But the next few years will be about more than just the economics of news. The technology ecosystem -- the digital environment in which we all live and consume information -- will see drastic changes that also fundamentally change the model of news consumption, and thus the format, distribution and business model of news content.
Look back just five years and see how far the digital world has come in that time. Five years ago, Google was about to have an IPO and had just launched the beta of Gmail, YouTube wasn't even an idea, Facebook had just launched as a small Harvard online-yearbook site, Wi-Fi was just entering American homes.
The technology ecosystem of 2009 will look similarly distant by 2014. Below I will share five major trends to anticipate and prepare for. But first a preface on what this means for news:
We can all agree that mainstream media, especially newspapers, have missed a lot of opportunities to position themselves for today's online world. The potential good news, is that today's online world will be blown up anyway and replaced by something new in the next five years. No one has staked out that marketplace yet, and so news organizations will get another chance. Whether they are smart and aggressive enough to stay ahead of this curve is the question. It will require new expertise and risk-taking, rather than clinging to the legacy products.
Now, on to the new world of 2014.
5 megatrends transforming the technology ecosystem
1. Mobile. Personal Internet usage will rarely happen on traditional computers in the future. That model was a product of limitations, not aspirations. When the Internet came only through modems, we all had desktops. When it came through Wi-Fi, we all got laptops. Now, as cellular and satellite networks become mainstream and affordable, we all will be free have mobile devices as our primary connection to the Internet. We see this already in wild popularity of iPhones and netbooks.
2. Diminished role of browsers and web pages, and increased role of services and platforms. Less primary Internet use will revolve around visits to "website.com." Usage instead will increasingly occur through various devices' operating systems and apps, with information and services fed from various providers. It's the Twitter model -- not a website, but a universal platform that interacts with hundreds of devices. Online content (including news) from providers will be further separated from packaging. The form and method of consuming information will be defined and customized by each user.
3. Location-aware. GPS technology is increasingly affordable and compact. As many already do, the future's ubiquitous mobile Internet devices will know exactly where we are and be able to provide data based on proximity. In short -- Where am I, and what else is here? The current pioneer for this is Google Maps and Street View, and especially the "compass mode" that will rotate your view as you physically turn. Just recently the first "augmented reality" mobile browser was launched (watch demo):
4. Social. Where am I... and who else is here? What are they doing and saying? What can we tell each other about this location? When everyone is online everywhere, the human instinct to share and relate will play out in exciting new ways not before possible.
5. Layering virtual world upon physical world. In a matter of years, people will look back on the quaint time when we used to experience the Internet through device screens (looking down at monitors, phones, etc.). The future will bring us heads-up displays that project our Internet data stream onto our view of the world. The location-aware data will be viewed on top of the actual location. It sounds like goofy sci-fi today, but so did the cell phone in the early 1990s. Devices to do this already exist, and will become cheaper and more accessible (and stylish) as technology improves and the mobile/data trends discussed above simultaneously create the demand for them. Short-term, this will likely happen through special eyeglasses or contact lenses. Eventually, we may have ability to feed the data overlay directly to the retina.
So when we piece all five trends together, we see a world where the Internet travels everywhere with us, explores and shares our environment as we go, and integrates extra data and information into everything we see and hear in the physical world.
This is all fun to envision, but let's bring it full circle to the point of this blog -- how will news function in this world?
Reshaping the news
News organizations need to prepare now for a mobile-networked world. There is a big danger that by the time all mainstream media catch up to the desktop Internet, they'll find they missed the boat again on the mobile Internet, and their readers will have left them behind again.
Point #2 requires that news organizations become flexible content feeders. Create APIs and embrace the "river of news" model of flowing, unstructured information. Provide machine-readable data, not just human-readable content pages.
Unfortunately, this will also further disrupt an already fragile online business model based on selling ads on web pages. When the business becomes streams of outgoing data with no "page", news organizations will have to either charge developers or users for access to the data or somehow embed advertising into the data (e.g., inline ads inserted in a syndicated story)
In addition to changing the consumption of traditional "news" (articles, photos, videos, etc., about a topic or issue), these technology trends will exponentially multiply the role of aggregation, filtering and disemination of data. Whether that market will be captured by traditional news organizations probably depends on how well they anticipate and prepare now.