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The future of the media

From Twitter and Snapchat to click bait and paywalls, the media landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. Grant Feller talks to media veteran Torin Douglas about where we’ll be going in the next 50 years.

By Grant Feller, September 2015

It takes a brave man to put their head above the parapet and predict the future of media, especially when you consider the extraordinary and unpredictable explosion of technology that has both scarred and energised the industry in recent years. The tools and channels we now take for granted – Kindle, tablets, Twitter, Snapchat, Netflix, streaming, paywalls – were certainly not part of media veteran, and Warwick graduate, Torin Douglas’s vernacular for much of his 24-year stint as the BBC’s media correspondent.

Torin Douglas

So if things are changing with such rapidity, how can he – and other people – make accurate predictions about where we’re headed?

“I believe that the future of the media is extremely healthy,” says Torin who, after retiring from the BBC in 2013, now spends his days speaking, writing and chairing events. “We are, after all, living in one of its most exciting phases. Consistently over the past decades it has reinvented itself, yet all the while ensuring that creativity remains at the core. And the devices – whether on paper or screen or mobile – are all, in their own ways, robust. Not impervious but definitely robust. It would take a very courageous, or foolish, analyst indeed to predict the demise of any of them.”

Torin – who studied history at Warwick – will chair a debate along with Peter Salmon, head of BBC Studios, Observer columnist Yvonne Roberts and Telegraph virtual reality journalist Drew Gardner on how the next 50 years of media may develop. Not an easy task.

“There has been so much change in television alone that it’s almost impossible to predict where we will be next year – let alone in decades to come,” says Torin. “But this wave of multi-channel disruption that we’re seeing, particularly from American companies, is evidence that TV is far more resilient than many imagined even a few years ago. The days of programmes pulling in 20 million viewers may have ended due to fragmentation but the traditional TV industry is incredibly strong.”

Indeed. Who would have thought that Saturday night viewing – complete with singing and dancing competitions, chat shows and grandparent-friendly presenters – would still be the quintessential family moment of the week? And such a money-spinner for advertisers. Torin agrees: “Old-fashioned entertainment, no matter what the device that it’s viewed on, is as vital and popular now as it ever was. Yes X Factor pulls in fewer viewers – but seven or eight million a week is still an astonishing amount, considering the competition it has.

“And rather than merely eat into their share of the audience, new media is enhancing that television experience. Twitter is bringing people to the box in the corner of the room, encouraging them to be part of live ‘conversations’. Television has morphed from a pure viewing experience into a participatory one and, one could argue, a far more fulfilling one. And this trend can only continue, enriching rather than disrupting the time we spend in front of our TVs.”

Torin stresses that an enriched future depends upon organisations, such as the BBC and independent producers too, continuing to take risks. Programmes like The Great British Bake Off might be a phenomenon but when they were commissioned, produced and first shown, no one knew what the audience reaction would really be.

“That was such a risk at the time,” says Torin. “But success is often built on such risk taking. And so the future of TV entertainment – in fact the future of media – depends in part upon on a willingness for risk. Not on the algorithms that are meant to assess and predict our behaviour, motivations and taste. That way lies blandness. Just as the past 50 years saw an unprecedented explosion of individual talent in TV, so the next 50 will need that same kind of liberated attitude. The desire to experiment, take risks, to not fear failure and not just copy the latest hit.”

TV camera

Torin’s career has seen him reporting from the centre of some of the most tumultuous changes in modern media. The experience he has amassed over 40 years – in newspapers, magazines, radio and the UK Independent Broadcasting Authority – has turned him into one of the country’s leading experts. He now speaks, writes and chairs events for a range of media, arts and academic organisations, he’s a visiting professor at the University of Bedfordshire and was recently awarded an MBE for services to the community in Chiswick, West London, where he runs the Chiswick Book Festival and other cultural events.

Innovation, he believes, has and always will be at the heart of Britain’s media landscape. “The last true period of innovation in newspapers, before the onset of digital, came with Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping dispute. It heralded a new golden age of print where increased competitiveness led to a vibrancy in the way news was reported. The advertising model that funded that halcyon publishing period may be broken, sales may be slowing but the talent still remains. The daring, the perseverance, the wonderful instincts that make the British print media so unique – they remain.

“Which is why around seven million national papers are sold and read every day in Britain. Still. And that’s not counting the consumption of local and free titles. There may be some consolidation in the years to come but we are not seeing the catastrophic implosion that some doom-mongers predicted.

TV is not dead and neither are newspapers – if anything, the digital age has made them better, more relevant, more connected to an audience and more competitive. In that respect, the future is rosy.”

The same is true for books, he says. In an age of momentary pleasures derived from YouTube videos, shallow blogs and instantly-disposable tweets, longform reading is more valuable than ever. Again, the business model has suffered considerably in the past few years but the more publishers engage with digital technology, the more secure their future will be.

“I’m very optimistic about these ‘old media’ facets of our lives,” he adds. “Of course the internet is the dominating force in our lives but originators of content are more valued than ever. Whether it’s advertising, radio, cinema, magazines, whatever – the key to the future of media, as it has always been, is to give people what they want. And that is what we are so good at in the UK. We are constantly developing and, more importantly, learning to be agile. Always keeping the consumer at the forefront of our minds. If we forget them and focus purely on technology, the future could be very uncertain indeed.”

Agility, flexibility and iteration are core principles of media’s future, particularly when it comes to developing new revenue streams. “We are beginning to appreciate that good journalism requires different sources of income,” he says. “Whether those are paywalls, well-signposted native advertising or perhaps micropayments – that willingness to use digital technology to enhance what we might consider analogue experiences will be essential in the near future.”

Another crucial facet of media’s future is the tearing down of its protective barriers and the democratising effect that a plethora of new digital channels is having – allowing anyone to be a publisher.

For example, we are seeing businesses and key individuals use media to enhance their profiles and brands. Websites such as LinkedIn allow them to control the message but without the need for a shallow, PR-driven set of platitudes. “These individuals are becoming their own publishers, initiating conversations, provoking debate, showing profound and authentic insights,” says Torin. “Yes, they may be self-serving but they are also the kinds of insights that were once the preserve of journalists like me,” he says. “And this content is being shared. Media has developed tools to share in ways that were once inconceivable and that process of sharing, connecting people to content and through content in an evermore seamless manner, will be key to its future.”

Fifty years ago, television was just coming of age, still showing “live” radio programmes because executives didn’t understand the potential of this new medium. Our digital age is in its infancy so what we’ll be doing in 50 years’ time is anyone’s guess – but Torin and his colleagues will at least be giving it a go.

Image: Restaurant Rambla, Copenhagen (Ørestaden) by Kristoffer Trolle (via Flickr)