Can journalism go with the flow?

All the many desperate attempts to propose means to save newspapers/journalism seem to me to be efforts to swim upstream, for force something to happen that doesn’t want to happen in the internet age. I prefer instead to look for models that allow journalism to go with the flow (pardon me: as Google does) — to find ways to take advantage of the economics of online rather than fighting them. Consider the cures we’re hearing about:

* Charging for content. G’bless ’em, if they can do it, great. But experience just tells us that it’s hard to charge for content, that charging brings other costs (subscriber acquisition marketing, customer service, churn), that it has other impact (draining Googlejuice and online branding and taking the content out of the conversation), that there is always another competitor who will offer content for free, and that once information is know, it becomes a commodity. See: TimesSelect. Charging is definitely a case of swimming upstream.

* Antitrust exemptions. It’s suggested that newspapers should get an antitrust exemption to collude and put all their content, en masse, behind a pay wall. But they don’t own the news anymore. There’s always somebody else – a TV station, a foreign outlet, and, yes, a blogger – who can compete. See: New Century Network. That life preserver is leaky.

* Micropayments. Bless them, too. But micropayments simply have not worked and it’s hard to imagine why they would now. And whether the charge is micro or macro, it’s still a charge that causes all the impact listed above. Glub, glub.

* Make Google pay. This one assumes that newspapers have a God-given right to the income they used to get from advertising and that Google (and craigslist and eBay and papers’ own customers with their own, free web sites, for that matter) stole it from the papers and thus are starving journalism. Show me where that commandment is written. Others competed with lazy, monopolistic newspapers, giving the marketplace a better service. Google and the rest owe them nothing. Indeed, newspapers should be paying Google for its distribution and promotion, as Google is the new newsstand and content gains value with links.

* Charity. Again, if someone wants to buy a paper and support it in the manner to which it has long been accustomed, bless them, too. But the sugar daddy defense clearly won’t scale; there aren’t enough good souls and financial fools to take on the business.

* Government bailouts. Perish the thought! But then again, newspapers have been on the government dole for decades, as official repositories of legal ads. On this week’s On the Media, Brooke Gladstone does a nice job tying the rationale for keeping these ads in a pretzel. There’s simply no reason for taxpayers to keep paying this subsidy to publishers when governments can put up legal notices on line, searchable, linkable, and for free.

* PR. The World Association of Newspapers and now a bunch of publishers keep whistling in the graveyard, fighting back against word of their demise by insisting that newspapers are OK, damnit. That and thousands of dollars will get you a bill from a flack.

The real need for the future of journalism is to find business models that exploit the reality of the web with larger audiences, greater efficiencies, working in networks with lower cost and risk. I put forward one such scenario here and this is why I’m starting the New Business Models for News Project at CUNY. The challenge is to find the means to sustain journalism on its own merit and weight in the market. Anything short of that is surrender. And we haven’t done enough to find those models to throw in the towel yet. First, let’s find and try the means and models that enable journalism to succeed by going with the flow. If that fails, then maybe we can resort to any of the hail Mary passes above.

  • You are right again, Jeff. Why do newspapers and their sites refuse to consider paying for journalism the old-fashioned way – with paid advertising?

    Here’s the way to monetize online. Google does it. They can, too:

  • I always go with the flo..

  • jon

    How about a distributed news room? you might never pay again for a news flash but for a thorough investigation you would. What is different is the infrastructure costs: you can distribute the investigation in a way that the journalist can re use a lot of open info and hence reduce the cost of his investigation…

  • Couldn’t agree more, Jeff.

    There will be a break-through model, or even models… and there are plenty of people/projects prepared to give it their all in being part of that discovery – ranging from small self-starters to established organizations.

    What we must also do is share our experiences and educate each other on what works/doesn’t work, learn from our mistakes and find value in that as well. These are uncertain times for all, but some of us are trying to feel a way forward, or as you might put it “going with the flow”…

  • Micropayments work, just not in the news business. Look at the success of Itunes and pay-per-view TV. Even the Iphone has micropayments for new applications. And, of course, the mobile phone market is all about micropayments (or prepayment for minutes).

    I think this brings up the real issue, why do people value “news” so little? I subscribe to a fair number of opinion magazines, only a couple of which ever do any original news gathering. They have been in business for a long time (even if they are struggling with increased mailing rates right now), so there is a market for stimulating writing.

