What crisis?

At the Aspen Institute FOCAS event, where we presented our CUNY New Business Models for News, there came to be an unspoken debate – that is, an idea thrown out but never really engaged – about whether there is a crisis in news and journalism.

I now say that there isn’t a crisis. That’s not what I used to say. Indeed, one of my mistakes in this debate has been accepting the assumption that there was one and allowing the debate to start there: “How are you going to save journalism from the scourge of your damned internet?”

Instead, the discussion should start here: “Look at all the new opportunities there are to gather and share news in new ways, to expand and improve it, to change journalism’s relationship with its public and make it collaborative, to find new efficiencies and lower costs and thus to return to profitability and sustainability.”

One’s view on the question determines one’s response and its level of desperation or optimism.

To generalize unfairly, those who say there is a crisis – most often, those whose legacy institutions are fading – are often known to react by:
* Looking for others to blame for the purported problem – Google, bloggers, aggregators, craigslist, et al (which is to say, not taking responsibility for their own role in it);
* Trying to preserve their past (expecting newsrooms to be supported, unchanged, by some manna from the market – paid content being only the latest prayer);
* Seeking protection from government (antitrust exemptions) or the law (copyright extensions);
* Demanding tribute (saying they are entitled to get paid because what they do is worth so much);
* Giving up (talking about abandoning growth by building walls or shifting to not-for-profit and begging for charitable support).

Those who say there is not a crisis (for- and not-for-profit entrepreneurs, inventors, and investors) instead tend to:
* Look to innovation (collaboration, algorithms, data, streams) to create new ways to make news;
* Look to entrepreneurship to sustain journalism (in blogs and networks);
* Be open to new ways to define journalism;
* Irritate the legacy people by not seeing the crisis they see.

So if we’re looking for an original sin in this saga, I’ll confess that mine has been viewing news from the perspective of the old controllers rather than from that of the community (the people formerly known as the audience), the inventors, and the entrepreneurs. At Aspen, it was Sue Gardner, head of the Wikimedia Foundation, who made me see this as she talked about the wonders that have been done with news on Wikipedia, which no one could have predicted. Being open to such new possibilities is key to building news’ new future.

There are so many reasons to be optimistic about the future of news:
* The audience for news is only growing online.
* The audience isn’t an audience anymore. News is becoming more and more collaborative as witnesses share what they see and communities join together to create news.
* Those who make news are more accountable to their publics.
* News is opening up to more diverse voices and perspectives.
* News is becoming far more specialized and targeted, which is to say that it can give deeper service to more communities.
* New technology – and freedom from the limits of the old means of production and distribution – allow the reinvention of the form of news, organized around streams, topics, ideas, and concepts still being imagined.
* News is more efficient thanks to the link – do what you do best and link to the rest – and specialization. That is what makes it more sustainable.

Some – but not nearly enough – of this optimism is inherent in the future we imagined in the New Business Models for News Project. We used the financial lingua franca and assumptions of the present world – CPM advertising, page views per user, even the concept of a page and a site – because that made it easier to describe what can follow and made our vision of sustainable news more credible. We were criticized for being too optimistic about audience penetration and ad rates.

But I think we were not nearly optimistic enough. We have to leap past the idea that news is a collection of pages worth 12 views per user per month (or, quoting Martin Langeveld, 0.5% of time spent online). News shouldn’t be a site we force people to come to but, as Google’s Marissa Mayer said at Aspen, we have to find ways to insinuate news and its value into anyone’s – her words – hyperpersonal news stream. We shouldn’t create sites but instead create platforms that enable communities to share what they know and need to know, with journalists contributing value – reporting, editing, aggregation, curation – to their ecosystem. We should build and assume much greater engagement and define engagement not as consumption but as creation. We must value that creation (and not consider it merely a reaction to what we do). We should forecast much greater relevance and thus value for both the market and the marketer.

We should set the bar way higher. And that is the real problem with letting the discussion start with the pessimism, depression, and desperation of the perceived crisis among the past’s players, who aren’t inventing the future. It limits the possibilities.

  • The only crisis we have is how to use the bounty of technology to your business.

    Newspapers are communication companies, if they can’t figure out how to use the greatest communication device we’ve ever had (the internet) they ought to be euthanized.

    • Though I understand your frustrating with newspapers, I think it is a bit naive to make such harsh statements. You have to understand that the business model that is now failing has existed for a very long time. Us “young bucks” often forget the history of where the industry is coming from, which we have to take into account before saying they should just roll over and die. Plus, it is discounting the innovation and achievements that are happening at many newspaper today on the Web.

      • I get and am interested in the history. I’ve read an embarrassing amount of ‘The Trust’.

        The problem is that they, we can focus on the NYT, are looking at the wrong part of their history. They are obsessing over their protocol (creating articles) and not their overall mission (absorbing and disseminating news).

