New Sources of Journalism

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:

One might walk away from this week’s reading with the impression that journalism is not destined to fail, and that business savvy and editorial integrity are not mutually exclusive.

It’s about time.

In “Reinventing the newspaper” (July 7, 2011 print edition), The Economist compares today’s crisis in the journalism business to the upheaval caused by the penny press in the early-mid 1800s. “Constant upheaval is part and parcel of capitalism’s creative destruction,” the article states. Journalists and their allies may consider “the news” a special case, but wishing so doesn’t inoculate against market forces. Technology has simply brought in a new tide. And now a whole lot of boats are getting built.

The article skims the surface of several new business models being tried out in response to these new media waters. Some complications are pointed out, especially the rapidity with which traditional revenues are declining. Even the most promising new business models, the article points out, are not turning profits at a high enough rate to close that gap. An undercurrent of urgency therefore remains. But again, there is promise, evidenced even in the sheer range of experimentation.

There are paywalls, then there are metered paywalls, and “all-access” marketing approaches that indirectly prime audiences for the habit of paying to get past those walls. Add the mobile app market, jump to the national shared payment scheme from Slovakia, then scrap it all like The Guardian or Daily Mail, which “have made all their content available free online in an effort to transform themselves into global news brands.” And if all else fails, uncork a wine club and set off on a cruise: the journalism business apparently is not just for news anymore.

But, The Economist cautions through the voice of Innovation Media Consulting partner Juan Señor, “you won’t fix the business model without fixing the editorial model.” Señor’s approach is described as heavy on design with an emphasis on storytelling. I couldn’t agree more in concept, but little detail of what that means in practice is offered here.

“Philanthrojournalism,” or a new approach through internet-based, foundation-funded “accountability journalism,” is discussed in closing. This brings the article to a bright end, although one built on an assumption that only nonprofit start-ups have reason to be so optimistic. It concludes with the distinction that just because “traditional institutions” are struggling, that doesn’t mean the entire profession has to.

Michelle McLellan takes a similar analysis to a more granular level in “Emerging Economics of Community News,” from Pew’s 2011 State of the News Media. She presents her current findings from an ongoing study of community news outlets, and comes to the conclusion that they are getting (and should get) more sophisticated about business at the same time they maintain editorial focus.

From a Knight Foundation report she worked on, McLellan shares two priorities for online local news sites: Define target audiences through research, identify their needs, and measure the impact of the news; and diversify both expense and revenue models by giving equal weight to both the business and reporting sides of journalism.

Methods of audience research and measuring impact were not discussed. As for diversifying revenues, McLellan did find many of the same experiments detailed by The Economist, adding advertising networks and even networks of news sites to the roster. She also devotes a lot of ink to (or screen) to kicking the crutch of foundation support out from under the public journalism model. “We need to run our businesses like businesses, even if our goal is public service rather than profitability,” said John Thornton, venture capitalist and chairman of the ambitious Texas Tribune — a nonprofit that assumes no foundation support in its long-term revenue projections.

McLellan also noted, “if the real job of journalism schools is to help journalism survive, then entrepreneurship, business literacy and community engagement must be as much a part of the curriculum as multimedia and digital literacy.” (Those reasons, combined with honing my reporting chops, are certainly why I came to graduate school!)

McLellan closed with a more in-depth look at the St. Louis Beacon, which she suggested is pioneering a revenue source that does not currently exist — one based on community connections and what Beacon founder and editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel calls “high-touch communication.” McLellan describes it as the intersection of content, engagement and revenue, and points to it as the promise of journalism’s next business model.

I am encouraged to learn of more journalists and scholars applying themselves to what, for me, is a fundamental belief that technology and business can serve the public interest if harnessed well in application to journalism. It is also quite validating to recognize many concepts behind my own journalism start-up (now on hold for graduate school) in the examples found in these two articles.

If the Knight Foundation is moving in the direction indicated by McLellan — away from wide and rapid experimentation and toward refinement of what they have found is working — I think they would do well to next study audience metrics in this new arena of engagement. How does a media company or organization — especially a small one — measure the depth and closeness of audience relationships? And if the goal, as Freivogel puts it, is to “not just toss information at people but to figure out how we can serve them better,” how does one measure how well people are being served? This is especially important to answer when keeping a close eye on the fine line between public interest and advocacy journalism.

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