New business models for news

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.

: MORE: It so happens that The Wall Street Journal asks a bunch of smart media people about new business models for media today: free links here and here. Comments later.

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.

  • Getting rid of diversity to save money is subject to many dangers.
    As an example, here in NY all three 10PM local news shows use the same video feeds for many of their stories. The kind where the visuals are provided by an unnamed producer and the local reporter does the voice over.
    The result: the same stories seen from the same perspective on alledgedly competing channels.
    Even with sports and arts reporting good reporters and critics can sometime bring a unique perspective to the story. One good insight can change the perception on an issue.
    I think this is a small price to pay.
    High priced news readers are another issue, however. The BBC does fine without them.

  • Forget about the cost side of the equation – fewer critics, columnists and anchors don’t save enough money to change journalism, they don’t save enough money to noticeably improve operating margins. The problem is on the revenue side and it’s hopeless. Newspapers and broadcast TV are one-size fits all products in an increasingly customized information environment. There will continue to be great journalistic products, you just won’t read them or see them on dead trees or the networks.

  • Remember when there were only a few movie critics in the country? Now we’re up to our ass in movie reviewers & none of them are worth reading! Where’s Pauline Kael when you need her?

  • One major piece of this puzzle, which fits neatly into Jeff’s groping toward a redefinition of journalism, is opening the pages of newspapers to the many people and businesses who are willing to pay to have their voice amplified.
    Newspapers should, for just one example, largely ditch their free events calendars in favor of paid listings. The technology exists to enable this information to be submitted over the Web, on a much more timely basis than currently happens, and paid for in real time.
    The editorial resources wasted on culling and compiling lists of events can be redirected or focused on better events coverage. Many more events can be listed in the paper, with a corresponding increase in readership.
    Much of what passes for journalism today was an attempt to provide a setting for advertising that never materialized. Scrap those efforts and allow businesses to give the newspapers the money they’re now giving to the public relations community in a futile effort to garner scarce editorial space.
    In brief, paid advertorial, properly labeled, with pointers to expanded online information, needs to be and can be a critical part of a new business model for newspapers.

  • Toni

    Someone once said this blog makes James Lileks read like Lester Bangs. Amen to that. Anyone care to parse the inconsistency of, on the one hand, “many voices are better than one” and on the other, “fire all local critics and ‘plop in Roger Ebert.'”

  • Mary

    Since my injury I spend alot of time on the web. On another blog I found out about an advertising scheme that gives away free computers! I allready got one, didn’t cost a thing. So I thought I’d pass along the info for anyone else on a tight budget. : )

  • (Posted by robertdfeinman) – “Getting rid of diversity to save money is subject to many dangers.”
    John Leo comments in the May 30 issue of US News and World Report, (page 55)
    ………that it’s already gone.
    “the biggest flaw in mainstream journalism today is the lack of diversity.”
    “It’s possible to read newspapers and newsmagazines carefully and never see anything about the liberal indoctrination now taking place at major universtities. This has something to do with th fact that the universtities are mostly institiutions of the left and that newsrooms tend to hire from the left and from the universtities in question.
    I once complained to an important news executive that he ignored certain kinds of stories. He said that he would like to do them but that his staff wouldn’t let him. He admitted his staff had been assembled from one side – guess which? – of the political spectrum. This conversation hardened my conviction that the biggest flaw in mainstream journalism today is the lack of diversity. Much bean-counting goes on in regard to gender and race, but the new hires tend to come from the same economic bracket and the same pool of elite universities, and they tend to have the same take on politics and culture. Much of that they turn out is very good. But when they omit or mess up stories, run badly skewed polls, or publish front-page editorials posing as news stories, nobody seems to notice because groupthink is so strong.
    Time is running out on the newsroom monoculture. The public has many options now-as well as plenty of media watchdogs, both professional and amateur. So the press takes its lumps and loses readers.

  • mebee

    Well said, Toni.
    The answer is easy: Jeff Jarvis has saturated himself so heavily in “new media” hype that he can’t even see the forest for the trees anymore. Let alone write a logically consistent post about the topic.

  • Jorge

    Pretty funny none of the items discusses integrity. Mainstream US media is a mouthpiece of the White House and corporate “grass roots” buzz. Who cares how the lies are packaged, marketed and distributed? Garbage In, Garbage Out.
    With the proliferation of online news sources US media will become increasingly irrelevant. And it’s about time too
    Bottom line: if you hear it from somebody like Jarvis it’s what the established players want you to hear.

  • Toni… Continue the thread to its frayed end: I was making a logical journey that said it would be cheaper to have Ebert BUT far better to have the audience as critics. That’s many, many more voices. Parse that.

  • Toni

    What is Roger Ebert? What is the lucky member of “the audience” who gets to review the picture today? Two people with opinions. Why does Roger Ebert make millions a year to review movies and “the audience” gets to pay $8 a head to see them?
    Maybe Ebert, and yes, maybe even other paid critics, know more about movies, have a broader experience of them and can express informed opinions of them better than the average audience member. Yes, even more than the guy with the blog!

  • Phil

    I can see the need for newspapers to become more immediate and more relevant to readers, and I understand that much of that future is going to be on the Web. That said, I’m not sure I buy that it’s going to be quite as hyperlocal as you believe that it will.
    While tomorrow’s paper will have more of a role for the reader, there is a reason that we have professional reporters and writers. They work long and hard at their craft, and it’s not something that just anyone can do at a professional level. And in fact, many of those writers are quite expert in the fields they cover. Yes, credibility is at a low right now, though I believe that most reporters bend over backward to be fair and accurate and professional, no matter their political persuasion (why do so many people believe political persuasion plays such a role in what people write?)
    For that matter, there’s a reason we have the media: Most people don’t have the time of inclination to gather and report news. Most blogs don’t BREAK news (yes, there are plenty of examples where they do), they piggy-back off the efforts of the mainstream and alternative media. There is a place and a role in the future of journalism for those efforts; I think the past year has most definitely proved that.
    But the idea that just anyone can report and write the news, or that you could have five or six competing bloggers REPORTING the city council meeting with five or six different political slants? Not quite that simple. And quite possibly a real disservice to the readers, who need some kind of baseline to believe in.

  • Jake

    Just like a lot of things, first there’s an excess of hype, followed by a negative period of pessimism when the original ideas don’t pan out in the time-frame predicted, and then things go mainstream