Posts about newsbook

My advice to German media

I have an op-ed in today’s Welt Kompakt newspaper in Germany giving my advice to a German mediasphere that I see becoming more protectionist. It’s not online (ironically) but so you can see the play, a PDF of it is here and here. [Update: Here‘s the piece online.] This is my original English text:

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At the Müncher Medientage, I spoke to 500 German executives from my home in New York and dared to give them some advice about their fate. I urged them to learn these lessons from watching American news companies shrivel and die: Protectionism is no strategy for the future. Every company in every industry (especially media) must be reinvented for the post-Guttenberg age—for the Google era. And the only sane response to change is to embrace it and find the opportunity in it.

I have been impressed with the innovation and openness to change I have seen in German media: Axel Springer shifted a large proportion of its revenue to digital; Bild equipped Germans with video cameras to report news; Burda invested in the networks Glam.com and Science Blogs; Holtzbrinck innovated in its incubator; WAZ created a world pioneer in DerWesten.

But when the times got tough in the financial crisis, I suddenly saw German media looking for an enemy to blame for their problems. The head of the Deutscher Journalisten-Verband called for legislation to condemn Google as a monopoly, an enemy of the press. Dr. Hubert Burda, a digital visionary I greatly admire, urged that copyright law should be expanded to protect publishers, whom he said deserve a share of search engines’ revenue. Chancellor Merkel is considering such changes in copyright. A group of publishers issued the Hamburg Declaration saying that all online content need not be free (though that has always been completely in their control).

Schade. In these pronouncements, I hear echoes of American media’s funeral hymns. I see companies resisting the new reality of the internet age by trying to preserve the old rules of their old industry. Take, for example, Rupert Murdoch vowing to put all his news properties behind pay walls just because that’s how media used to operate—when that will only reduce audience, traffic, influence, and advertising just at the moment when growth is needed most. He is even threatened to block Google. That is simply suicidal.

Though I sympathize with media’s economic nostalgia, I must say that swimming upstream against the internet is futile. The better idea is to go with the flow of the internet, to see and exploit its opportunities.

Rather than fighting Google, learn lessons from it. Google understands the new economics of media. That is why it is successful—not because it exploits old media companies. Those old companies still operate in the content economy, begun 570 years by Guttenberg, in which the owner of content profited by selling multiple copies. Online, there needs to be only one copy of content and it is the links to it that bring it value. Content without links has no value. So when search engines, aggregators, bloggers, and Twitterers link to content, they are not stealing; they are giving the gift of attention and audience. Indeed, publishers should be grateful that Google does not charge them for the value of its links.

This link economy brings three imperatives for publishers. First, it requires them to make their content public if they want to be found. That is their choice, but if they retreat behind pay walls, hidden from search and links, they will not be discovered and they only create opportunities for new, free competitors. Second, the link economy demands specialization: Do what you do best and link to the rest. This specialization also brings a new efficiency that can make publishers more profitable. Third, in the link economy, it is the recipient of links who must exploit their value. That is still the publisher’s job.

Google has earned an estimated 30 percent of online ad revenue because it serves advertisers differently—and better. Here, too, Google understands a new economy, one based on abundance rather than scarcity. Publishers, even online, still sell scarcity as if the internet were print: only so many ad positions for so many eyeballs—what the market will bear. Google instead charges for clicks; it sells performance. Thus Google takes a share of the risk and that is what motivates it to place advertising all over the internet, to create more relevant positions for ads that will perform better for both the marketer and Google. That is why advertising has shifted to Google—not because it is enemy of the media but because advertisers prefer it. We call that competition.

The most important lesson to learn from Google is that it grew huge not by trying to acquire and control content on the internet, as publishers do. Google doesn’t want to own the internet, only to organize it. So Google created a platform that enables others to succeed with technology, content, promotion, and advertising revenue. That is Glam’s model, too, creating networks of hundreds of independent sites and then helping them succeed. I believe that platforms and networks will form the basis of the future of media—and much of the next economy.

At the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach, I am running the New Business Models for News Project, envisioning a profitable future for news if regional newspapers covering cities die. Though national news brands—whether this publication or the Guardian or The New York Times—have a future, regional newspapers across America and Europe are in trouble and some will die. Yet I am confident that journalism in those cities will not die, because there is a market demand for news, which we believe the market can meet.

