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.