Above: Former Huffington Post CEO Jimmy Maymann
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
Jimmy Maymann, President of Content and Consumer Brands at AOL, and until recently CEO The Huffington Post, delivered Oxford’s annual Reuters lecture. The theatre at St Anne’s College was packed to bursting, and lots of suits had come up from London.
Maymann in conversation with Alan Rusbridger, Principal of LMH, and alumna Janine Gibson of Buzzfeed
If I had to guess, they were desperate to know the answers to ‘new media’, and in equal measure nervous and privately, a bit sceptical. Kicking things off was Tim Gardam (below), former director of programmes at Channel Four and Principal of St Anne’s, while the panel was chaired by LMH’s new Principal, Alan Rusbridger, until a few weeks ago Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian.
Maymann’s lecture was titled Re-Shaping online news and media: The shift from destination to distributed media. This means that when I pick up my iPhone and tap the three-weeks-old Apple news app, I ‘harvest’ numerous publications’ outputs according to subject preferences that I have previously selected. So I choose. Stories are distributed; the consumer harvests. This is a long way away from sitting down as a nuclear family, plate of peas and fish fingers and ketchup in lap, and being harangued by Margaret Thatcher about unemployment, watching BBC 1’s Six o’clock news. This was ‘destination’ media, because we went there at the appointed hour and received the product from the producer, not via a third party aggregator. For what it’s worth, there was also an assumption of authoritativeness and truth telling, back in the days of fish fingers and peas.
Maymann offered the audience very well put-together – brilliant in fact - slides that were delivered far too quickly to be absorbed. No wonder numerous phones were being held aloft, either filming or snapping away, to go back to later. It was formidable and it was, as Rusbridger noted immediately, exhausting, but it was important and we all knew it.
He noted that HuffPost is already ‘old’, having started life ten years ago. But it remains on trend because it was founded as a news aggregator. It did well by harnessing algorithm-based searching (Google, then) which began in 2001. Now it’s owned by an even older, ‘once cool’ brand, AOL (1983- repeatedly acquired by competitors, most recently in 2015). Facebook began in 2004 and remains cool with 1.5 billion users. The other cool brands Maymann noted are Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat. He mentioned those as standard-bearers of where it’s at right now, late in 2015. If it’s not already obvious, the rise of social media is crucial here. It’s not just what I harvest, but what my friend tells me to look at. As for devices, it’s all gone mobile with these maxi-smart phones. 50 per cent of 14-25 year olds only receive distributed media. They don’t even bother with the originator websites. As for content, video is massive and YouTube remains the great gorilla.
Large screens, fast connections and sophisticated technology mean most of us walk around with a mini-computer on our person
Maymann owes his success to convincing his HuffPo board to go big on video news. He shared the insight that he had to argue his case ten times in front of his board, to convince them. This is how quickly even the newest organisations grow, mature and get wheezy, Maymann implied. Had the video news venture failed, he would not be standing here today (which elicited a wry chuckle from some members of the audience).
We were shown a hyperactive advert for Huffington Post. At one point a newscaster has a Saudi plenipotentiary in front of them in the studio, and they are broadcasting live. The news anchor springs a question upon the plenipotentiary from a Saudi woman, via a video snap recorded earlier that morning by a HuffPo editor and some nifty software. The Saudi plenipotentiary registers surprise and maybe irritation, but it’s too late and he has to answer. Call it direct democracy in aid of freedom. Nice!
Maymann's whistlestop tour of digital journalism in full flow
Maymann’s conclusion was more prosaic. Media folks must tailor content to audiences and to devices. If you want old readers you still have to do print, in which case the word counts can be longer. If you want ‘trailing millennials’ then you had better make that video clip work well on a phone, and don’t bother with words! You have to “actively manage distribution channels” and finally, you must “enhance premium monetisation.”
The audience discussion that followed never really led to a bust-up, but the media organisations that are cool now are HuffPo (of course); Buzzfeed; Vox Media and Vice Media (according to Maymann). More familiar names were never even mentioned. I perceived three emerging issues. One is that the power of reporting has lurched away from eccentric newspaper baron proprietors to citizen reporters. Lots of ‘news stories’ are now just lists of Tweets by members of the public, fronted by a twenty-word long standfirst. When you remember that media remains, sans-BBC, a for-profit activity, the new ‘owners’ are in fact the shareholders of the parent corporations – in HuffPo’s case not AOL even, but Verizon Communications, who bought AOL earlier this year. This very example illustrates the second issue, that the technology is the driver of the rapid change in media consumption habits. The owner of HuffPo is a wireless telecommunications company not a journalistic organisation. The third issue, which you may have intuited, is money. Who funds reporting when the money is being made by aggregators, and is the end result more or less what happened to the TV, where a few good channels gave way to hundreds of channels of rubbish?
Some of the world’s most respected news outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian and BBC News signing up to distribute through Facebook
There were (obviously) no answers to these barely conceived questions, but the principle of the BBC (this is a personal note) seemed stronger by the end than at the beginning. The trouble with Apple News, as far as I can tell, is that it intensifies the ‘Kim Kardashian wore what?!’ stories at the expense of the serious stuff, which the likes of the Financial Times holds back to defend its own subscription model. You won’t find the Lex column in Apple News, that’s for sure. Something to take satisfaction from if you pay for that newspaper, physically or digitally.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is an Oxford-based research centre and think tank, and hosts this annual lecture.
Images © Shutterstock, Wikipedia