We believe that news will emerge from ecosystems made up of many players—journalists, citizen journalists, citizen salespeople, volunteers, technologists—operating under different motives and means. Today, in America, we see hyperlocal bloggers earning $100-200,000 a year in advertising; these are real businesses. We see an opportunity to help them make more money by creating local, regional, and national advertising networks. We see the opportunity for a new newsroom to continue beat and investigative reporting and to work collaboratively with these networks. Without the cost of print and distribution, these new news organizations become smaller but profitable.

If you are trying to protect old jobs in old structures of old companies in old industries, then you might see my vision of the future as a threat. But if you embrace change and innovation, then you will see opportunities to reimagine and remake journalism, to find new ways to gather and share news collaboratively, supported by new revenue, reaching profitability thanks to new efficiencies.

Publishers will not get to that bright future by urging government to protect them from innovators and competitors. No, if we want anything from government, it should be universal broadband to encourage society’s migration to a digital economy, and a lack of regulation to assure a level playing field for innovation.

I hope that once the desperation of the current economic crisis subsides, my German media friends will not try to retreat to their old models but will instead continue to invent new ways and to again become leaders in innovation. That is the only sensible path to survival and success.

LATER: I should add disclosures that are also on my disclosures page. I was paid to come speak to editors at Axel Springer (publishers of Welt Kompakt), Burda (I’ve also spoken for their DLD conference), and Holtzbrinck.

Giving up on the news business

Before reaching their dangerous conclusionrecommending government supported journalism in a report called the Reconstruction of American Journalism – former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie and Columbia journalism prof Michael Schudson make some basic and, I believe, profoundly mistaken assumptions, namely: “That journalism is now at risk, along with the advertising-supported economic foundations of newspapers.”

Just because newspapers put themselves at risk, it does not follow that journalism is at risk. Newspapers no longer own journalism. As too often happens in this discussion, they focus only on the revenue side of the business ledger of news – advertising falling from monopolistic heights – and not on the cost side and the efficiency new technology – and thus collaboration – that technology allows.

As Downie and Schudson themselves point out in their Washington Post op-ed, there is now a flourishing of new outlets and means of gathering and sharing news.

Journalists leaving newspapers have started online local news sites in many cities and towns. Others have started nonprofit local investigative reporting projects and community news services at nearby universities, as well as national and statewide nonprofit investigative reporting organizations. Still others are working with local residents to produce neighborhood news blogs. Newspapers themselves are collaborating with other news media, including some of the startups and bloggers, to supplement their smaller reporting staffs. The ranks of news gatherers now include not only newsroom staffers but also freelancers, university faculty and students, bloggers and citizens armed with smart phones….

That is a basis for a new ecosystem of journalism, one we begin to outline in our Knight Foundation-funded New Business Models for News Project. We believe there is a sustainable and profitable future for news and they only way to confirm that is to try to build it but that will not happen if we declare surrender and defeat in the hope that the market can support the news a community needs.

Downie and Schudson give up on news as a business and, in their consequent desperation, make this drastic proposal:

American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting — as society has, at much greater expense, for public education, health care, scientific advancement and cultural preservation, through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy.

Collective responsibility. Socialized journalism. This is the ultimate in broccoli journalism: You are not only forced to read what journalists say is good for you but you are now forced to pay for it through taxation.

They make other suggestions with which I have no complaint: Journalism students should report not just for their professors but for the ecosystem and we see that beginning. If philanthropists want to do more to support news, I’m not going to burn their checks – but they are no white knights riding in to save the day. Public broadcasting can do more local reporting and we see movement in that direction from especially NPR and also public TV – though I would be loath to think that we should have government mandate of that. And we want more transparency; I belong to that religion.

All this comes from that dire assumption that journalism is dying with newspapers. That is not and certainly need not be the case. I disagree with Downie and Schudson’s key assumption: There is no crisis. When you start there, you don’t just reconstruct the past of journalism but see the possibilities to build a new journalism.

: Even The New York Times’ David Carr is somewhat incredulous.

: Mulling over the full report on my train ride in this morning, I realized that my problem with it is this: Downie and Schudson are addressing the business problem of news without doing reporting on the business.

