Anyone who has been following this year’s presidential election on cable news might have had the same thought I’ve been having…we should be able to do better than this. The target of my scorn is CNN, which once upon a time used to operate as a legitimate news network that served to inform, and educate viewers. Now it just panders to our worst inclinations, and incites fear through non-stop sensationalist news coverage.
CNN’s shift in strategy over the years is likely explained by a shift in how people watch television, and consume news. Requiring a news network to be on 24/7 makes it susceptible to put in filler programming. Simply reporting on a story, sharing the facts, presenting several relevant experts does not require an entire twenty-four hours. Viewers’ attention spans have also shrunk, while the number of other outlets, and mediums to acquire news from has rapidly grown. In a battle for the scarcest resource, attention- sensationalism presents itself as a viable strategy. CNN is a business, it has advertisers to satisfy. As viewership on television continues to be fragmented, and in an increasing number of cases lost completely to the internet, it’s understandable that a network would resort to sensationalist coverage in order to remain relevant. Under its current structure CNN wouldn’t be incentivized to do anything differently, so perhaps it’s time to examine what a news network could look like in the digital age.
If i were building a news organization for today’s world, I would approach it like a startup. How can I begin to make the most impact without investing hundreds of millions of dollars from the start? A lot of the tools a next generation news network would have to leverage are already in place today. Here is my plan, and I’d love to hear from others on what else we could do:
1) Make the consumption experience amazing on mobile devices. There is no doubt that there has been a shift towards mobile. People should be able to tune in, get informed, and tune out all while on the go.
2) Allow a lot of the reporting to be crowdfunded. Beacon is already doing this with a journalism crowdfunding platform. Let reporters pitch the stories they think are important, and let people who want to learn more back the work financially. They will then be subscribing to a specific story, rather than to an entire publication. Also, allow readers to pitch stories they want to see, and also back those financially. Allow reporters to then take those projects on. Marketplace approach.
3) Allow your viewers/readers/users to build profiles- learn what they are interested in, and what is relevant to them. Push curated original reporting to them. The news should work to inform, so help people learn about what is going on in the world, in addition to keeping them updated on what they are most interested in.
4) There are freelance journalists all over the world, build a network, and leverage it. If a story is breaking out in Nepal, tap into the network, assign stories to local journalists, and supplement the expenses through crowdfunding. You get the benefit of on the ground familiarity, and expertise, combined with the fact that you have a reporter who can continue reporting on a story long after the initial hype is gone.
5) Generate revenue in traditional ways like ads, and user subscriptions, but also innovate, and allow customers to subscribe to single stories, and follow them. This was possible in the now defunct news app Circa. If I’m interested in the Chipotle food safety story, allow me to keep receiving updates as the story continues to develop.
6) Effectively leverage all social channels for distribution. Promote citizen journalists that are periscoping from the scene. Put together a day in review Snapchat story for different regions. Have a news program broadcast directly on Facebook Live. Get creative. Find your audience where they are already spending their valuable free time.
There are so many new tools, and services available today that should allow people who want to report real news in a way that serves to inform, and educate the ability to do so, and to do it well, without the onerous capital structure that would’ve been required even ten years ago. We deserve better than CNN, and our other cable news options, and I hope someone takes on the challenge to bring it to us. I’ll be watching, and waiting…hopefully not too long though.