Advice for the media industry from a P-plate practitioner

In a competition-winning essay for the University of NSW PR and advertising student Jonny Hurn looks at how the media world has transformed in front of him, and how he sees it panning out.

“Hello World” prints across a blank window on a Windows 95 computer tucked into the corner of my parents’ bedroom.

I wonder what else I can make it say. I also wonder which world it’s actually saying “hello” to given that I was born into one my parents could never imagine.

The stretch of a dial-up modem. Having my favourite game on a floppy disk. Watching my father reading the newspaper. Incredibly enough, these things have become retro now, as humanity reaches constantly for whatever comes next.

I remember getting Age of Empires II on CD, typing in my friend’s IP address so we could play against each other. I was starting high school when I got my own computer and faster internet. I played my old favourite games along with their new incarnations. My dad got a mobile phone that he could play his favourite Eric Clapton album on and he loved it.

I learned about the world through Wikipedia in my school library. I Googled and I asked Jeeves.

I read articles and blogs written by people I’d never met – but they shaped my opinions and these shaped my world. Like many of my generation, I never read the newspaper and I didn’t watch much TV.

The media has been convulsing with change ever since I was born. Like the floppy disk, the standard business model hails from a time long since past and – with revenues and readerships slipping – in future it’s not likely to be remembered as much more than an old data storage medium.

When I think about it on a fundamental level, that’s all paper really is.

This leaves me wondering – like everyone else with an interest in the media – what the future will be for journalism. Newspapers may have survived the arrival of television, but they will not survive the internet. Because they are like floppy disks – and, while FDDs lingered in computers for a few generations, they are now museum exhibits.

Watching newspapers suffer a similar fate is heartbreaking for some. But it’s not all bad news and here is why. Out of the magnetic ashes of the floppy came CDs and DVDs, and now, of course, it’s all about cloud storage. That old adage about necessity being the mother of all inventors is true.

Just like VHS versus Betamax, or Sega versus Nintendo versus Sony, there will be a battle for supremacy in the new world and real journalists, real media with backbone, can all come out on top if the right choices are made. Unlike the media wars of the past, format will no longer be the weapon of choice because technology swings to no-one’s advantage. This will be different: this will be about content.

There is no doubt in my mind that Firestorm, The Guardian’s multimedia interactive centred around the 2013 bushfires in Tasmania, is one of the best things to emerge from this new war, the attention war. The drive to pull audiences can lead new media user-producers astray, lead them to the generic, sensationalist garbage that pours from the blogs of over-zealous keyboard activists around the planet.

But old-school media practitioners must hold onto the ethics that gave them such power in the first place, and use this as a weapon to cut through the rest of the content. Monetisation in the online world is a difficult thing: before anyone learns to make money, they need to get the content right.

As a kid who grew up in this interconnected landscape I have a new perspective to offer, the perspective of the now and future audience. But, like the rest of my generation, I’m not just an audience member any more. I contribute to the colossal hours of video found on YouTube, I add to the pages of opinions and articles found on WordPress and I share my existence on Facebook.

In doing this I’ve learnt a lot about what this audience wants, what it shares, and what it comments on. So here, for what it’s worth, are few pieces of advice for the media industry from a P-plate practitioner and an audience insider.

Firstly, don’t try to be viral. There are two kinds of popular channels on YouTube: viral channels and subscription-driven channels. The same trend applies to all content sources. You can start viral, have one big hit and take off – in that you will get lots of views and will show up in searches.

But sooner or later you will slip into obscurity because you will be missing something critical to longevity. To become a giant, to become a cornerstone, you need more than singular success: you need real substance that real people can learn from and engage with. Good content over a long period of time brings subscribers. I have watched almost every video Vice has put on YouTube for the last year and I will continue to do so, because – like 4.6 million others – I’m a subscriber. Viral content follows trends. Great content sets trends.

My second piece of advice relates to the reasons my generation has flocked to alternative sources of information. We crave truth, but we don’t always know where to find it. This is where you come in.

We are seeking out an independent source because we want more than the mediated version. We want to see your interviews, we want to see your sources, and the web, the multi-media landscape, gives you a place to make all that possible.

In 2011, a deal between WikiLeaks and Fairfax went against the principles WikiLeaks claims to uphold. This made Fairfax seem suspect – because it chose not to publish its source material – and it went against the public interest, especially in regard to the cluster bomb cables. I understand the need for a competitive edge but this is not the way. Respect your audience. Give us the whole story.

Use the tools before you to craft a multi-media production that takes us deeper into your content.

But don’t just offer a story, offer information.

Thirdly, the immediacy trap. The 24-hour news cycle seems to be what the audience wants, but it is a flawed system. There is a balance to be found. Don’t be afraid to wait: hey, tell us you’re waiting.

Mostly this is about quantity and quality. At the end of the day, Twitter will always be more immediate and Facebook will always link me to more sources. But you can provide quality. If you choose to.

Recently my father got an iPad and he reads the news on it now. Maybe one day he’ll find this essay on it. So this is a call to arms: don’t just adapt to survive, pioneer. Don’t be afraid of the new landscape unfolding before you. This is a blank slate with some of the best tools in the world waiting for your content. You can establish the new standard or you can follow behind blogs and social media trying to catch up. More than any audience study, or any set of guidelines for best practice, lead by example – and say “hello” to this brave new media world.

Jonny Hurn is a PR and Advertising student at the University of NSW, and won a two-day pass to Mumbrella360 as part of the competition.


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