The report is a cogent, comprehensive, well-documented summary of broadly held conventional thinking on the history and current state of journalism in America, but it is all stated from the journalistic perspective – no surprise coming from two distinguished journalists.

If this were handed in to me as a term paper in my class, I’d give it back for more reporting and rethinking. I’d tell the students that they made huge assumptions about the business state of journalism – both on the revenue and cost sides of the P&L – without giving me reporting on that. I’d advise them to look at the true cost of the accountability journalism they cherish, at the inefficiency of the business today as it produces commodity news, at whether there is sufficient advertising revenue to cover the journalism that matters once news organizations rid themselves of their inefficiency, at verifying the public demand for the kind of journalism they think the public needs, and at the issues journalism has had with trust and quality. Then, if they still came to the same conclusions – which I doubt – I’d urge them to get more balanced reporting on the risks behind each of their recommendations, particularly involving government subsidies, direct funding, and mandates on journalism. I think they did half the story, the half we’ve already heard (and which they quite ably summarize again). They should have given us the business story since that is what they really wanted to address. I wish they had.

: Alan Mutter’s good commentary.

The X Prizes for news (and media)

A conversation with our Knight Foundation friends at Aspen inspired me to think through what an X Prize for news could accomplish. Then this week’s report in the New York Times about the awarding of the NetFlix X Prize – and the far greater value it created, not just for NetFlix, but for its participants and others – inspired me to buckle down and open that conversation here (and at the NewsInnovation site).

I’m not asking idly. With the right structure, I’d seek funding to administer such a prize at CUNY and we can hope that smart companies, organizations, and patrons will see that an X Prize could be a way to innovate aggressively and openly. Or is it?

We must start with a question: What is the core problem the prize is trying to solve? It can’t be just about getting more revenue for existing companies or thinking of another way to tell a story or, Lord knows, making something cool. The best expression of the problem will yield solutions that must be groundbreaking and new, quantum leaps undertaken on daring, hope, and hubris. Innovation won’t come from incremental changes to an existing structure. We know that too well.

Another key question is how success is measured – tangibly, metrically, from a distance, not emotionally. In something as amorphous as news, that’s going to be hard.

Next, we have to define news carefully – that is, broadly. News shouldn’t be defined as we do today, for the winners of the prize may create something we haven’t seen yet. Our definition of news is probably just about a community informing itself – better informed individuals and society (“better” as defined by them).

Finally, we have to recognize that the problems to solve are centered more on business issues than product issues – on sustainability – but that is not to say that the product should not be radically rethought as part of this process.

I see three key problems to solve for news (which I’ll make conveniently alliterative):

1. Engagement. In our most recent phase of the New Business Models for News at CUNY (funded by Knight), we used the sinfully low industry standard for engagement with newspaper sites: 12 pageviews per user per month. Facebook users have that much interaction with the service every day. Time spent online in social sites and blogs accounted for 17% of time overall – vs. 0.5% for newspaper sites, according to separate estimates (and advertising on social sites doubled while it plummeted for newspapers). For God’s sake, if news services were truly of their communities, they would have many times more interaction with many times more people in those communities and interaction would go far beyond reading.

Engagement is a core business problem. If you plug in higher numbers into our NewBizNews models – and we will, in our blow-out cases – you’d see much better businesses able to support much more news. You’d see news as a very profitable industry again.

So let’s say the first challenge is to multiply a community’s engagement with news. How is that to be done? Surprise me. Shock me. Invent entirely new ways, new platforms, means, and media to gather and share news.

How do we measure engagement? I would not measure by pageviews – in great part because I do not want contestants to just assume that it’s a site they’re inventing. See one more time Marissa Mayer on hyperpersonal news streams and me on hyperdistribution. News has to go where the community is and we no longer expect the community to come to it. It has to be of and among the community. Time is a slightly better measure of engagement but it, too, is shallow and can be manipulated with tricks.

No, engagement is more about ownership: people believing that and acting as if they owned this thing. It’s theirs – as Wikipedia’s and craigslist’s communities believe they own those properties and as each of us believes we own our Facebook pages or Twitter feeds or blogs. But an opposite danger lies there as well. One shouldn’t measure engagement by contribution (as many of us did in the early days of the web). Go to Wikipedia’s 1 percent rule.

