The Year of the News Seeker

Predictions come at you at a manic pace this time of year. Demand in the news business seems particularly insatiable. In itself, a measure of desperate times.

None carry the weight of the annual trends report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It’s the one truly global barometer of industry momentum, surveying 200 digital leaders from 29 countries, and blends the perspective of digital natives and hardened veterans. Its author Nic Newman doesn’t pull punches but avoids glib judgment.

The headline this year is predictably dark. Crippling disruption of the news business is “likely to lead to the biggest wave of journalistic lay-offs in years — weakening further the ability of publishers to hold populist politicians and powerful business leaders to account.”

But this year’s report contains two equally true but simultaneously contradictory realities. Like Schrodinger’s cat, the news business appears both dead and alive in the very same report.

The rise of platforms turned loyal readers into faithless browsers, dealing a fatal blow to the old business model for quality journalism. This report makes it clear the wave of destruction has not yet crested. But look at 2019 through the eyes of the end user of journalism, not the publisher, and you see a year of awakening.

When Nic Newman writes about a shift in consumer behaviour, he captures a new persona — the empowered news seeker — who sees 2019 as a tipping point in their relationship with journalism, and more broadly, information:

“With consumers increasingly conscious of the time they are wasting online, we’ll see more people leaving social networks, more tools for digital detox, and more focus on ‘meaningful’ content.”
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I have to declare a personal interest in this report. It puts Kinzen at the top of a list of news start-ups to watch in 2019. The common thread running through the list of ventures on that list is better experiences for the empowered news seeker

The news seeker is overwhelmed by the quantity of information in their lives. The’ve turned away from social platforms. But they expect intimate, personal experiences from the apps and services that shape their daily lives. Journalism has yet to deliver that experience. And that is the greatest challenge and opportunity of 2019.

Some of us have the luxury of starting again, and learning from the mistakes of the past. A common trait of start-ups featured in Nic Newman’s report (including The Correspondent, Civil and Tortoise) is our common focus on building strong communities from the start.

In Kinzen’s case, this meant the active involvement of our first members in research, product development and curation. The result is a mobile app which will be publicly launched next week, and a roadmap for the growth of the Kinzen community and partnerships with publishers.

Few newsrooms get to start from scratch. But this new wave of media start-ups could provide a template for publishers who see the opportunity in the rise of the empowered news seeker.

The Kinzen formula, as Nic Newman describes it, is a news routine that is “time limited, personalised, and mind broadening.” Our team is already working on the publisher version of this news experience, and the Reuters report echoes some of the priorities on our roadmap.

As news organisations focus on developing new bonds of loyalty, publishers say they are putting more focus on newsletters and a hefty majority of those surveyed say audio will be a more important part of their content in 2019.

Similar numbers see “increased personalisation as a critical pathway to the future”. This is both an opportunity to build deeper relationships with news seekers, and a chance to screw it all up. The shift away from digital platforms is partly a rejection of personalisation that harvests the unconscious biases of users. 2019 will be a year when conscious news seekers demand personalisation that is both transparent and intentional.

This is the year publishers consolidate a dramatic pivot away from display advertising to reader revenue. More than half of the executives surveyed in the Reuters report said it would be the main commercial objective in 2019.

The shift to a new business model raises existential challenges for journalism. In his conclusion, Nic Newman says “news organisations will be need to be clearer than ever about what they stand for — and about the audience they are serving”.

These seem like two different challenges. But as news audiences seek more meaningful and mindful experiences of news, they are one and the same.