Cutting up the newsroom

As an exercise for the upcoming New Business Models for News conference at CUNY, I want to take Dave Morgan’s suggestion about cutting up newspapers into four companies — content, production, distribution, sales — and explore the idea of breaking up a newsroom into two companies around two separate functions: gathering and packaging (that is, reporting and editing), each freed to work independently. That last bit is the important change: this means they can work with anyone.

So the packagers’ job would be to find the best news and information for their audience no matter where it comes from: a former colleague reporter, a blogger, a competitor, a TV guy, a print guy, a witness with a camera phone, an expert commentator. You tell them that it is their job to provide the best possible package — or feed — of news for their audience using all available sources and tools — including technology and social networks.

The gatherers’ job is to report. But to stand out and succeed in this post-commodified news market, they can’t just do the stories everybody else is doing. They’ll need to do what is unique and valuable so they get packaged by the packagers. But this also means that anyone can package them: they can produce stories for what was known as a newspaper or for a TV broadcaster and for their blogs.

So how does this economy work? I think it’s a network model. When the packager takes up and presents the gatherer’s content in whole and monetizes it — mostly with advertising — they share revenue. When the packager just links, the gatherer monetizes that traffic, likely as part of an ad network as well.

The hope is that quality wins. Left purely to traffic, that may not be the case. Paris Hilton would win. But that’s where the role of the packager come in — the editor with the reliable brand who went to the trouble to find the best news from the best sources and to add value through vetting and packaging. If you go to that packager because of that value, then the sources the packager uses will get more attention. That, I think, is how news brands survive and succeed: by reliably bringing you the best package and feed of news that matters to you from the best sources. The packagers are now motivated to assure that there are good sources; they want the network to expand and they want quality to be rewarded.

Now, of course, these roles can remain a hybrid. Look at Paid Content, which both gathers and packages. Any good reporter in the future will not only report but will also link to sources and background. An editor who vets and corrects a story is doing so through reporting.

But for the sake of rethinking newsrooms, I still think it’s worthwhile to explore this idea of separating and freeing the functions of the newsroom. We separated them before by medium: print v. digital. But the public isn’t looking at the world that way, only the owners of media did. News is news. That’s why they are being merged back together. But when they are remerged, old roles, old models, old processes, and old politics tend to win out. Print is bigger and older and so it wins. And the organization doesn’t truly change. Also, the organization doesn’t open up to the web and its ecology of links, which bring efficiencies and value not possible in a closed media model. So by freeing these functions to work with the best, wherever it is, and by making their success dependent on that, we really start to reorganize news for the webbed world.

This is the kind of rethinking that should be happening before layoffs come to newsrooms — note today that the New York Times, with America’s most crowded newsroom, just joined that trend with a cut of 100. If this rethinking of the newsroom happens first, instead of announcing layoffs, you might be announcing investments in new external news operations started by reporters who go independent. Andrew Ross Sorkin could start a helluva business in reporting on Wall Street deals that could grow bigger than it can now at the Times — and the Times could invest and own a piece of it and still be motivated to make it big. Ditto the columnists. Ditto Saul Hansell and his Bits blog. And once freed, these excellent journalists could make TV reports for WNBC and finally add some substance to it. Online, reporters’ brands are becoming more prominent and the ruboff of brand value is reversing: reporters were once — and still are — better off for having the Times brand behind them but the Times is also better off having new brands like Freakonomics and Brian (TVNewser) Stelter associated with it.

Pollyanna optimism? Maybe. But we need to start with a new goal and then work back to see whether and how it would be possible to get there. Instead, we’re just waiting for Mr. Grim Reaper to knock on the door with an announcement of layoffs. We need to outrun him.

  • Michael M.

    Your take on it makes a lot more more sense than Dave Morgan’s, I believe, but I’d go one step further. Break the paper up by section!

