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. …

To view a larger version, click the icon, above.

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 – 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!

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

  1. Bev Taylor
    Bev Taylor 3 years ago .Reply

    First, you might want to take out “lack of” in front of inertia, in the first scenario, slide 3. If Marie lacked inertia, she probably would leave. Sorry, I was never a copyeditor, but sometimes that side creeps out.

    I think that it’s not as much how fast or how slow these companies innovate, but how deftly they handle innovation and whether they retain (or hire) employees who actually have the diverse talent set needed. It’s just not possible to dispense with skilled, experienced employees and replace them with lesser-skilled, inexperienced (albeit cheaper) employees (as many places are doing) and not have quality suffer. Add in management people with no newspaper experience and you have a mess. Possibly more than anything else, that’s sending print to a premature death.

    Readers notice poor quality writing, holes in stories, crummy photos, poor grammar and typos, whether they are on the internet or in print. Trust in the product is lost. As for me, that’s why I could see your scenario of niche writers eating the former mainstream media’s lunch playing out in many cities. There’s too much time spent on click bait headlines and nonsense. Witness the native advertising story on the front page of The Tennessean today that is not identified as such. I’ve also seen press releases run as unedited stories (both print and internet). It’s disrespectful to the reader.

    Also, I would comment that I’ve been surprised myself at howls from Gen X when daily papers reduce days of delivery. Who knew that many were print readers? No doubt the Boomer generation is more complicated than it sounds in the scenarios. Many are not over 60, but are turning 50 and identify with Gen X…

    Even those in the over-60 crowd are not so easy to target for advertising. An older Boomer who has taken care of health may be more interested in a gym membership than a seat to sit in the shower. They can be insulted by ads targeted to “seniors.”

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  3. Frank Pecarich
    Frank Pecarich 2 years ago .Reply

    Steve, clearly “newspapers are on their deathbed” as we discussed would occur several years ago. Looking at your consultation offerings, most of them require that the client understand the deep doodoo they find themselves in. As I pointed out before, it is still my opinion that there is still huge denial and confirmation bias within the entire industry. Before they can actually participate in alternative future activities, they must genuinely believe that they are at 11PM going to midnight. From what I observe, I don’t — at all — believe that’s the case.

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