News media executives often comfort themselves that the digital world is moving so fast that “you can’t predict what’s going to happen next year, let alone in five years’ time”.
We say that’s nonsense.
Just as we could have told you about today’s obsessions five years ago, we can tell you now what will be the main concerns of the news media in 2026.
They are right in front of us already: growing direct revenue from readers as digital display advertising declines even further; working out how to counter Facebook, Google and Apple’s forays into our territory; fully coming to terms with analytics-led journalism (sorry, gut instinct fans – this is the decade of data); and bringing true consideration of user needs into our output. The “shiny new things” will still be AR, VR and video.
There, simple – now get on with it.
But what will the news media world look like in 2050, broadly 30 years from now?
Making a super-long-term forecast is a technique used by a number of tech firms – notably Amazon and Stripe – to ensure they are constantly looking up from the path they are on to gaze at the horizon to confirm they are on the right track. This allows them to sense-check their current tactics against a long-term strategy. There is no reason, we would argue, that the news media cannot do the same.
The moving-too-fast argument falls down even when looking even three decades into the future. A quick look back at the past shows how – with caveats – you can predict what’s going to happen. You might not like it, but some things are inevitable.
Much is made of how Nikola Tesla predicted the mobile phone in 1926, but he was light on specifics. By 1963 we had the Mansfield News-Journal reporting on a trade fair under the headline: “You’ll be able to carry a phone in your pocket in the future.” As well as the signature phone it said: “Other telephones of the future include a kitchen loud speaking telephone and a visual image telephone.” And this was a report that ran in a local paper serving a small city in Ohio.
The predictive ability doesn’t just extend to smartphones. In 1987 Roger Ebert, the film critic, foresaw streaming services, and their accoutrements, with unerring accuracy: "We will have high-definition, wide-screen television sets and a push-button dialing system to order the movie you want at the time you want it," he said. "You'll not go to a video store but instead order a movie on demand and then pay for it. Videocassette tapes as we know them now will be obsolete both for showing prerecorded movies and for recording movies."
Of course people get things wrong – and we have no doubt we will have made errors and omissions in our predictions – but it is possible to see the general direction of travel and some of the places we will be stopping off.
So what are the meta-trends that will guide news consumption as we sit in our flying cars – ;) – and what do media companies need to do to seize the opportunities they present?
It is clear that in 30 years’ time there will be more of everything. More information, more data and more content than we can possibly imagine. (We’ve already passed the point where 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every hour.) There will be many more ways of accessing this information, and mobile data and broadband speeds will no longer present any real barrier to richer experiences for people no matter what device they use or where they are.
Barring a natural or viral catastrophe, we will be living longer lives, with more leisure time than any period since the Victorians. There will be more art, more creativity, more community engagement and more concern about what we buy and eat and where it comes from.
Broadly speaking, there will be an explosion of both information provision and capacity, and the time to consume it.
Let’s get more specific and start with a big, but obvious change for the news industry. We confidently predict there will be no print newspapers. Two factors will guide this, and it is arguable which will strike the killer blow.
First, the distribution costs per copy will get higher and higher as circulations decline, and no distributors will want to be in this business.
Second, and more terminally, the readers will die out. Today’s 50-year-olds, many of whom will be approaching their 80th birthdays in 2050, are not digital natives, but they are largely converts and as hooked to their smartphones as any Gen Zer. They won’t be going back to print as they age. And the age groups above them that comprise today’s print readers … well, sorry to say, but they’ll be dead.
Those that remain will have had a long experience of the tech giants from the West Coast and probably China. Legacy news organisations are quick to blame these still-quite-young businesses for their current reduced financial circumstances. This is unfair: the platforms have succeeded primarily because they have been focused on their users’ needs, often elevating them beyond what their immediate business needs might require.
This devotion to what customers want suggests that the likes of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix, even Twitter, will be around in some shape or form in 2050. And it is likely they will continue to compete with news publishers for users’ attention.
Will they continue with their more recent experiment of becoming primary news providers? The ease with which Apple, with an underwhelming news product, has amassed nearly 10m subscribers to its News service worldwide suggests that they will. And the entry of Google and Facebook into this market will certainly drive this forward as FOMO rules kick in. If news proves an enduringly good driver of loyalty and engagement, which we have no reason to expect it won’t, then expect the platforms to compete hard against existing providers.