    Perhaps “news” needs to be parsed into tranches just like mortgages. Newspapers bundled all of them into the same wrapper: news, sports, lifestyle, puzzles, etc. Maybe the omnibus approach is what is failing and people would be willing to pay for selective information.

    It would be interesting to see some experimentation along these lines.

    • Hi there,

      In response to your ‘value’ statement, my view on this is that people do value news. indeed, we are all part of ‘news’, and always have been – since the dawn of time. It’s just that technology has liberated the way in which people can share and participate in it.

      We are all news consumers and publishers on a scale unimaginable just a five years ago. It is the speed that has taken so many by surprise and the dust won’t settle for a while yet.

      Some may be prepared to pay for selective information, although I believe in these keeping it ‘locked’ may not only prove impossible, but also counter-productive and elitist. Stimulating writing shouldn’t just be for those who can afford it. It should be for all.

  • The problem with these solutions to the news business is that news never was a business. Advertising is the business, news was just a cheap way to acquire eyeballs. Before newspapers had a dominant position (sometimes a monopoly position) and therefore could price advertising accordingly. With outsized profits they could then spend on journalism.

    Now that advertising is moving from an oligopoly to near perfect competition the price for news is moving close to its marginal cost of production. As many people aspire to be journalists (witness the explosion of bloggers) that cost of production is very low.

    While new business models will emerge I don’t think news/advertising organizations will ever return to the same levels of profitability. And the number of full time journalists is in for a long term decline.

  • Jeff,

    It is very good to see you move toward a more open-minded position regarding the subscription model, albeit from outright rejectionism to substantial skepticism. Still, it’s progress!

    It may indeed be the case that newspapers will not be successful with a subscription model, since they typically do not produce the kinds of content that are most conducive to subscription success — content that is timely, frequently updated, highly specialized, unique, authoritative and actionable.

    However, in keeping with the premise of your post it may not be newspapers at all who succeed with these models but rather “journalism” which evolves beyond newspapers. And from that standpoint we have seen many examples of “journalism” that works under a subscription model.

    I don’t believe it’s a given that the costs of the subscription model are as significant as you state. A site that is highly relevant to its niche, created by a recognized brand or expert, will spread by word-of-mouth within its niche, keeping subscriber acquisition costs low. So-called “Googlejuice” is not an issue as subscription websites are fully searchable if built properly, and if sufficiently targeted are going to rise high in the rankings for the relevant terms.

    Far from being stifled on a subscription website, the conversation can often thrive as members feel high confidence sharing information with other members — the act of payment being a strong method of self-selection and validation. And the likelihood of competitors successfully offering free alternatives is diminished with niche sites where reputation and authority count — unless the competitor enjoys a similar reputation, they are not likely to make much headway.

    I think some of the costs you describe are more likely to be an issue where the content producer is lacking in uniqueness, authority, reputation or some of the other factors that can make a subscription website a success. In other words, these costs are more likely to affect newspapers and other purveyors of mass, commoditized information with little unique value.

    So if you are encouraging new models for news, don’t just think of new ways of making money but think of deconstructing newspapers entirely. At SubHub plenty of our clients are journalists, but few are newspapers. The deconstruction is already happening.

    Kind regards,
    Evan Rudowski

    • Don’t local newspapers meet all the subscription criteria?

      Timely and frequently updated: even small-market papers post stories throughout the day.

      Highly specialized and unique: in a one newspaper town, in-depth local news seems to fit the definition of unique and specialized

      Authoritative: no local news organzation can claim to be more authoritative than a local daily

      Actionable: kind of debatable, especially with slimmed-down business sections, but what about sports bettors and fantasy sports players? Or crossword players?

  • Thanks for highlighting Brooke Gladstone’s interview on legal advertising. Wow. Her questions were so good it made me uncomfortable listening to the interview. Poor guy.

  • Pingback: Read the Book, See the…Powerpoint - The Content Makers()

  • Andrew Clarke

    How is your form of journalism (writing books) different from newspapers? In other words why aren’t you offering your book for free?

    • I answer that in the book: I’m a hypocrite and took the advance; college coming up, you know. But i”m offering bits a day for 30 days and the entire book can be read for free at the HarperCollins site.

      • Stan Hogan

        Come on, Jeff. Give us a link to where we can read your book for free at HarperCollins. I went to the site and tried numerous searches and only came up with a link to, where I could buy the book.

        I want it free. Put it here, then pay Google and others to link to it. Show us how that model works. Lead the way.

