New business models for news

No doubt to the frustration of my fellow organizers, I’m still thinking through the format and agenda for the New Business Models for News conference we’re holding at CUNY in May and want your advice.

I was influenced watching the Google team at Davos and by a session on innovation there: I saw that engineers don’t start with neat ideas. They start with problems and then seek solutions.

Too much of the discussion about the future of news has been focused on the blind hope for some neat solution: an iPod moment or a white knight or even, god help us, government support. And too much of the parallel discussion about media on the internet is about neat things.

Instead, I think we need to identify the problems and then have a rational search for solutions. So I’ve been focusing my thinking on expressing our problems — or call them our challenges and opportunities — as the agenda for the meeting. My thoughts:

* Efficiency: See the results of my back-of-the-envelope survey asking what should be cut from newspaper budgets. There is no shortage of suggestions. I think we need to have a hard-nosed discussion about the efficiencies that can be found in news. The negative way to say that is that we’re getting rid of commodified fat. The positive way to say that is that we must boil down what we do to its essence, its greatest value. And the internet gives us opportunities to be newly efficient — it is journalism’s internet dividend. So what can and should we do without? What do we absolutely need? How can we use technology to find efficiencies? What is the proper organization of a news company (see Dave Morgan’s proposal to split up newspapers)? What does efficient journalism look like?

* Networked content: It is a precept of mine, at least, that one way to expand journalism’s reach even as revenue and organizations shrink is to work collaboratively outside our organizations. That was the subject of our last conference on networked journalism. So let’s come up with real solutions using collaboration. Where could it help? With what kind of stories? What kinds of beats? What tools do we need? Training? What’s the business relationship?

* Networked advertising: I also believe that the key to making the networked architecture work is advertising to support and motivate new creators and to have control over their quality. We are beginning to see examples of this: blog ad networks from the Washington Post, the Guardian, Reuters, and Forbes; Reuters selling the Guardian’s international advertising (just announced); Glam.

* Innovation: We’re going to get nowhere if we don’t start inventing new products, networks, means of work, means of distribution, technologies, and business models for news. This is just not happening in the industry now, especially in the U.S. So how do we jumpstart it? I’ve been working on starting an incubator. At Davos, some innovators suggested to me that we should start an X prize contest to solve some of our problems, (e.g., an open-source ad network; geotagged news….). Do we need to start an investment fund across media companies? What should universities do?

* New revenue: There may not be any. It may all be advertising. And too often in this discussion, all hope is thrown into this bucket: There’ll be some new ad product or there’ll be some foundation that out of the goodness of its heart decides to feed a newsroom. Ask any foundation whether that’s likely. It’s not. But public support of journalism is one model: see NPR, Pro Publica, and the Center for Public Integrity. There may be new models for supporting high-quality journalism. (One idea I’ll write about soon is what I call reverse syndication: What if the LA Times pointed its traffic about Baghdad to the NY Times’ reporting and rather than the NYT charging the LAT, it pays for LAT for the traffic, which it monetizes to help support the bureau?) I’ve long thought that subscription models won’t work. Prove me wrong. Come up with other new models we should be testing.

How does that sound as the basis for discussion — and more than discussion: real plans?