Battle on as traditional media loses ground to new media

In 40 minutes, the phone said, leave for Ayala Center Cebu to make it in time for your meeting. It showed a suggested route to the mall from where I was in Mactan Island. It then presented various information cards of things the system figured I’d be interested in. It told me about the weather in Mactan; thunderstorms were expected that day and the next few days were forecast to be rainy.

I swiped the card right to dismiss it from the screen and to tell the system I had read it. It then reminded me of my to-do items for the day.

Lower on the screen was a succession of information cards containing news stories the system thought I’d want to read. One was about the upcoming State of the Province Address by Cebu Gov. Hilario Davide III. Another was about the latest development on the ambush and killing of lawyer Amelie Ocañada-Alegre. I tapped the info card and the full article was loaded. After a quick scan, I exited the page and returned to the listing of stories. By opening the card and reading the article, the system would register my interest in the story and would likely alert me of future developments on the case.

“Rejoice,” another information card said, “Google Just Created A Stupidly Simple Wi-Fi Router” and linked to the Wired story carrying that headline of the Internet giant’s latest product, the OnHub router. I went through the news listing, swiping cards along the way to dismiss those I had read or wasn’t interested in.

Newsfeeds

From the newsstands of old where we used to go to find news, we have newsfeeds today where news finds us.

The system that served me the information above is Google Now, which promises to give one “the right information at just the right time without even searching for it.” It is an artificial intelligence system turned into a smart personal assistant that can be used by anyone with a phone. And it delivers news.

Google Now served me the stories that it did because its algorithms figured I’d be interested in them based on various signals it detected. It showed me stories on Cebu because the system knows I live here and that I read local stories. It delivered to me a comprehensive listing of technology articles because it knows I’m interested in tech through my digital reading habits, which it tracks extensively, and subscription to various industry-related news feeds. It even showed me stories that are popular with people who also visit the sites I frequently go to.

Google Now is baked into Android, Google’s dominant mobile operating system running on 1.5 billion phones worldwide as of 2015. It’s a techno-utopian’s dream: your own information system processing huge amounts of data, making sense of it algorithmically and presenting these into bite-sized and actionable information to you. It’s accessible at any time, even answering to voice commands. OK Google, you say out loud into your Android phone, where’s the nearest hotel? Within seconds, it will indeed show you the nearest one.

Battleground

Within this fire hose of data is a stream of news and updates served to each one of us and to each of us alone, based on our singular needs and interests. It is a stream of news, a collection of sources from traditional news organizations to blogs to new media publications.

The feed is a battleground where tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are battling for readers’ attention, especially on news.

Last year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said, “The primary purpose of the Facebook app is News Feed.” This year, Facebook introduced Instant Articles for news stories and has a few more news-related initiatives in the works. When it comes to people’s attention, Facebook is winning the race.

Apple, on the other hand, is building News into iOS, the operating system that runs its iPhones and iPads. News, according to technology writer Tim Carmody, “is an OS-level utility on mobile devices now.” It is as basic as the Camera app, Phone dialer or Messaging are to the phone. With Apple’s move, the phone is now as much a news device as a messaging gadget or camera.

Millennials

What is significant is the shift in how we get news. People are no longer like the readers of old, who picked up a paper or turned on the TV or even visited a news website to read the latest stories. Now, people expect to be served these stories and alerted when something breaks.

Millennials, the much-coveted demographic of media organizations, “tend not to consume news in discrete sessions or by going directly to news providers,” said the report “How Millennials Get News: Inside the habits of America’s first digital generation.” The research was done by the Media Insight Project, which is an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

“Instead, news and information are woven into an often continuous but mindful way that Millennials connect to the world generally, which mixes news with social connection, problem solving, social action, and entertainment,” it said.

A separate study by Pew Research Center showed that among millennials, Facebook is the top source of political news at 61 percent. CNN is second at 44 percent while local TV is at third at 37 percent. For Generation X, Facebook is still the top source at 51 percent with local TV at 46 percent, the difference less statistically significant, accounting for the error margin, than that with millennials. Baby Boomers, in contrast, depend on local TV at 60 percent with Facebook way down at seventh place with 39 percent.

All these occur on this generation’s version of the personal computer, the smartphone. That twin shift to mobile and social is behind the massive disruption that has upended many in the mainstream media industry.

Traditional media organizations that still see themselves as primarily mass media are fish out of water at a time when news is redefined in a universe centered on the individual.

It is news if it happens near where I am now, as detected by my phone. It is news if it is about someone I know, as determined by social network connections. It is news if it is about things I care about or have a stake in, as determined by the interests I indicated on Facebook, in news readers and apps.

(CJJ10 was published in hardcopy in September 2015.)