      • I’m not sure that’s hypocritical. The effort to organize, distill, and present the volume of information in WWGD is substantially different than the average article/blog post/opinion piece. Whatever form it eventually takes (print-on-demand, subscription syndication, etc), it’s perceived value will be greater and command a premium. However, WWGD’s premium is no different than the “journalism-worth-paying for” that Keller describes at the Times (investigative, resource-based, etc). People will pay for value. We’re just shedding 80% of the form factor that previously surrounded that value—ergo the noise and din.

  • Pingback: links for 2009-02-10 « David Black()

  • Pingback: Paying for the news: A link-a-thon()

  • Pingback: » Blog Archive » Newspapers could actually try online()

  • Kurt — Brooke always asks good questions. I make sure to listen to “On the Media” as often as possible.

  • Pingback: Rettungsrezepte: Mit dem Strom schwimmen »

  • Pingback: Och nö, ne? Das Massensterben der Zeitungen steht an. Und alle Rettungsideen sind unbeholfen und/oder doof. « A C H T M I L L I A R D E N : C O M()

  • Pingback: Mikrobetalningar på tapeten, men fungerar de? « David Hylander()

  • My three pennies on his subject; journalism does not need to be saved, newspapers do,

  • My three pennies on this subject; journalism does not need to be saved, newspapers do,

  • Shirky misunderstands the definition of nickel and dime.

    It’s not that people mind paying nickels and dimes.

    It’s that they mind paying dollars and then being asked for nickels and dimes ON TOP OF IT. In fact, most people are quite happy to pay nickels and dimes for something good. What they don’t like is complicated payment systems.

    People will pay for content. They just won’t pay according to current payment models for news content. WI may very well have a very good point.

    And the proof that they’ll pay for content is the sales of Jeff’s book.

  • Pingback: Link-Tipps der letzten Zeit | Leander Wattig()

  • “Make Google Pay — This one assumes that newspapers have a God-given right to the income they used to get from advertising and that Google (and craigslist and eBay and papers’ own customers with their own, free web sites, for that matter) stole it from the papers and thus are starving journalism.”

    The last time I went to craigslist and eBay, they had no news. They’re welcome to publish free classifieds, as the Arkansas Dem-Gaz does (The last I saw, they’ve had no layoff)

    Shame on us for assuming that well-researched news stories that are vital to an informed public have intrinsic value. And newspapers are “lazy,” while others competed, giving the marketplace a better service. How? When a bunch of computer geeks build an better Internet mouse trap to repackage the work of real journalists while doing absolutely NO original reporting, that’s industrious competition??? And shame on us for thinking they should pay.
    Jarvis’ rejoinder, no doubt, is that his criticism is aimed at the business institutions behind newspapers and not the individual journalists. But journalists know we can’t ply our trade covering one beat on one blog. Some sort of organization is needed. In the past, newspapers have provided that organization. In a newspaperless future, some Internet organization will provide that organization. The consumer loves the elegant simplicity that clearinghouses provide. If Google is that clearinghouse, fine. But I doubt Google has much interest in paying me to cover my city council. How lazy and monopolistic is that?

  • Pingback: The Dissolving Media: Newspapers « T.J.’s Blog()

  • Pingback: Veckan som gick - vecka 7 at Same Same But Different()

  • Pingback: Micropayments lead to Piracy | byJoeyBaker()

  • Pingback: Finance Geek » What Would Jeff Jarvis Do?()

  • Pingback: Printed Matters » Paywall madness: Dec. 2008 - Feb. 2009()

  • Pingback: What would Jeff Jarvis do? | The Evolving Newsroom()

  • Pingback: Läsvärt - February 23, 2009 — Per-Åke Olsson()

  • Pingback: “Imagine, if you will” « ADAM SVANELL()

  • isabel

    im doing a project for my journalism class..
    i need to talk about where journalism will be in the future.
    my teacher wants us to talk about how it will change.. like from paper to online..etc..
    if anyone can help please email me?

  • Pingback: Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom « Woolly Days()

  • Pingback: ¿Puede el periodismo… | laOtra TPA()

  • Pingback: "Imagine, if you will" | Adam Svanell()

  • Pingback: 뉴스 유료화가 어려운 이유 | JEONGIK()

  • Pingback: 뉴스의 유료화가 어려운 이유 | JEONGIK()

  • Pingback: 뉴스의 유료화가 어려운 이유 | Jeongik()