So I’d say the measurement has to be made by a combination of metrics – say, time combined and attitudes: Take a baseline a survey of users of news sites today against certain beliefs – “My newspaper.com makes me part of the community of news”; “Newspaper.com is a member of my community of news just as I am”; “I feel a stake of ownership in newspaper.com”; “I feel a measure of control over newspaper.com”; “I feel a responsibility for newspaper.com”; “I am better informed with newspaper.com”. Then require that the new thing multiple some index of these factors by an impressive amount. If Facebook is 30 times more engaging than a newspaper site, then how about 10 times, even five times – that would make a huge difference in the business of news.

2. Effectiveness. This is effectiveness for media’s other customers, its paying customers: advertisers, or perhaps we should say marketers (to include ecommerce and not limit the business relationship).

News sites – like most media sites – are still selling what they used to sell in their old media: space, time, eyeballs, scarcity. Google won business away from them by selling something else: performance. Google thus takes on risk on behalf of advertisers – if Google doesn’t deliver relevance and you don’t click, it doesn’t get paid – and so its interests are now aligned with its advertisers’. And because Google created an auction marketplace that takes advantage of abundance – there is no scarcity on the internet – then prices are lower. For an advertiser, what’s not to love? That’s why I roll my eyes when old media people complain that Google stole their money. No, Google competed and saved advertisers their money.

At the same time, I believe that news and media will be supported primarily by advertising and so they had best figure out new ways to serve advertisers – even as advertising shrinks. For purposes of sustaining news, I think it’s best to concentrate on local advertising, because – in the U.S., at least – most journalistic resource is expended locally, much of government is local, there is opportunity to grow there, and the crisis in the news industry is primarily local.

The solution cannot be about increasing clickthroughs to banners. That merely extends the bullshit online media are selling. No, it has to be about much richer ways to measurably improve merchants’ businesses: to add value.

Ah, but measuring it is the tough part for that itself sets the shape of the invention: Is it more people to a web site, more people to a door, more sales of particular merchandise, better brand awareness, better relationships? Help! What do you think?

At CUNY, with additonal funding, we soon hope to do more research with local merchants for NewBizNews to get a better sense of their needs. But then again, they may not know it until they see it. I’ve spoken with advertisers who still don’t understand why a customer’s Google search matters to them.

So for the sake of discussion, let’s say that one could take a test group of merchants and used the methods and means created by a contestant to utilize a relationship with online media of some form (that is, advertising) to improve their sales by N percent over N period with at least an N return on investment. In the end, it’s simply about improving their businesses, isn’t it?

Any multiple of this effectiveness would also have a profound impact on the sustainability and profitability of news (so long as it’s a news entity that makes it possible). In our New Business Models for News, we used what we believed – though some disagree – was a conservative $12 CPM ad rate. It was also conservative to presume old ad models: i.e., banners. But then Google’s Marissa Mayer turned around and talked about hyperpersonal news streams, emphasizing the business potential: If you know that much about people to be hyperpersonal and if you are incredible good at targeting – at discerning intent and delivering relevance – then the efficiency, effectiveness, and value of marketing there would skyrocket. An X Prize winner would think this way.

3. Efficiency. This is to say cost. What does it cost to produce news, to gather and share what a community knows? The closer that marginal cost can be brought to zero, the more news we can afford. That’s good for society.

That may not sound good for professional journalists, I know. And employment of journalists has been the default measurement of the health of news. (This is why I have quibbled with BusinessWeek’s Michael Mandel’s analysis, here and here.) But I’m not suggesting that there are necessarily fewer reporters (there will be fewer production people). Indeed, in our New Business Models for News, we ended up with a equivalent number of people doing journalism in our hypothetical market, only they weren’t all in a single newsroom. Most worked in entrepreneurial ventures that many of them owned, and they as a group devoted far more of their time to reporting. The net result, we believe is more journalism because it is more efficient journalism.

So I’m suggesting that journalists be made as efficient as possible and the way to do that is to make them highly collaborative and to take advantage of the work people are willing to do just because they care – the hundreds of millions of dollars people contribute to Wikipedia, adding value to it and making it both supremely efficient and incredibly valuable.

