Three scenarios

Future of news scenarios show what’s (likely) to happen with newspapers

By Steve Outing

What will happen to the newspaper industry in the next half decade? No One In the World can accurately predict one future for newspapers, or even for one specific newspaper. But we can reasonably determine what are the most likely, plausible 5-year-out futures.

As part of my continuing series of demonstrating and applying Foresight methods to the future of journalism and the news industry, I’m going to offer up a set of three very different, but each plausible, future “scenarios” for the newspaper industry.

Journalism Foresight SeriesIn the world of Foresight (a.k.a., Future Studies), developing multiple plausible scenarios is one of the most useful methods available. We can’t tell the New York Times exactly what it has in store, nor the Minot Daily News (North Dakota). But we can make the owners, managers, employees, and investors of those and other newspapers aware of their most likely futures.

Armed with this knowledge of what is most likely to happen, newspaper leaders can at least plan for addressing challenges and taking advantage of opportunities that appear through running a topic-specific scenarios exercise. (It’s better than not having a clue, and blindly letting the future happen. At least you can narrow down the possibilities to make planning ahead feasible, and in a best-case scenario, come to understand what your organization or your industry must do to head off a likely unpleasant future.)

Notice that I already have used the word “plausible” above several times. We don’t want to waste our time analyzing implausible futures, so let’s dispense with them now. … Of course, an “implausible” future could still happen, but the odds are remote. As I discovered reading a frightening article by NASA scientists, it is possible that a really bad solar storm could hit the Earth, as it almost did in 2012, and knock us back technologically to the 1800s. That unlikely occurrence might give printed newspapers a new lease on life. … That’s a “wild card.” Possible, but not plausible.

It’s typical to select three or four of the most likely, plausible futures for a scenarios exercise like this one. I’m going to stick with three: a “baseline” scenario (the most likely to occur, because it extrapolates on current trends); a positive alternative scenario (this one assumes that newspapers figure out how to not just survive but prosper reporting and sharing news in the always-changing digital age); and a negative scenario (where things don’t go so well, and newspapers circle the drain, still unaware of how or unwilling to radically innovate before drowning). Foresight professionals doing scenarios work wouldn’t always choose a positive and negative as alternative scenarios — the most likely ones might not fit that narrow choice — but for the sake of simplicity we’ll use this approach here.

OK, let’s get into the three scenarios for how newspapers likely will fare in the next five years. I’ve presented the scenarios in the following slide decks. … Each scenario includes both a narrative summary (told in fictional story form) and several slides of assumptions that back up and/or explain why the scenario narrative is what it is. …


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I’ll post a follow-up to this article at a later date, examining what we can learn from the outcome of this exercise.

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OK, now, I’ve thrown a lot of information and ideas at you. Please share your thoughts in the comments area below. How would you draft these most-likely scenarios differently?


Top photo: © mlehmann78 – Fotolia.com license

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!