media behavior hasn’t changed, the mainstream has, and that change is permanent.

This is a very human reaction, but as Mark Ramsey points out “In order to rally and fight a problem, we must begin by recognizing its existence“.  Holding onto the standard claims about the near universal reach of radio conveniently sidesteps the critical issue of engagement with radio.

The “wanting to understand” entails listening to each of the theories proposed that explain the ratings demise.  Some have credit, which should be acknowledged to aid understanding, but many can be debunked where necessary, in order to help people focused on what is real or not and what is within their control.

Don’t get me wrong, the ratings chart above effectively does not include headset listening; the workaround provided is simply not used by the ‘average Joe’.  But if you see someone wearing a headset, are you willing to say that person is absolutely listening to a local FM/AM station?  Probably not.

Yes, streaming is growing exponentially and it is the future for audio.  But take a 1-minute look at the Triton Digital Rankers report and you’ll see that the “Pandora train” has already left the station, leaving other pure-plays and broadcast networks holding only steady, and far, far behind, at best.

True, podcasts are not counted in the ratings.  Sure, it alters listening behavior so that I can listen to a show when I want to, but I haven’t seen any data yet that justifies the claim that if it weren’t for podcasts, my numbers would be much, much higher.

What’s left is what’s within your control.  Not how media consumption is measured.  Not about what content is or not counted. Not whether there was an election this time last year.  It’s about making what you do – audio, video, words – the very best it can be and the most compelling for your audience. Again and again.

Ratings tell us where we’ve been and can project where we’re going.  They can also show whether what we currently do has a future.  By all means, absorb them, understand them, and go ahead and poke holes in them, but don’t sit still in your comfortable seat and blame it on the earbuds.

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Welcome to How People Use Media

First, let me explain the purpose, getting beyond the title of this blog.

There’s a lot of information to share here.  I’m going to post key findings from the latest media research.  I’m going to point out how the way we consume media is quickly changing, and will likely only accelerate further.  I’m going to highlight what to keep in mind in how media usage is measured.  And I’m also going to share my own perspectives on how those who create media content need to be in a constant mode of change.  Times are changing and the audience is now in control.  Things aren’t going to back to how they were.

My own interest in how people use media stems from academia (learning how global news events are portrayed in the news media), to my work in London on how the news media covers specific issues, to my work in the US on how people use media and what they want and expect.

In the most recent chapter of my life, I worked at NPR.   I helped efforts to turn around shows such as Talk of the Nation that recently bowed out at a ratings-high.  I worked with the newsroom to help them better understand what the audience expects in the lead-up to a Presidential election. And I provided guidance to help de-mystify broadcast & streaming ratings so that staff and NPR member stations could better focus on the factors within their control, not what is beyond them.

I’m excited about this blog.  It’s a new direction for me and I hope it can be a means to start new conversations to help us all have a better understanding of how people use media.  I’ll also be posting much briefer updates on Twitter @HowPplUseMedia, and  I would be delighted to hear from you.