The near future

Xark raised fair and unfair criticism of our work at the New Business Models for News Project. I’ll respond:

Xarc’s Dan Conover says that the models we presented look a lot like present models, only different. Fair and true. Our goal was to look at what news in a metro market would look like if the large daily paper died today. — not in the la-la land of the future of news and media I often write about here (more on that in a minute) — but today.

So we based our assumptions on known realities: on local bloggers who are making a living and how they are doing it today, on new news organizations that are springing up today, on the proportion of digital revenue being earned today.

If you’ve heard any of my presentations of the models, you have heard me lament that we chose to work in the lingua franca of the present: CPM-based display advertising and criminally low engagement numbers that are sinfully standard in the newspaper business. Neither is good enough. But we wanted to use a language and precedents that people in this space would understand. We then pushed development of new models for revenue and of networks that must be used to increase value.

Conover says that without an “exit strategy” a hyperlocal blog is not a business but merely a job. With respect, he is judging the entrepreneurial future of news through old, institutional glasses. Much of the work of very local journalism will be done by these new, single-proprietor businesses (and volunteers). If we took his perspective, then there would be little potential in the restaurant, drycleaning, plumbing, or dental industries because many of their practitioners have no exit strategy, only sustainable jobs. Welcome to the new, small-is-the-new-big world. This is precisely why we propose that critical mass will be reached not with old companies owning the market but with new companies operating together in networks. See: Glam, the largest women’s brand online. New model.

Conover is fair to say that the future – not today but tomorrow – won’t look much like the present, including the present we postulate in our models. I do indeed agree that the future could look wildly different. I have speculated about systems for sharing information that will reduce the marginal cost of news to zero with journalists adding value only where appropriate and where that value can be recouped. I have blathered on and on about hyperpersonal news streams replacing the article as the atomic unit of news. I have predicted a world with networked journalism, news made by Wave, and similar outlandishness. If I had tried to present all that as a vision for the news of today – the day a paper dies – I would have blown brains and been laughed out of Aspen and with good reason. But that was not the goal of the New Business Models for News Project. It was to get people to see a new today.

Believe me, Dan, if you want to have a future-shock derby with far out ideas for what news will look in the future but sooner than we think, then I’m happy to compete. But that wasn’t our job here.

And don’t blame the funder of our work for that. Connover is unfair to slap the Knight Foundation, which paid for the first phase of this work, saying: “In the short term, foundation money is likely to continue producing studies based on business models that reflect conventional wisdom about media.” The Knight Foundation did not tell us how to envision our models; that is an allegation without evidence.

It’s particularly unfair since the Knight Foundation – more than any other foundation – has been aggressively pushing inventors to imagine and create new visions and realities for news. The Knight Foundation generally does not favor institutions over entrepreneurs; quite the contrary. You’re free to judge my defense of Knight in light of the fact that they did fund this phase of my work. But I think Knight’s work defends itself.

So, yes, Dan, I do agree that the models were based on present realities. That was precisely what we set out to do: to envision an immediate future that will be credible in present terms. But I also take the challenge to envision more futures for news and – if you watched my presentations – you’d see some I hope to work on. I want to examine the workings of the link economy I talk about so much and prescribe how to exploit it. I want to examine new content exchange models. I want to examine entirely new forms of news and the exchange of information.

This Wednesday in my entrepreneurial journalism class at CUNY, my students will present to a jury 15 businesses, some of which begin to imagine fairly radical new visions of news. They hope to win some of the $50,000 in seed money we have from another foundation, McCormick. And then they hope to go build those businesses and make them sustainable the day after tomorrow. Thursday, that is.

: Later: In the comments, I added this:

I’m trying to be realistic in the near term. I say that the old institutions are not realistic in thinking they can maintain their old business models. I also say that the futureshockers – myself included – are not realistic when we talk about wild new models for news. I’ll repeat: think about TODAY. I mean that. The paper dies tomorrow. You have people eager to do journalism. You have some – but very little – investment. You have a proven amount of revenue and nothing more. What do you do? That’s the question we answered. But there is, of course, no one answer. What we want is discussion and ideas, not just bullets. What would be helpful is to see you and others, Dan included, flesh out your own visions for a sustainable future of journalism starting TODAY.

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    James Gordon Bennett didn’t have an exit strategy, either. Nor did Horace Greeley.

    The last thing on my mind is exit strategy.

    Building a real business isn’t about dot com fantasies of exit strategies. It’s about digging in for the long term and seeing what you can do.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Amen.

  • http://andforeveryoung.blogspot.com/ Stay forever young

    Interesting discussion. I sometimes publish reviews in my local newspaper, and recently had rather a heated exchange with my editor, who took exception to my suggestion, based on what I’ve been reading lately Jeff, that his/our newspaper ought to make archives available online for free. Well, this led to a not unreasonable anger on his part, fueled of course by the feeling he and his colleagues must have, of being a dying breed, and one article away from losing their jobs. That’s gotta be uncomfortable. I don’t guess we can blame Google or anyone else for being innovative, and perhaps one can place some of the blame on the old industries for sitting on their golden eggs for too long, but we shouldn’t forget the real flesh and blood people who are getting hurt by the rapidly changing world.

