This is the third of three strategies for a sustainable future of news that we’ll be working on at the CUNY New Business Models for News Project It’s the most complex and the most important: What can fill the void when (I used to say if) a metro paper dies?
In our conference on new business models last October, we picked on Philadelphia but since then not only has its newspaper company gone bankrupt but there are so many new candidates: Minneapolis, San Francisco, Boston, and on and on.
What makes this complicated to envision, let alone model, is that a single product from a single old-fashioned company will be replaced not by a new-fangled product and company but instead by an ecosystem made of many players operating under many models and motives.
I’ve described my vision for this before but there are many variants. We can’t put it all into a single, neat spreadsheet. Instead, we’ll need to look at this future from a few angles – from the bottom-up (the hyperlocal models I wrote about earlier); from the notion of a new kind of news organization that both reports and organizes news and helps support the ecosystem; from a network that exists simply to support the ecosystem; and others. I know people working on some of these and we hope to work with them, learning as they learn and providing help.
From another perspective, we also just want to look at total resources and needs from a macro (that is, metro) level: how much is being spent now and what does it support? What could it support? What could the mix of players and their work look like? What’s most likely to be covered on its own? What will need specific support and perhaps subsidy?
In my mind’s eye, I see:
* One or more likely more news organizations that help organize and support news across the ecosystem – with content, promotion, revenue, perhaps technology, probably training.
* Ad/revenue networks also supporting the ecosystem (they could be the same but don’t have to be).
* Some level of public-supported journalism (i.e., can foundation and citizen support – local ProPublicas and Spot.USes – be sufficient to subsidize investigative reporting in a market? Can we get more investigative journalism than we have now?).
* Lots of bloggers – many of them laid-off professional journalists – trying to make a go of it covering areas and interests. The more support they have, the more of them there will be.
* Individuals volunteering their effort, contributing to bloggers, to the news organizations, to crowdsourced efforts.
* I believe we must demand transparency from government at all levels – a default of openness; every action and all information to be searchable and linkable – so there can be many more watchdogs on government helping focus where precious reporting resource should go. Part of what must come out of this project and similar efforts is not just strategies but a movement. Newspapers including the Guardian and the NY Times are beginning to collect such data and make it available in APIs. Government must have an API.
* What else?
As I’ve said in my previous posts, the first step in our work in the project is to gather data, to understand the current marketplace and the potential. This one is so broad that some of the data will be broad.
What I’d really like – but don’t have the funding or time to do – is a quantitative and qualitative audit of the total journalistic resource and output in a market: How much is spent today on everything that’s called journalism (that is to say, including happy-talk TV news and rip-and-read radio) because that is an indication of the total commercial support available? What is the proportion of that resource that goes to original journalism (i.e., beat and investigative reporting) and how much goes to repetition and production?
My point is that I know there are efficiencies to be had. The money is there and can be spent far better. Indeed, when I talked about this with someone at GoogleNews when I visited, he questioned why we should make journalism as it is the starting point of the discussion. Shouldn’t we aim higher with greater goals? Yes, but this is where the discussion is today: How do we cover a metro area when a paper dies? How do we fill that void? So what is the void? And what are the opportunities? I won’t get that audit but I’ll come back to this basis of comparison anyway.
As I said in the hyperlocal post, let’s also keep in mind that much of the forward-looking discussion must be speculative. We need to imagine new kinds of coverage and new kinds of advertising service. The guy from Google was right: If all we try to do is replace what we have, that’s not good enough. We need higher ambition.
So, what data do we need to start with? Here’s my beginning list. Please add to it:
Total ad revenue: How much is spent in each medium by what kind of advertisers (regional, local, national, individual) in what categories? What are the trends (besides classifieds dying and retail consolidating)?
New advertising opportunities: From the hyperlocal analysis: What is the potential population of new advertisers never served by media and how can they be served in new and highly targeted and efficient ways?
Total editorial staff: Even without a full audit, we need to estimate the staff devoted to news today and break it down by function, trying to get some idea of the actual reporting resource in a market.
Audience: We need a picture of the people formerly known as the audience: reach by what kind of outlet (online and off), frequency, time spent….
Content: Again, even without an audit, we need at least some picture of what’s put out today: beat coverage, investigations, event coverage, breaking news coverage, features, and so on. What does the community really need? We at least need to put a strawman to this. Some of this may be ceded – do what you do best, link to the rest – to national players that do a better job of covering interests (e.g., health, national sports, entertainment). We should not fall into the trap of replacing what we have now but instead define needs and opportunities.
Other revenue: I learned recently when I met with Axel Springer’s editors that they are making money off merchandise sales. So is the Telegraph in London. That could be a ripe new opportunity and we need to get specific. Events, training, and other services could bring in revenue. The separate effort on paid content will dovetail with this effort.
New ad models: Just as hyperlocal advertisers would be ill-served by selling banners and false scarcity (pay a premium for the home page that only 20 percent of the audience sees!) under old models, so is this true of the existing population of larger metro advertisers. We need to brainstorm new ways to serve them and then try to extrapolate revenue from that. Or better yet, start from the other direction: What are the advertisers needs and how can we find new ways to meet them?
Network potential: This fits with the hyperlocal discussion: A single site selling itself (as newspaper sites do today) is necessarily limited. We need to explore the opportunities in networks. From the top down, it means that a company can monetize content it doesn’t have to create at less cost and risk and larger scale. From the bottom up, it means that a small site can get revenue it could not sell itself but it can also sell into a network of higher value.
Contributions: Start here: About 10 percent of the listeners of NPR contribute to it. Most of the rest of NPR budgets is made up of foundation support. (Let’s please leave government to the side.) So that’s an analogue – though imperfect – for public support of journalism in a market. We will need to project how much charitable support can be raised for journalism in a market. Perhaps we even need to speculate about a foundation that does investigative and perhaps beat reporting if it’s difficult to see a clear path to commercial support. For discussion.
The value of volunteering: This feeds in from the hyperlocal model, extrapolated to the metro level.
What this looks like in the end is a map of players, what they do, and how they’re supported. And we probably need to put forward a scenario of what a day or week looks like in local news when the ecosystem replaces the legacy: What beats need to be covered, who’s doing it, and why? What are new ways to work collaboratively? Who’s covering the fires? Do we really need to cover them? How can we collect data? What new services can we create? We’re imagining a new vision of sustainable news and how it will be sustained.
Now on with the work.
[I wrote this on a plane ride and have no brain left so I apologize for typos and missing links; I'll followup with those.]