Personalisation gets a bad rep: we’ve all experienced daft display ads from Amazon recommending products we have bought literally minutes before. But how many of you actually quite like your Discover playlist on Spotify or have found your iPhone making it easy to open your podcast app when you pop your AirPods in? What we like to think of as “discreet 1-2-1 personalisation” is already quietly creeping along in a way that does benefit users.
Right now it is taking companies a lot of effort, thought and time to create genuinely good product-enhancing personalisation. By 2050 the off-the-shelf cloud services available from Amazon and Google will be able to do this for you in a few clicks and it will be incredibly engaging.
The digital revolution has marched hand in hand with globalisation and we expect this to continue in the news media. In the 1990s you had to be content with finding a day-old copy of the New York Times in London; now the website and apps are available in real time as if you were in Manhattan. While we remain sceptical that there is a role for a global news provider, readers will undoubtedly be more likely to consume news from foreign publications in 2050.
For English- and Spanish-language publications in particular this means the competitive landscape will get tougher and tougher. Why, for example, would you read a view on events in Hong Kong from a London newspaper, when the South China Morning Post with its much greater local knowledge is just a click away? (We assume the SCMP will be able to continue to operate in an increasingly hostile environment. Solidarity, brothers and sisters.) Of course some readers will want a view from their own national perspective, but we believe they will become increasingly attuned to the global point of view and value such reporting.
Outside of English and Spanish, there are opportunities too. Translation software will make dipping into local news sources a much more reader-friendly experience. Indeed, the world’s media will effectively be published in your native tongue by 2050.
Media companies have often been split by mediums: writing in newspapers; audio on radio; video on TV. These distinctions are fast becoming irrelevant with the internet, podcasts, YouTube and social platforms offering all at once in one place. However, storytelling is a skill that requires choosing and manipulating the right mediums. Shouting for “more video” is no good if your content is all about financial news, because the videos will be boring.
New technologies such as augmented reality will allow us to tell stories in new ways, freeing us from screens and allowing us to combine mediums. New formats will evolve in the same way that “stories” has evolved after the introduction of the smartphone, a format that can only exist because of the combination of camera, touchscreen and internet. Our wilder sci-fi dreams will be closer to reality in 30 years’ time.
The coronavirus pandemic has reminded people of the value of what is closer to home and publishers who can find a way to play a role in that aspect of readers' lives will benefit. While we will become more global in our outlook and ability to consume media from around the world, being engaged with our local communities is going to become increasingly important too. The strength of networks like Nextdoor suggests that people want to be civically engaged, but the economics mean this need cannot be served by local news in the way it used to.
We know that many people like to comment and join in discussions, whether on newspaper websites or sites like Reddit. The problem is how do you stop these spaces becoming cesspits? Building real communities will be a powerful point of leverage when it comes to keeping readers subscribed.
How can media companies respond to such a changing environment?
First they must accept that the media industry of the past will not be returning. Steady reliable incomes doing the “same” thing for decades on end, a market capable of supporting multiple actors doing slight variations on the same theme – this will never exist again.
What matters perhaps even more than making a product our readers/listeners/viewers/interactees (if we may coin a word) value and will pay for is creating organisations that are structured and designed to do this in perpetuity. It is not enough to find a single knockout product and rely on it providing income “for ever”. We must be inventors, risk takers and life-long learners.
We need to radically restructure ourselves, value diversity in people, in skills, in experiences, in outlook. We need to do this constantly.
Of the trends we have discussed above, what would we focus on?
We believe news companies should think of journalism as a service to people. Too often they have served their owners and internal priorities rather than those of their customers. This must change. People want guidance on what to think, do and buy. Do this well and it will be valuable and profitable. We need to demonstrate why editing (curating) is valuable. Be the concierge for the world, do the hard work for people when it comes to wading through information.
Journalism can be a sentimental business, prone to dwelling on former glories and a sometimes exaggerated view of its role in society. The reaction of the public to our work, as evidenced in the recent Reuters Digital News Report 2021, suggests we have no cause to be so self-satisfied: people don’t typically see our value as being as high as we do. External competition should shake us out of this complacency.
It’ll be good for us to really scrutinise what we are doing, why we are doing it, and who we are doing it for. This extends from the business model down to the level of an individual story. And that is what we must do when faced with the trends described above. From this we can build a truly modern, dynamic and sustainable journalism.
Alan Hunter is former head of digital for The Times and The Sunday Times. Nick Petrie was deputy to Alan and is now Deputy Digital News Director at Reuters.