Taking to the Wire. Agencies and the Future of News

October 2, 2013 • Media Economics, Newsroom Management • by

The German media is struggling, but the death of German’s second largest news agency dapd, which ceased operating on April 11 2013, raises a whole new set of questions about the future of news.

Are news agencies still needed? Can their functions be taken over by blogs and social media? Do they still provide the backbone of news reporting? Can they adapt to the changing needs of newsrooms?

One study, part of a PhD project at the Technical University of Dortmund  tried to answer some of these questions. The study was supervised by Professor Klaus Meier, now at the Catholic University in Eichstätt.

The author interviewed members of the management boards, editors-in-chief, and the editorial board of news agencies, newspapers, radio and TV stations, online newsrooms, and academics about the prospects and challenges facing news agencies in the next ten years. The first round of the survey took place in the summer of 2011 and included 111 participants, while the second round took place in the autumn of 2011 and included 74 managing board members from the media outlets who took part in the survey.

News agencies as gatekeeper

The study shows that news agencies will remain a key anchor for the media industry in Germany and 75 percent of participants say they believe news agencies will continue to play an important role in the future. Survey respondents justify this forecast by saying that news agencies play a gatekeeping role pre-sorting the news while also making judgements on the value and reliability of the material produced.

This view is widely held by those working in traditional media. One member who serves on a newspaper management board said: “Only a news agency can collect, structure and provide timely pieces of texts, that we can use without having to verify it in any other way. The news agencies also provide multimedia. The staff in editorial offices have been reduced so much that newsrooms need the material produced by news agencies.”

The backbone of reporting

By contrast, people working in online news departments believe that news agencies will diminish in importance. They argue that there is a shift towards more regional and local topics,  and there will be more demand for exclusive content rather than the more broad ranging material produced by news agencies. They do however value news agencies as the “backbone of reporting,” “the safety net,” and “a reliable source.” Participants from radio and TV stations especially regard news agencies as a “corrective factor and provider of ideas” for their own stories.

According to the head of a television news station, “social media and other online sources are a strong supplement and competitor for news agencies. They provide the stations with immediate impressions, partly even in eye-witness-quality.” But news agencies still provide a baseline of reliability.

dpa: the favorite agency of the editorial offices

Until the demise of dapd, the German news agency market was one of the most competitive in the world, with two full service-providers and two complimentary providers. Most other countries have only one news agency. The majority of respondents – particularly radio, newspaper, and online newsroom professionals  believe the main full service provider dpa (Deutsche Presse-Agentur / German Press Agency) will remain the media´s favourite in the future, but a quarter of respondents stated that dpa will become less essential over time.

The respondents had also been optimistic about dapd before it collapsed. Television and radio journalists and managers were overall more positive than those from print and online newsrooms.

The two complimentary agencies AFP and Reuters did not perform particularly well in the survey, with the majority of respondents predicting that they would become less useful over time. Roughly 63 percent of all respondents assumed that AFP would become less essential, and 55 percent expected the news agency Reuters to become less essential.

The “war of news agencies”

In 2010, a huge change occurred in the news agency market when the news agency Deutscher Depeschendienst ddp merged with the German subsidiary of the American world news agency Associated Press (AP) to become the full service provider dapd. Instead of one full service provider and four complimentary providers, two full service and two complimentary providers competed in the market. The “war of agencies” had begun. What followed were several legal disputes and arguments over agency staff. The war ended when dapd first filed for bankruptcy in October 2012.

Respondents to the study anticipate another reduction in the market within the next ten years. Roughly 65 percent of participants said the three agencies will downsize; one in five  respondents  forecasted there will be only two agencies left on the German market within ten years. The collapse of dadp proved them right.

Customer portal and quality of journalism

Dpa and dapd have already developed new outlets, such as customer portals and other tools similar to a news website, where customers can see the most important stories at a glance. At the same time they can directly see which kinds of texts, pictures and video the news agency offers on different topics that appear on that site. Almost 90 percent of respondents say that customer portals like these will improve the quality of the products . In particular, respondents from print news outlets expect quality to improve as it will be much easier for customers to requesting specific stories and information from the news agencies.

Agencies will still produce most of their work on their own initiative. But respondents believe 20 percent of all products offered by news agencies will be based on particular requests by particular customers, thus changing news agencies into a more on-demand service provider.

Searching for new ways of financing

Respondents were also asked about future economic and financial developments. There will be no one model and respondents expect lots of different methods of financing to co-exist. The majority of respondents believe that news agencies benefit most from being run as either a co-operative or as a private company. The respondents are less convinced that a news agency will thrive as a publicly listed company, but believe financing through charitable donations could be an option. Only one out of every ten respondents felt that financing through state subsidies would be suitable or at least somewhat suitable.

Additionally, roughly 52 percent of all respondents expect news agencies to grow through subsidiaries and equity interests away from their core business.

Changes in the newsrooms

Agency newsrooms are changing. Around 80 percent of respondents approve of the idea of open newsrooms as it means journalists are more likely to work in temporary work groups than in permanent departments.

Speed will no longer be the prime concern in future. But a news-oriented language will continue to be the standard.

Agencies as multimedia service providers

The study’s results also agencies will become multimedia service providers with content that will be produced and offered in many different formats, including on mobile devices.

Nearly 90 percent of all respondents predicted a rise in the coverage of odd news, crime, and others; 80 percent believe for celebrity and lifestyle coverage will rise. The coverage of politics, economics, and sports will remain important, however more than half of all respondents expect coverage of art and culture to become less important with about 32 percent of respondents expecting it to remain important. Nine out of ten respondents say that social media and weblogs will become more important as additional sources for media coverage.

This article was translated by the author from the German Das Geschäft mit den Nachrichten

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