    • Naomi Bolin

      Here here

  • http://www.codybrown.name Cody Brown

    “If I had tried to present all that as a vision for the news of today – the day a paper dies – I would have blown brains and been laughed out of Aspen and with good reason.”

    I think this is the point though.

    The changes to media have been so severe that the news company that is going to come out of this successfully is going to be the one that is initially laughed at. If you are concerned about others laughing at you for turning these ides into a coherent vision of news, it doesn’t seem as if you really believe in your own ideas.

    I’ve read your book, and I think you do believe in these ideas. I think what Dan is getting at is that, at this point, describing what will essentially be the midwife for the actual future of j isn’t that interesting. I want to place bets on the baby.

    -cody

    • http://chuckpeters.iowa.com Chuck Peters

      Cody, I agree with you – we need to focus on delivering a completely new baby, with new DNA. Dan is working on new DNA, and creating the first cells. That requires that we create content differently in the first instance, and have completely different work flows, user applications, business rules and business relationships.

      We are meeting with Dan today to begin developing the first building blocks.

      Jeff’s work, particularly WWGD, has opened us up to new possibilities, but we really have to break the current mold.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Then let’s see your scenario for what happens when that paper dies.

      Cody, I’ve read your long, long piece on a new structure and I’m afraid I can’t get exactly what you’re proposing. I see there’s a vision there but I’ll suggest what I tell my entrepreneurial journalism students: give us an elevator pitch at the start.

      Listen, we’re not disagreeing. I’m trying to be realistic in the near term. I say that the old institutions are not realistic in thinking they can maintain their old business models. I also say that the futureshockers – myself included – are not realistic when we talk about wild new models for news. I’ll repeat: think about TODAY. I mean that. The paper dies tomorrow. You have people eager to do journalism. You have some – but very little – investment. You have a proven amount of revenue and nothing more. What do you do? That’s the question we answered. But there is, of course, no one answer. What we want is discussion and ideas, not just bullets. What would be helpful is to see you and others, Dan included, flesh out your own visions for a sustainable future of journalism starting TODAY.

      • http://chuckpeters.iowa.com Chuck Peters

        Jeff and Michael -

        Steve Buttry took up your challenge, and I responded at http://chuckpeters.iowa.com/2009/12/level-set/

        As noted, we need more people focused on the “how” of a commonly imagined “what”.

        I don’t think we are talking about “flying cars”. We are trying to imagine a sustainable system for strengthening communities, with tools right at our hands, and some that have to be invented, or recombined. This is doable, if we work together.

    • http://www.morisy.com Michael Morisy

      The mid-wife might not be interesting, but she’s incredibly necessary.

      People always want to write about and read about flying cars, because they’re a hell of a lot more interesting, but we’re still driving around on four wheels, and the four-wheel car industry employs a lot more people and gets a lot more done than the flying car industry (though to be fair, in the US it employs a lot fewer people than it did a few years ago).

      There’s nothing contradictory with Jeff extolling far out ideas and also laying out a less visionary but more practical guide for what orgs can do today. Not every newspaper/news org can or should invent a shiny new paradigm: It can be just as much or more work to implement successful, profitable old ones in new markets, and even more productive.

      • Eric Gauvin

        You’re right. There’s nothing wrong with balancing a long-term vision with the practical here and now. What are some of Jeff Jarvis’ future-shock ideas?

  • Eric Gauvin

    I agree with Dan. Your “new” business models are just mini DIY news organizations based on advertising.

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  • http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/ Steve Buttry

    Jeff, I appreciate your call for futureshockers to flesh out their visions. Not sure I’m a future-shocker, but I have fleshed out my vision for a mobile-first strategy for media companies: http://bit.ly/70dwFz

  • http://www.connectme360.com Brian Hayashi

    Being based in Denver, this post reminds me of John Temple’s posts immediately following the last days of the Rocky Mountain News, and the irony that Knight-Ridder’s New Media Group spent years in nearby Boulder discussing this very issue.

    Too much goes into “violent agreement” on things we all agree on and too little gets allocated to answering Jeff’s question: what should be done TODAY?

    Here’s an exit strategy:

    Keep on experimenting, evolving, but whatever you do, fail fast.

    Keep searching for unique data sources that can be owned by a hyperlocal news organization.

    Or, find some proprietary distribution model that is hard to replicate.

    And then, as someone much smarter than me has said more than once, link to the rest.

    That’s the model that has worked repeatedly, from early companies like M/A/R/C and Lexis/Nexis to software companies like Microsoft and more recently, Google.

    If you’re creating something of value, you’ll be able to choose whether you want to keep generating cash or sell out. To my way of thinking, having the luxury of choice is the exit strategy.

  • http://xark.typepad.com Dan Conover

    Hi Jeff:

    Just posted my response.

    http://xark.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/12/prediction-isnt-fair.html

    Thanks for engaging on this.

    Dan

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