    Some of the most profitable parts of a paper are it’s special inserts and magazines: Travel guides, auto guides, etc. Have each section autonomous, and get each sales department to really focus on profitable niche sales. Have a weekly put out on local school news, for example, and you can sell your advertisers mothers with children. Have a local business weekly, and sell your advertisers just the business community.

    Then, the daily paper or website can aggregate these mini-pubs if there is a demand for that. But by better targeting your audience with tighter sections, you lose a lot of wasted eyeballs.

    In other words, treat each section like its own publication and have the main paper/site act like iGoogle, aggregating it all together.

  • http://bloggasm.com Simon Owens

    I’d like to see an every man for himself approach that utilizes some of the things you talk about here. Let’s say I’m a business reporter at The New York Times and I get laid off. Rather than joining another newspaper, I open a blog account and begin to utilize those sources and the rapport I built with them and start competing directly with the Times.

    Then I join some kind of ad network like Federated Media, plus adsense and Amazon affiliate, and let them figure out the advertising while I focus solely on breaking stories.

    Eventually, as the web usually does, there will be a way to filter this information — the most reliable reporters will have the most readers.

    With a few exceptions, the blogosphere isn’t doing much original reporting. I’d like to see a lot of old-media reporters use the skills they’ve learned in the print world and apply them to blogs. Then they have far less overhead and can profit directly from their reporting.

    Of course, they’ll be missing out on the massive resources from a newspaper, but perhaps the equivalent of that will somehow arise out of all of that.

    Does any of this make sense?

  • http://www.thisfrenchlife.com/ Craig McGinty

    That striking out on your own as a journalist is something that I think a lot more people are going to have to think about.

    A good example in the UK is:

    http://www.myfootballwriter.com/

    And since doing something similar myself I’ve learnt many lessons about the value of networks, search and ultimately owning your own copyright to see it as a viable option.

    Is the something larger news organisations can use to their advantage? It would take some original minds to grasp the potential I think.

  • http://annbrocklehurstjournalism.blogspot.com AnnBrocklehurst.com

    Sorry, but lots of good content is indeed scarce

    While Jarvis has argued in the past that, as far as content is concerned, we live in “a post-scarcity era” (see the Long Tail), I don’t think that’s entirely true…Let’s look at a local news example — and I’m not talking overhyped hyperlocal either.

  • http://www.brunoandtheprofessor.com Frank

    I love this idea. It parallels the trend in recent decades towards entrepreneurialism in all industry sectors. But with that comes a lot more risk shift. Suddenly the reporter is an entrepreneur, without health benefits or a pension. That may appeal to a good chunk of reporters, but do we want to make that a requirmenet for entering journalism?

    Some people are great reporters but bad entrepreneurs.

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  • http://www.retailsmart.com Dennis

    The litmus test for the ‘sections’ is how/if it stacks up against what Kevin Kelly terms ‘generative values’ – of which he identifies 8 here:
    http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/01/better_than_fre.php

    I.e. your gathering section will easily pass based on the timeless value of (e.g) ‘interpretation’. There are probably more than those 8, but it is apowerful uidea to apply to new business models.

  • http://blog.syracuse.com/newstracker Brian Cubbison

    Maybe Kinko’s will provide a low-cost, easy-to-use newsprint service. Send your news and ads by RSS feed, and they get packaged efficiently into attractive pages and printed out each night for you to pick up and deliver.

    Next, we’ll have to figure out health care.

  • http://www.digitalwaveriding.com Thomas

    I think the role of the “packager” is completely changing in the next years.
    Perhaps we can learn sometthing from the music industry. (People also learn from the music industry. Now they know you can personalize content… why not news content?… so they want it.) People want to make their “own newspaper” soon. RSS feeds, iGoogle, RSS Reader et cetera are all first steps in this direction… but it will get better.
    Why shouldn`t there be something like “Last.Fm” just for news? You will get personalized news, you still can stay in the “lean backward” mood…

    Just a thought….

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