So I suggest this prize start with the goal of maximizing the journalism, finding the best ways to get the most relevant news to the most people at the lowest cost: the best way to make the most people feel well-informed from a sustainable venture. Once again, we must be cautious about the definition of news, not limiting it to the broccoli served cold currently. What do people want to know and need to know and how can we get that? What is the news that isn’t shared that has to be reported and investigated and why and how do we get that? So I might start by finding communities and having them define news and what it means to be informed, what they need to run themselves. Of course, we also need to define quality. This needs to be reliable and useful information.

How do you make a measurable contest out of that? I’m not sure. Perhaps we find a community and find out how many people want to know about, say, their school board and town board and tow events and then measure what they want to know now. Then the winners made their community better informed by the greatest margin at the lowest cost while still not losing money.

In the end, if we can find new and daring solutions to these problems of engagement (formerly known as audience), effectiveness (advertising), and efficiency (operations), we can improve news as a product (and process), its relationship with its public, its value to its customers, and its sustainability. That’s the goal. It’s going to take new thinking and experimentation to get there. An X Prize is one way to get that.

What do you think?

Tinkering with the news

This morning, Glam.com – the model of the new network model of media – extended its Twitter aggregator, Tinker.com, into news at Tinker.com/news. It’s very simple and that’s what makes it intriguing: headlines mixed with current discussion of them.

Yesterday, New York Times digital strategy head Martin Nisenholtz also talked about adding value to Twitter and news here.

“If you go out and search Twitter, it doesn’t work very well,” he said. “It’s very literal.” But if The Times can build multiple search products for Twitter that better understand context, there “is a lot of power in organizing and curating this world.” Therefore, the company is looking into building similar Twitter aggregators for what could be “thousands of categories,” he said.

Note, by the way, that Nisenholtz was misquoted in Twitter yesterday (which I retweeted) saying that 10% of Times inbound links came from Twitter. He emailed to correct. What he said was that they were about to move into the top 10 referrers, based on the current growth rate.

Also note, by the way, that Glam just reached profitability. Many media execs I know scoffed at Glam but now they’re dying and Glam’s growing. The network model works. And the link to people’s conversations – in both these examples – will not only help media but will be a key driver of value. I’ve pointed out here before that Google News causes a billion clicks a month but so does Bit.ly (and it represents only part of Twitter’s traffic). At the Knight-funded Aspen event on new business models for news, Marissa Mayer said we must find the ways to insinuate news into everyone’s stream (and, I’ll add, vice versa).

Did we ever pay for content?

In an essay that, on first blush, ranks near to Clay Shirky’s seminal thinking-the-unthinkable think piece, Paul Graham argues that we never paid for content:

In fact consumers never really were paying for content, and publishers weren’t really selling it either. If the content was what they were selling, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format? Why didn’t better content cost more?

A copy of Time costs $5 for 58 pages, or 8.6 cents a page. The Economist costs $7 for 86 pages, or 8.1 cents a page. Better journalism is actually slightly cheaper.

Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant. Book publishers, for example, set prices based on the cost of producing and distributing books. They treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics.

Information – Bloomberg terminals, stock newsletters – is a different business. Publishers flatter themselves when they argue they are in it.

What happens to publishing if you can’t sell content? You have two choices: give it away and make money from it indirectly, or find ways to embody it in things people will pay for.

The first is probably the future of most current media. Give music away and make money from concerts and t-shirts. Publish articles for free and make money from one of a dozen permutations of advertising. Both publishers and investors are down on advertising at the moment, but it has more potential than they realize.

I’m not claiming that potential will be realized by the existing players. The optimal ways to make money from the written word probably require different words written by different people….

The reason I’ve been writing about existing forms is that I don’t know what new forms will appear. But though I can’t predict specific winners, I can offer a recipe for recognizing them. When you see something that’s taking advantage of new technology to give people something they want that they couldn’t have before, you’re probably looking at a winner. And when you see something that’s merely reacting to new technology in an attempt to preserve some existing source of revenue, you’re probably looking at a loser.

NewBizNews: The podcast

The latest edition of the Guardian MediaTalkUSA podcast, which I present, features the work of CUNY’s New Business Models for News Project and discussion with two folks who know hyperlocal: Deb Galant, founder of Baristanet, whom I crowned the queen of hyperlocal; and Jim Willse, editor of the Star-Ledger (who begins the podcast confessing that he began his day reading papers … online).

