Next steps for news

After letting the work of the New Business Models for News Summit at CUNY sink in, I think we need to convene a working group from each of the discussions at the summit to move to the next step and build at least one concrete model.

When I stopped in the session about the reorganized newsroom, they pleaded for help as they continued to debate whether to cut what exists today or build from the ground up. It was my fault as I didn’t give them a specific task. I should have learned from the Economist’s Project Red Stripe and from a Davos session on innovation last year: Innovation springs from solving a problem — a specific problem, not the grand problem of the future of news and society.

So I proposed a problem to solve: What if a city, say Philadelphia, loses its paper tomorrow. What would you build in its place to serve the community? The group went to town. Rather than trying to hack at the old, they build something new.

They calculated the likely revenue Philadelphia could support online and then figured out what they could afford in staffing. Instead of the 200-300-person newsroom that has existed in print, they decided they could afford 35 and they broke that down to include a new job description: “community managers who do outreach, mediation, social media evangelism.” They settled on three of those plus 20 content creators, two programmers, three designers, five producers (I think they were a bit heavy on those two), and — get this — only three editors. (Which led to much discussion in the final plenary of the day, which I address in the post below.)

That was real progress. Usually in the newspaper industry, this discussion comes after the cutbacks occur as papers then try to figure out how to cope with what’s left. This group of edit and business and money people bravely built from the bottom up, relying on few assumptions about the past.

Next, if time had allowed, we would have taken the newsroom group next door to the network group, which was foundering a bit, trying to figure out how to apply networks such as Glam‘s to this challenge. They, too, didn’t have a specific problem to solve. But the newsroom group would have brought theirs: How could 35 journalists possibly serve Philadelphia as 200-300 had? I see one option: with the help of networks of independent agents working collaboratively. So let’s figure out how those networks would operate in terms of content, technology, revenue, education, branding, and so on.

Then we could go down the hall to the group working on new structures for news organizations: the disaggregated news company as presented earlier in the day by Edward Roussel of the Telegraph and Dave Morgan, ex of Tacoda. They also talked — as everyone did through the day — about the need for a drastically lower cost structure for news organizations (see Edward’s chart).

Next stop: The group working on public support to see what slice of journalism might be underwritten by the community or foundations. It wouldn’t be much but ProPublic, David Cohn’s, and Charlie Sennott’s GlobalPost are trying to prove that the public can at least help.

Last and more important stop: revenue. Fred Wilson, leading the discussion, summed up its discovery in a tweet: “clickable will sell joe the pumber a text ad that $goog will route via geotag to the boston herald.” (Translation: Clickable sells Joe an ad on Google, which will appear on a local story on the Herald site thanks to’s ability to understand the geography of articles and target appropriately. Moral to the story: No one is any longer going to own the market alone. Revenue, like reporting, will be collaborative.)

If you add up the work of the groups, you start to see a shape for new news. But there’s much more work to be done to make it concrete. If we take the work that the groups began and bring it to the next level with a clear problem to solve — e.g., replacing a metro newspaper — then I think we will begin to see new models, new ways to organize news companies, new ways to produce news, new revenue opportunities, and new relationships with the community take form. And this, in turn, could yield a methodology and attitude to create more new models.

Under the auspices of the New Business Models for News Project and Center for Journalistic Innovation at CUNY, I hope we can bring in MBA students to help create financial models. We would share these models and the discussion that builds them openly.

We at CUNY can imagine no more urgent work in news: creating the means to support it.