New business models for news
: The discussion that the news industry — print, broadcast, online — needs most today is not more blather about who and isn’t a journalist but instead about how to pay for journalism.
I was lucky enough to go to a roundtable about the future of news last week at the Museum of Television & Radio. It was off-the-record, so I’m not supposed to quote anyone. But I was making notes for a catalogue of new business models for news. Some of this is about saving money — for audience and ad revenue to big media are falling and will continue to fall. But some of this is about opening up and taking advantage of what’s happening in technology and media to expand, to explode. Here’s are a few buckets, each broad and abstract; please add more and fill them up with specifics:
: New sources: See the post below about gathering news from many sources, including those outside the newsroom. Whether it’s hyperlocal news around the corner or news in far-off places where reporters can’t go or assigning the entire audience to help with news (tell us your stories of waste about health insurance), there is tremendous untapped knowledge and energy “out there.” News organizations cannot afford to expand staff but this is how they can expand coverage. Or to look at it another way: This process of the people publishing news will go on anyway; the question is whether the news organizations can get involved and add value with content, promotion, and education.
: Replacing anchors with authentic voices: Is it still worth the money to have expensive anchors on TV? They supposedly added trust to the news, though Dan Rather burst that balloon. They also supposedly put a human face on the news — a voice. But they became so homogenized that they added no voice at all; they became background noise, Newsak. So imagine instead having various people giving us news with various perspectives. I don’t know whether that would work; we still like consistency and this, too, can create expensive stars (see: Bill O’Reilly). But I believe that the explosion of news will lead to a lessened dependence on high-priced faces.
Look at it another way: Does every newspaper across the country need its own movie critic? The movies are the same coast-to-coast. The information we need to decide whether to go is the same. So why not plop in Roger Ebert? Or why not plop in reviews by your funny neighbor who knows the good stuff?
Ditto sports columnists. Ditto political columnists. Get rid of the voices on high and get more voices from down on the ground and you’ll improve the conversation and save money.
: Death to commodified news: As an industry, we waste a fortune manhandling the same commodified news everybody already knows. But it’s more than just a waste; it drags us down into an oppressive sameness. We all got overdosed on Schaivovision and Popevision and Bridevision. The programmers behind the cable news networks were afraid not to blanket those stories because their competitors were blanketing them. But by that act, they made themselves the same as their competitors, they turned themselves into commodities. Breaking away from the pack is extremely difficult and risky, but every news outlet needs to have a unique voice and value or it will get lost in a crowd.
Similarly, newspapers and their audiences would be best served concentrating on what they do best: local, local, local. If they gave us the local news that no one else could gather and report, they’d be worth more to us. But this, too, is a hard habit to break: not sending the 15,001st correspondent to the political conventions, not editing the already edited AP report, not printing the stock tables….
: Death to the masses: One-size-fits-all news was a product of the mass market and the mass market was an aberration brought on by a scarcity and thus hegemony of broadcast channels which, in turn, led to a scarcity of newspaper choices. The internet explodes the mass market and brings the press back to its natural state of choice. So does it still make sense to print those stock tables — costing, say, $1 million a year in paper and ink — when only a small portion of the audience still uses them? Can you afford to let those readers go — on the off chance that they do cancel their subscriptions; can you afford not to? In the old mass-market days, you put a little of this and a little of that in your product to serve everyone, in little ways. Now maybe it makes more sense to have separate products — news, sports, entertainment, lifestyle, business — to serve those audiences in big ways… and serve targeted and efficient advertising as a result. The transition would be painful, in some cases fatal, but this is where the audience is now heading online.
: Anytime, anywhere, anyhow: There is no such thing as a medium anymore; it’s all media, it’s all multi. The public demands its news — rather than waiting for it to be served — anytime, anywhere, to serve any interest or need. So news organizations must do just that. Thus a newspaper needs to gather and share the news it knows anytime (which, I have learned, is far more difficult than it appears) via online and audio and video and the internet and phones (also not easy). Thus TV networks have had to hire people to write and package text online. And they need to be able attach sponsorship (or payment) to all this (and that’s not easy, either: just try selling sponsorship of BitTorrent or ad on RSS).
: Charity: NPR is growing on the strength of its news and its audience contributions. I do believe the audience will pay for news in certain (limited) circumstances. And, yes, that does present a new bucket of church-v-state issues (e.g., how come we can get money only to report on why there isn’t global warming vs. why there is?). But the same issues of journalistic integrity prevail (the answer is that you can pay to support reporting but not conclusions).
: Quality will out: One way or another — with their eyeballs or their checkbooks — the public will support quality, unique reporting. See 60 Minutes. See NPR. I have to believe that the best way to find news business models is to give people unique value and quality. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?
: Join the conversation: This is the most important one. The conversation that is news will be going on with or without you — so better to be withit: Better to find the ways to stand in a position to gather and share news. So, for example, look at RSS feeds as a way to get your content out there and not only drive traffic back to your site and brand but also to be consumed and sponsored in a distributed manner.
My favorite line from the first Journal story:
“The newspaper of the future is going to be a coalition of niche products,” says consultant S.W. “Sammy” Papert III.