The future of news
: I’m writing this post on the train returning from perhaps one symposium on the future of news too many. They can be very frustrating, howing the same rows over and over until you find yourself stuck in a rut: Who’s a journalist? What’s journalism? How do we support newsgathering? How can blogs be trusted without editors? How can big media be trusted without bloggers? Why is the sky blue? What do women really want? Arrrrrghh! So why do I go? It ain’t for the food. It’s because I care about the news business and know we need it; I want it to survive. And I care about citizens’ media and know we need it and want it to grow. I believe the two must do that together. And so I come and do my schizo dance (to the point that Merrill Brown had to ask me more than once when using the first person whether I was speaking as MediaMan or BlogBoy). This one began like all the others and ended like all the others, in the dreaded small-group sessions (no, no, anything but that, oh, god, not the easel!). But at least and at last we started to talk not about the love of what had been or the fear of what is now, but instead about the possibilities for what news can be. In this small group — among them, the AP’s Jim Kennedy, Susan Mernit, Halley Suitt, MIT’s Michael Schrage, and others whose names I’m sorry I don’t have with me right now — we batted around new models for the future, acting as if we were in charge of a local news business in five years. Try this on for size:
So imagine that a local news organization — one of the incumbents or a new competitor — becomes an aggregator of:
: News — Staff still reports, writes, and edits what they do best. But we also link to, syndicate, promote, and support the work of citizen journalists. To the public, we provide a means to get all the news we can find (a new slogan in the About.com era). We are the starting point (for some), the organizer (for some). But we no longer pretend to do it all. It’s distributed news. We even help citizen journalists to join together to report stories: The one tangible suggestion out of this confab came from Jay Rosen, who said that one reporter somewhere will show how open-source journalism will work, bringing together the effort and expertise of the crowd. We can provide support to these “information entrepreneurs,” as one of the group called them: advertising revenue (see below), tools, training (the BBC is starting a journalism school for the people; shouldn’t and couldn’t any local newspaper be that?). And they need not only write stories. Their reporting could be videotaping the board of ed meetings; it could be getting a senior citizens’ club to report on prices in every grocery store; it could be pulling together Little League scores.
: Trust — Yes, it sounds wonky, but we should aggregate trust. Old news organizations did it among few sources; Craig’s List and eBay do it among many. Let’s say that five people cover the school board. Whom do you trust? It might be the one with the most links, or the most positive reviews, or the most traffic, or the most experience, or the fewest corrections and complaints, or the one who has the contempt of the people in power you hate, or perhaps training, or even editing. It may also be the reporter — staff or independent — who is the most transparent, who tells you how she votes so you can judge her reporting. Trust is your decision. We report; you decide.
: Audience — This was our place in the old days: We were the marketplace for news and advertising. Can we still be? Not in the same way, not in the one-size-fits-all, monopoly, mass way. But if we still have the brand, we have promotional power. If we have the best local reporting, we can send traffic to the rest of local reporting. If we have search-engine juice, we can be the starting point for some subjects and then send traffic out. We can target content and advertising based on network-wide preferences and behavior.
: Revenue — Everytime folks in the business dream about getting revenue from the public online, I say it’s likely to be the opposite: We will give revenue to the public. We can sell advertising across targeted, selected, quality networks of local, distributed content, getting a larger and better audience for advertisers and sharing revenue with the content creators based on their performance. We can provide transaction services so, if you want to sell a premium report on local sports or that school board, we can enable it and take our cut. If the audience wants to pay for reporting — a la Chris Albritton to Iraq or Josh Marshall to New Hampshrie — we can enable that, too: pledge week. If we can get back into the eBay business and enable transactions, we can make money and share that, too.
It’s all very open-source: You can report on your own or be part of the network. You can sell ads on your own or as part of the network. You can link to our news or others in the network or not. You can use our tools or others. You can create content in the appropriate form: text, photos, audio, video.
The net result for the local audience should be that they get more reporting, more news and information and viewpoints, not less. They should get the news and information they want anywhere, anytime, in any form, from any source they want. To quote the head of the AP again: we pay attention to the content, not the container. (Read: Distribution is no longer the unique value; quality should be.) The result for the audience is also that they’re not just an audience; they are participants in the conversation now, they have more of a voice, more control, more power.
The net result for advertisers is that they should get more efficient targeting and greater reach and the ability to buy easily (not one site at a time).
The net result for citizen journalists is that they are enabled and supported.
The net result for news organizations? Let’s hope this can help support news-gathering and expand reporting as never before… and save the business.
I’m not saying this is the only way to proceed or that it is realistic or profitable. But I was glad to finally hear some effort to move past lamenting the passing of the past and instead embrace the possibilities of the future.
Here’s an obnoxious way to put it: Instead of being the gatekeepers of news (controlling it), we become the enablers of news.