What’s fascinating is that Galant and Willse extend the idea of local networks.
* Galant wished for a local associated press that would enable news organizations and local blogs to share content and distribute each other.
* Galant at first resisted the idea of ad networks because, to date, they devalue sites and she’s already getting national and regional ads – but then, when asked whether she’d want a piece of advertising that would be up for grabs if a metro paper dies, she relented. The problem is that we need a new word and reputation for networks.
* Willse proposed a co-op apartment model in which the members of the ecosystem/network (call it what you will) engage others – a super – to perform mutual tasks (that’s the role of the framework in our NewBizNews models; it’s what Mark Potts’ Growthspur hopes to provide as a service).
* Galant and Willse also liked the idea of collaborating on journalism, doing more as a group than any of its members could do alone. That’ll be the subject of their next lunch.

It is gratifying to see these people who work in the heart of local adopting and extending some of the ideas we discussed at the Aspen Institute.

By the way, we will hold another meeting in New York to discuss the models, sometime in early November (as soon as I’m sure I’ll be back in full fettle). In the meantime, please take a listen:

What crisis?

At the Aspen Institute FOCAS event, where we presented our CUNY New Business Models for News, there came to be an unspoken debate – that is, an idea thrown out but never really engaged – about whether there is a crisis in news and journalism.

I now say that there isn’t a crisis. That’s not what I used to say. Indeed, one of my mistakes in this debate has been accepting the assumption that there was one and allowing the debate to start there: “How are you going to save journalism from the scourge of your damned internet?”

Instead, the discussion should start here: “Look at all the new opportunities there are to gather and share news in new ways, to expand and improve it, to change journalism’s relationship with its public and make it collaborative, to find new efficiencies and lower costs and thus to return to profitability and sustainability.”

One’s view on the question determines one’s response and its level of desperation or optimism.

To generalize unfairly, those who say there is a crisis – most often, those whose legacy institutions are fading – are often known to react by:
* Looking for others to blame for the purported problem – Google, bloggers, aggregators, craigslist, et al (which is to say, not taking responsibility for their own role in it);
* Trying to preserve their past (expecting newsrooms to be supported, unchanged, by some manna from the market – paid content being only the latest prayer);
* Seeking protection from government (antitrust exemptions) or the law (copyright extensions);
* Demanding tribute (saying they are entitled to get paid because what they do is worth so much);
* Giving up (talking about abandoning growth by building walls or shifting to not-for-profit and begging for charitable support).

Those who say there is not a crisis (for- and not-for-profit entrepreneurs, inventors, and investors) instead tend to:
* Look to innovation (collaboration, algorithms, data, streams) to create new ways to make news;
* Look to entrepreneurship to sustain journalism (in blogs and networks);
* Be open to new ways to define journalism;
* Irritate the legacy people by not seeing the crisis they see.

So if we’re looking for an original sin in this saga, I’ll confess that mine has been viewing news from the perspective of the old controllers rather than from that of the community (the people formerly known as the audience), the inventors, and the entrepreneurs. At Aspen, it was Sue Gardner, head of the Wikimedia Foundation, who made me see this as she talked about the wonders that have been done with news on Wikipedia, which no one could have predicted. Being open to such new possibilities is key to building news’ new future.

There are so many reasons to be optimistic about the future of news:
* The audience for news is only growing online.
* The audience isn’t an audience anymore. News is becoming more and more collaborative as witnesses share what they see and communities join together to create news.
* Those who make news are more accountable to their publics.
* News is opening up to more diverse voices and perspectives.
* News is becoming far more specialized and targeted, which is to say that it can give deeper service to more communities.
* New technology – and freedom from the limits of the old means of production and distribution – allow the reinvention of the form of news, organized around streams, topics, ideas, and concepts still being imagined.
* News is more efficient thanks to the link – do what you do best and link to the rest – and specialization. That is what makes it more sustainable.

Some – but not nearly enough – of this optimism is inherent in the future we imagined in the New Business Models for News Project. We used the financial lingua franca and assumptions of the present world – CPM advertising, page views per user, even the concept of a page and a site – because that made it easier to describe what can follow and made our vision of sustainable news more credible. We were criticized for being too optimistic about audience penetration and ad rates.