        In that, they’ve failed magnificently to see what is interesting about the Internet. I’m not frustrated, it’s just sad to see something once great dip into irrelevance.

  • *for

  • Jeff, I like this new way of looking at the issue. I agree with you that the opportunity is huge, the new technologies open up amazing new ways of getting the news out, as well as for readers to get informed and engage with others.

    The reality, IMHO, though, is that many of the old existing corporate news organizations will not be able to embrace the changes fast enough and they will fail, and I think they know this. As the cherished simple model that kept their businesses booming for decades continues to morph into something completely different, only a few of these news organizations will be able to change fast enough to come out flourishing on the other end. I suspect that instead, what will happen is many will go out of business or go bankrupt first, and fail to come out as anything sustainable on the other end.

    No big deal. There will be all kinds of new businesses who are nimble, small, slightly out of control, a lot less institutional than before, but nonetheless taking a leadership position in their local communities as the trusted place to get the news as well as for citizens to contribute the news.

  • We’re digging up news that local TV stations and newspapers can’t/won’t report on every day. We will have a nice little scoop later today on Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and his mode of travel.

    While I’ve never taken a journalism course in college, I am reading everything I can on newspaper and broadcast history.

  • Hooray, Jeff. Glad you have come around to this point of view.

    I stepped over the dying carcass of the newspaper industry myself back in 1995 when I left Newsday’s new media group and went on to other online pastures. I do not claim any unique insight, but from a purely self-interested standpoint I knew my career opportunities online would be much greater somewhere other than a newspaper. I admire all the people who stuck with newspapers longer than I did and tried to make new media work for the industry, but I’m glad I didn’t.

    Newspapers like to present themselves as the guardians of journalism, when in fact they have been more like plantations at which crops of journalistic talent could grow and be harvested. Back in the day when that talent had no other outlet, journalists gladly sought to work on the plantation and some thrived in that environment. Some plantations were wonderful, of course, and some were bleak.

    Now that the new media have made so many new outlets available for journalistic talent, the plantation system has broken down. This is a disaster for plantation owners who try desperately to find ways to restore their former stature and income. Like dying whales, their cries drown out all other sounds, and thus we end up with meaningless debates about things such as whether generic news content should end up behind pay walls.

    However, now that you have recast your thinking to focus on inventing the future rather than preserving the past, can you appreciate that there is a role to play for paid content as part of a mix of ways that new journalistic enterprises can make money? Or will you remain adamantly, implacably against it?

    As I’ve often said (probably to your tremendous irritation), given your influence it would be great to see you taking a more nuanced position and allowing for the possibility that for some types of content and for some types of journalism the paid model can indeed work well.

    These absolute, intransigent positions — “all of our content must be behind a pay wall,” or “Googlejuice always beats paid content” — are best left to the dinosaurs and not to the people who are trying in all ways to invent the future.

    Kind regards,
    Evan Rudowski

  • cliff barney

    the other day whirlpool announced it would close an illinois plant and move the plant’s refrigerator manufacturing to mexico, at a cost of a thousand jobs locally. in one sense, just another smart manufacturer taking advantage of the global marketplace. it’s also a social event affecting the laid-off workers and their families. i don’t see how people can discuss the current upheavals in journalism without taking these factors into account.

    in addition, the whole idea of a personalized news service begs the question of the impact of losing our once-common apprehension of what is going on in the world. it is a tremendous upheaval, which is reduced, in columns like this one, to a simple question of how some people know how to exploit a new technology and others, mired in the old, do not.

    • Cliff,

      I don’t think we are talking about personalized news services, although personalization is one capability available in the new media.

      The new media still provide a “common apprehension” of what is going on in the world. If anything it’s more immediate and instantaneous. When we can look on Twitter or Facebook and see the conversational trends, we are seeing the common apprehension at that moment — faster than any newspaper or traditional news organization could ever provide it.

      We no longer need big media to disseminate the common apprehension (or at times to influence and manipulate it). We can tell ourselves using new media in real time. It’s a fallacy to suggest new media inevitably lead to fragmentation. In reality they reveal the consensus more quickly than ever before.

      Kind regards,
      Evan Rudowski

    • Cliff barney wrote: “the impact of losing our once-common apprehension of what is going on in the world.”

      The “common narrative” is gone. We must learn to accept that and learn how to live in a world without a common narrative. In time, people will recognize this as *the greatest* effect of the new technology on the news and on society.
      Where once we “agreed on the facts but disputed their interpretation”, in a world where some folk watch Fox and others watch MSNBC, we will never again agree on the facts. This will make discourse terribly difficult. However, we must recognize that this is the inevitable result of lowering the cost of publishing and of democratizing the news production process. While once newspapers sought to broaden their readership by making their content palatable to a large percentage of those in a single geography, today, news organizations grow their market by specializing and having a “voice” that appeals to one or another community of interest. The old technologies encouraged a common dialog, the new technologies encourage a diversity of world views.

