It used to be possible to understand the inputs into the publishing business, and make plans based on what might happen. Don’t get me wrong – it’s always been very hard to see all the various levers that had to be pulled, to turn a story from a series of events and conversations into a piece of journalism and then get it in front of people. But it was possible, within the realms of imagination, that senior folks in news organisations could do it. Distribution and sales were pretty well-understood systems; news production likewise. Even the creation of news was, relatively speaking, straightforward: journalists could identify the likely places news would erupt from, and focus their efforts on cultivating sources in those areas. News generally came from journalists doing journalism, for one thing.
That understanding has been dying for a very long time now, but 2016 has thoroughly hammered the nails into its coffin. The ad business has imploded. Major platforms have launched surprise initiatives with massive impact on the news business – some in the form of products, others in the form of algorithm changes. Politics has gotten weird. Distribution is, more than ever, its own massively complex system where success is as much a function of luck and preparedness than effort. (It’s vital to optimise & commissioning with an eye to distribution helps, of course, but the runaway wins are often down to a complex mix of factors of which only a few are within a news organisation’s control.)
Next year, the media industry is going to have to embrace the idea that our work isn’t complicated, but that it is complex. Journalists will need to get comfortable with the concept that there’s no complete set of skills that will enable us to tell every story. Editors need to be OK with understanding that the range of ways to tell each story is huge, and that there is no digital decoder ring that can tell us how to make the best decisions for each one. Media execs will – more than ever before – need to understand that we can’t possibly know all of the details that would enable them to make the best decisions, and find ways to devolve power to the people who can. Information needs to flow freely within – and between – organisations, because that’s the only thing that can help us work with the complexity of the systems of which we’re now an inextricable part. Data will be crucial to our understanding, but it won’t lead us to the concrete, correct answers. Past performance is not indicative of future returns.
Change will not stop. There won’t be a moment where we all get to catch our breath and reflect, unless we create one for ourselves. On the one hand, as facts become harder to defend, it will be more crucial than ever that our reporting is clear, truthful, honest and consistent. On the other hand, our businesses will have to get used to nuance, to multiple options, and to the idea there might be more than one right answer. Both our journalism and our industry must reach a place where they can respond immediately to opportunities as they come up, and where they can take advantage of the butterfly effects that complex systems generate, without being ruined by them.
The only safe prediction for 2017 is that it won’t be normal.