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.