      News monopoly had the good effect of providing us with a common set of facts (censured and filtered as they were). News democratization brings us new benefits but at the cost of old ones.

      bob wyman

      • The other point, that I haven’t seen anyone on here make yet, is that no matter what you want to believe about a “common narrative,” people have almost always warped the news to fit whatever word view they already had (“X paper is a left wing/right wing rag,” etc.). Social media and the Internet only expose that more and allow people to get what they always wanted via personalized news sources.

        To think that anyone ever picked up a newspaper to read about an issue that catered to them and ended up serendipitously catching something else that changed their world view is, in my view, a pipe dream. Besides, look at the average comment thread on any blog—there’s more disagreement there than in any “letters to the editor” or opinion section I’ve ever seen. Plenty diverse views are making their way onto niche sites.

      • Andy Freeman

        > Where once we “agreed on the facts but disputed their interpretation”, in a world where some folk watch Fox and others watch MSNBC, we will never again agree on the facts.

        Let me suggest that “we” never agreed.

        What has changed is that the disagreement is easier to see.

        FWIW, this “we used to all agree” stuff is part of why journalists are in such low repute. “we” didn’t agree – you had a stranglehold. When you call that the good old days, folks who were strangled then will take offense.

        If you’d like, it’s similar to telling African Americans how great cotton plantations were.

  • Monica Williams

    This kind of change has to happen one journalist/editor at a time. I’ve held positions at publishers where it was my job to figure out ways to take our content online. The content creators – the journalists and writers of a certain mindset – were the biggest challenge. They thought we were “chasing a trend,” that blogs “weren’t real writing” and – the most important – they would never write for the Web (stomp, pout).

    I agree that being open to new news possibilities is key; how do we make the sale to old-school journalists? How do we convince them that we’re not saying they’re irrelevant but rather that we need them now more than ever… just in a different way?

    (Appealing to their egos might be the way. I once took a story originally created for one of our print magazines and posted it to our site, changing the head and deck, rewriting the lead a bit and trying to add some other SEO changes. I didn’t tell the author. But later, when I showed him how popular that page was and how many comments it had received, he sent me more copy to post to the site. Still, we can’t sneak in everyone this way.)

    • cliff barney

      i think the change is going to happen thousands at a time – among the thousands of journalists who have been laid off in the past couple of years, and the thousands more coming out of j-schools.

      however one way to win over the technical laggards would be to quit calling what they produce “content.” you have no idea what it is like to have something one has worked hard on abstracted as “content.”

    • Andy Freeman

      > you have no idea what it is like to have something one has worked hard on abstracted as “content.”

      What is an acceptable abstract/generic name? Yes, we need a non-specific name.

      We call our stuff “code”.

  • @jrome

    I completely agree with you about platforms. The world is moving quickly from that of destination websites to personal information streams. The sooner we get there the sooner news will evovle.

  • Inspiring post, Jeff.

    I think you mean Sue Gardner of Wikimedia, yes?

  • Ram

    I don’t see the crisis as a “newspapers vs the internet” issue
    I like and read printed newspapers and I also like and read a lot of news (and publish news) on the internet

    I think that user-generated content (e.g. Twitter posts in Iran) serves a very important role. However, most blogs focus primarily on opinions (not news) and many other sources just serve as news aggregators.

    So I think we could face a crisis if more newspapers die.
    For the most part, it is the traditional reporter who does tough investigative journalism.
    Generally, it is the old-fashioned reporter who investigates corruption in Washington, who covers the war in Iraq, who risks his/her life in Afghanisthan, who investigates child abuse in Rwanda etc.

  • Is there any website where I can watch the Aspen Talks online?

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  • Pat

    Love your optimism, Jeff, but I suppose the condition is relative to where you sit… For example, if you’re a newspaper trying to escape your fixed legacy costs & you’ve experienced a 40% drop in revenue over the past 24 months, it may begin to feel like a crisis. What do you think?

    • Laid Off Too

      Pat, as you may have guessed by my alias, I’ve been there, but in a different industry. What helped me through it was realizing there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Either the newspaper is going to fold, or a new strategy will make it solvent. And if the light turns out to be a freight train, it will arrive quickly and be over with soon.
      I can honestly say being laid off was the best thing to happen to me career wise and personally. I’m much happier in a new environment.
      If you are part of a newspaper, and you want to remain in media of some kind, I suggest you look for the opportunities as per Mr Jarvis’ post. While it will be painful getting there, it will be worth it.

      • Pat

        Thanks for sharing your experience, Laid Off Too. I don’t work for a newspaper, but I am taking Jeff’s advice while building my hyperlocal website http://www.WikiCity.com which serves 22K+ communities across the U.S.

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  • Great piece Jeff – I wish we had you up here so your could tackle some of the conservative minds who believe that the decline of traditional media will destroy social cohesion and end democracy. Sigh.

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