But I think we were not nearly optimistic enough. We have to leap past the idea that news is a collection of pages worth 12 views per user per month (or, quoting Martin Langeveld, 0.5% of time spent online). News shouldn’t be a site we force people to come to but, as Google’s Marissa Mayer said at Aspen, we have to find ways to insinuate news and its value into anyone’s – her words – hyperpersonal news stream. We shouldn’t create sites but instead create platforms that enable communities to share what they know and need to know, with journalists contributing value – reporting, editing, aggregation, curation – to their ecosystem. We should build and assume much greater engagement and define engagement not as consumption but as creation. We must value that creation (and not consider it merely a reaction to what we do). We should forecast much greater relevance and thus value for both the market and the marketer.

We should set the bar way higher. And that is the real problem with letting the discussion start with the pessimism, depression, and desperation of the perceived crisis among the past’s players, who aren’t inventing the future. It limits the possibilities.

The real sin: not running businesses

Like priests looking for someone to sacrifice, Alan Mutter, Steve Buttry, Howard Owens, and Steve Yelvington have been on the lookout for the sin that led newspapers astray. For Mutter, it’s not charging; for Buttry, it’s not innovating; for Owens, it’s tying online dingies to print Titanics (my poetic license); for Yelvington, it’s inaction.

But I think Owens hit on it when he wrote this: “I realized I needed to flip the expense/revenue picture upside down. Instead of thinking about how to generate more cash, I needed to figure out how to create a news operation that could exist profitably based on a reasonable expectation for local online revenue.”

Right. In other words, the sin was not running a business. It was not creating a sustainable P&L.

Newspapers have been too busy trying to protect specific budget lines that protected specific interests – the size of the newsroom, the ego expressed in gross revenue that yields stock performance and salary bonuses, the size of unionized staffs (up or down), the rules that governed advertising relationships even as they disappeared. They made preservation their mission.

What they should have done instead is rethink the bottom line: How is journalism going to be sustainable in new business realities?

Said Owens: “In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million. So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?”

He built a realistic budget based on new business realities. Now picture news executives across the country hitting themselves on the head saying, “Damn, why didn’t we think of that?” They should have. But to do so would have required them to completely tear apart their businesses. Witness Detroit, banking, retail, advertising, insurance, and every other industry undergoing upheaval – nobody wants to do that.

Just as the bloggers linked above took their share of blame, so will I. Owens suggests that the problem with tying old and new operations together. At Advance, where I worked for a dozen years, we created separate online companies, which had some benefits: enabling the sites to build what was right for online (that is, interactivity), creating real value for advertising (rather than throwing in online as value-added), creating smaller and differently skilled staffs. But it also created problems: sites that were dependent on newspaper content, rivalries that killed collaboration and limited the responsibility anyone would take for the future. In the end, everyone needed to rethink what they were creating and what value it had, how they were creating it, how they related to their communities, and how the business could be run. But I didn’t see that happening anywhere in the industry. Everywhere, I saw people looking for someone to blame and somewhere to hide. I don’t put all the blame on the individuals because that’s how companies and industries operate.

Individuals who want to succeed in this upheaval become entrepreneurs. That’s what Owens – and many others – are doing. That, I’ve come to see, is the basis of the future of news.

In our New Business Models for News Project at CUNY, we threw out the old business assumptions with the old business. That’s why we tried to answer the tough question people were asking: What happens to journalism if the paper disappears? (their implied answer was that journalism does, too). What we came up with was one entity being replaced by well more than 100 entities – 1,000 entities, perhaps – each run according to new opportunities and needs, each smaller, each contributing real value, each sustainable (some very profitable; some choosing no profit). Everyone in this ecosystem has to think about running a business rather than preserving one.

Someone else looking for sinners is James Murdoch, whose MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival excoriated the BBC for bigfooting the news market in the UK and the government for enabling it and for regulating everybody else. I agree with him to an extent, this extent: that profit, in his words, will make journalism sustainable, independent, and innovative.

Except I doubt that this sustainable, independent, and innovative journalism will necessarily come from Mr. Murdoch’s father’s business and its cohorts because they are the ones that even today are trying to maintain the scale and models for their old businesses rather than inventing new ones. Look, instead, to the entrepreneurs who are starting over and rethinking the business from the bottom up, as Owens is.