There has been significant global interest in the set of Dutch scenarios about what journalism might look like in 2025. Is there value in trying to visualise possible futures, given the fast pace and unpredictable change in media and technology, or is it just day dreaming? Cherilyn Ireton investigates.
The fact that the Dutch media fraternity has embraced the Scenarios for the future of journalism, produced for the Netherlands Press Fund (Stimuleringsfonds voor de Pers), is not surprising. Scenarios were a strategy tool honed in the Netherlands in the ’70s by Royal Dutch Shell’s planning manager, Arie De Geus. His method – which essentially starts as a guided conversation about what various futures might look like – led him to succeed at Shell, and the methodology became a popular part of consultant-driven strategic planning processes in the late ’80s and ’90s. Scenarios are not blueprints of the future … they are merely adaptable stories of possible futures, given a set of variables. This can make it difficult to understand their worth.
There is compelling evidence however that scenarios can have impact and indeed shape the future successfully: the Mont Fleur scenarios, drawn up by politicians and civil society representatives when considering what a post-Apartheid South Africa might look like, played a key role in shaping the new democratic policies and structures of the new South Africa.
So what is the value of the Dutch 2025 journalism scenarios and why are they garnering such attention? “The most important thing to emerge seems to be the new – very important role – that users play in the process. People want to be taken seriously. So editors should always keep in mind that it is more important than ever that news is relevant. News is no longer the news that journalists and editors think is important. People have opinions about that. They show you the way to their world by clicking and scrolling. Media better take that seriously and prepare not only for new ways of publishing, but also new ways of defining news,” says René van Zanten, general director of the Netherlands Press Fund.
It has changed the way people are thinking about the future, says Van Zanten. “For the first time there is something that goes beyond predicting the future, for the first time we have something that has nothing to do with people who preach their own truth. There has been little or no criticism about the methodology we used because the outcome is very plausible and the result of the discussions among people from the industry themselves.”
These scenarios were developed specifically for the media industry in the Netherlands, but Van Zanten says it is apparent that the problems are more or less the same in most developed countries. Given their wider resonance, the Dutch have translated the scenarios into English and created a special, free website where the pdf version of the report can be downloaded.
What the report says, in brief
The report says technology is the “principal critical uncertainty and is therefore an important driver of change in the journalism sector”. It says technology can be adopted “reluctantly or it can be embraced radically. In other words: the future is quite clearly digital and mobile, but it is unclear how this future will unfold, at what pace and to what extent everyone will join in”.
The second critical uncertainty, it says, “relates to confidence within society. Throughout the world existing institutions (governments, NGOs, political parties, media) are under pressure from the changing wishes of critical citizens, assertive consumers and the new dynamic of bottom-up initiatives,” it says.
“Institutions have not (yet) been able to formulate a suitable answer for this. Will society give its preference to far-reaching self organisation, in which experts and peers play a prominent role, or central direction by institutions and governments, in a case of recovery of public confidence due to increased transparency?”
This has a direct effect on how the four different scenarios could play out.
The four different scenarios
Wisdom of the crowd
A world in which the economy and society are dominated by start-ups and virtual cooperative relationship. A strong do-it-yourself-outlook has become the key to success. Co-creation, sharing and crowdfunding are breaking through on a large-scale. The government is pushed back into a facilitating role. The influence of big conglomerates like Apple, Fox and Facebook has reduced considerably. New initiatives appear and disappear at a fast pace. What counts for news is no longer determined by media brands but by the crowd.
A handful of apples
A world in which a handful of mega concerns increasingly set the economic, social and political agenda. Hardware, software, physical products, content: everything is branded and offered via integrated chains. Just like the news, which is smartly personalised and always reaches the public at just the right moment. Journalists market the news as niche products and services. Most traditional media businesses have not survived this development.
A world in which small scale, autonomy and caution are regarded as being important. The all-providing government has largely disappeared. The general view is that technology should be treated with caution. The media landscape has come to look like a collection of islands comprising small titles, often with a regional or local focus. Many journalistic newspapers and magazines from the 2010s have failed. Instead of them, news is exchanged on thematic community sites, which both citizen journalists and professionals contribute to.
A world in which government institutions and media businesses are evolving. They display more transparency and extensibility; dialogue with their target groups is no longer just something they are compelled to do, and it is now bearing real fruit. A number of traditional news providers are managing to make their brands relevant again and in that way to slow down the explosive reduction in viewers and subscribers. The public expects journalism to constantly prove itself, sets high standards, and is not loyal to specific brands.
Read the report: Scenarios-for-the-future-of-journalism.
Cherilyn Ireton is the executive director of the World Editors Forum. This post is republished with permission.
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