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Brainstorming the media landscape of the future

January 19, 2012

“Go, you wild bedfellow, you cannot soothsay.”
                         - William Shakespeare, Antony & Cleopatra, Act 1 Scene 2


We all wish we had the power to predict what the world will look like in five, 10 or 50 years.

As a sector currently undergoing turbulent change, the media industry is frantically shaking a cloud-filled crystal ball up and down in the hopes of figuring out what the future holds.

On January 18 2012, the John S Knight Journalism Fellows at Stanford received an opportunity to toss the crystal ball around as guests at the Institute for the Future, (IFTF.)

IFTF is a Palo Alto-based nonprofit research group whose stated mission is to help organizations “make better, more informed decisions about the future.”
The afternoon-long workshop provided us with a glimpse of how the IFTF goes about the forecasting process. It turns out that future-gazing is not as mystical as one might think.

Sig-what?
The goal of the workshop – to explore the future of news and journalism – was largely focused on brainstorming. Together with staff and affiliate researchers from the IFTF, we took it in turns to share “signals” for the future of the media.

A signal is an existing example that indicates the shape of the future. e.g. a prototype service, a lab demo or a current news item.

“Signals are things that exist today in the environment around us such as a scientific discovery, usage pattern or technology,” said Marina Gorbis, the executive director of IFTF and leader of our workshop. “Right now a signal typically exists on the fringe. But we see it as an indicator of a larger trend.”

The task wasn’t simply to share ideas about the latest media-centric iPhone app or crowd-sourced content strategy. Marina and her team also charged us with inferring what an existing signal says about a future trend for journalism.
Over the course of about 90 minutes, we came up with a voluminous slew of signals and trends, filling the long white-board at the front of IFTF’s workspace with dozens of colorful sticky notes. Marina and her colleague Mike Liebhold (a distinguished fellow at the Institute) then tried to organize the ideas into clusters representing various trend areas.

The future is now
The breadth of ideas we came up with suggests nothing if not an excitingly multi-dimensional future for our industry – a future that is already in embryonic stage today.

For example, the existence of norran.se, a Swedish website which enables readers to participate in the editorial decision-making process, and the “sousveillance” movement, point to deeper public involvement in news-gathering and disseminating in the years ahead; the demise of the personal computer and rise of the “deckchair-friendly” tablet interface suggest a bigger market for the consumption of longer-form journalism; meanwhile, the increasing prevalence of non-native-language news sources in various parts of the world illustrates a trend towards the trans-border news interests of a switched-on society that is deeply curious about how people in other cultures feel and think.

A robust future?
From capitalizing on new interfaces and platforms for the dissemination of news to creating innovative forms of algorithmic journalism that tailor information to suit a user’s location, interests and even mood, the media industry has plenty of room for a robust future.

Of course, while there is no shortage of interesting ways in which our sector can grow in the years ahead, one thing remains cloudy in that crystal ball: how anyone is going to make any money. Not even the augurs at IFTF have a handle on that.

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