Craig Stoltz does a masterful job summarizing the Farhi-Jarvis-Rosenbaum fest in six Twitter-sized bites. His 2 cents at the end: “Blame doesn’t matter. Journalists unwilling to think and work differently to save the profession should take the next buyout.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
I’m still shaking my head over the American Press Institute’s announcement of a closed-door, invitation-only emergency meeting of only CEO-level newspaper executives to, in the words of E&P “ponder ways to revive the newspaper business.”
This is the last thing the newspaper industry needs.
First, these are the very same proprietors of the newspaper industry’s decline. What they need is not the same old executives but new people with new ideas. That’s what I brought into my summit on new business models for news and I wish I’d had time to bring in 20 more innovators who are executing new ideas.
I also wish I had invited more people from other industries to bring other perspectives. At Davos last year, I ran a session at which technology executives – among them, VC Joe Schoendorf, LinkedIn’s Reed Hoffman, and Cisco chief John Chambers – scolded newspaper exeutives for giving up and not reinventing their industry. At my summit, a technology executive observed that the news people – as far as they’d come – were unwilling to “take the leap.” The industry needs to hear these worldviews: tough love.
Second, closed-door is exactly wrong. What they should be doing is asking for help, ideas, perspectives, models, worldviews, and suggestions from outside their industry.
Instead, they will be “a facilitated discussion of concrete steps the industry can take to reverse its declines in revenue, profit and shareholder value.”
If they haven’t figured out those steps by new, I’d say getting them into a room together isn’t going to do it.
The facilitator, James Shein of Northwestern’s management school, told E&P: “It’s important for companies to see how far along the ‘crisis curve’ they’ve traveled, and there are concrete steps organizations can take to halt and even reverse that journey. We’ll use those tools to illuminate for newspaper industry leaders the urgency of their situation, and lay out the steps they will need to take to begin the renewal process.”
If they don’t know by now how urgent it is, then I’d say they’ve failed the vision and IQ test. Any foodl could see that newspapers’ straits are dire.
The summit is only two days away, but if I were the API, I’d fly in people from Google and a bunch of successful tech companies as well as innovators and entrepreneurs in news and let them do all the talking.
After letting the work of the New Business Models for News Summit at CUNY sink in, I think we need to convene a working group from each of the discussions at the summit to move to the next step and build at least one concrete model.
When I stopped in the session about the reorganized newsroom, they pleaded for help as they continued to debate whether to cut what exists today or build from the ground up. It was my fault as I didn’t give them a specific task. I should have learned from the Economist’s Project Red Stripe and from a Davos session on innovation last year: Innovation springs from solving a problem — a specific problem, not the grand problem of the future of news and society.
So I proposed a problem to solve: What if a city, say Philadelphia, loses its paper tomorrow. What would you build in its place to serve the community? The group went to town. Rather than trying to hack at the old, they build something new.
They calculated the likely revenue Philadelphia could support online and then figured out what they could afford in staffing. Instead of the 200-300-person newsroom that has existed in print, they decided they could afford 35 and they broke that down to include a new job description: “community managers who do outreach, mediation, social media evangelism.” They settled on three of those plus 20 content creators, two programmers, three designers, five producers (I think they were a bit heavy on those two), and — get this — only three editors. (Which led to much discussion in the final plenary of the day, which I address in the post below.)
That was real progress. Usually in the newspaper industry, this discussion comes after the cutbacks occur as papers then try to figure out how to cope with what’s left. This group of edit and business and money people bravely built from the bottom up, relying on few assumptions about the past.
Next, if time had allowed, we would have taken the newsroom group next door to the network group, which was foundering a bit, trying to figure out how to apply networks such as Glam‘s to this challenge. They, too, didn’t have a specific problem to solve. But the newsroom group would have brought theirs: How could 35 journalists possibly serve Philadelphia as 200-300 had? I see one option: with the help of networks of independent agents working collaboratively. So let’s figure out how those networks would operate in terms of content, technology, revenue, education, branding, and so on.
Then we could go down the hall to the group working on new structures for news organizations: the disaggregated news company as presented earlier in the day by Edward Roussel of the Telegraph and Dave Morgan, ex of Tacoda. They also talked — as everyone did through the day — about the need for a drastically lower cost structure for news organizations (see Edward’s chart).
Next stop: The group working on public support to see what slice of journalism might be underwritten by the community or foundations. It wouldn’t be much but ProPublic, David Cohn’s Spot.us, and Charlie Sennott’s GlobalPost are trying to prove that the public can at least help.
Last and more important stop: revenue. Fred Wilson, leading the discussion, summed up its discovery in a tweet: “clickable will sell joe the pumber a text ad that $goog will route via outside.in geotag to the boston herald.” (Translation: Clickable sells Joe an ad on Google, which will appear on a local story on the Herald site thanks to Outside.in’s ability to understand the geography of articles and target appropriately. Moral to the story: No one is any longer going to own the market alone. Revenue, like reporting, will be collaborative.)
If you add up the work of the groups, you start to see a shape for new news. But there’s much more work to be done to make it concrete. If we take the work that the groups began and bring it to the next level with a clear problem to solve — e.g., replacing a metro newspaper — then I think we will begin to see new models, new ways to organize news companies, new ways to produce news, new revenue opportunities, and new relationships with the community take form. And this, in turn, could yield a methodology and attitude to create more new models.
Under the auspices of the New Business Models for News Project and Center for Journalistic Innovation at CUNY, I hope we can bring in MBA students to help create financial models. We would share these models and the discussion that builds them openly.
We at CUNY can imagine no more urgent work in news: creating the means to support it.
* A few days after the conference, David Carr in the New York Times piled on the lamentations about more layoffs and cutbacks in the news business. On the Media continued the dirge a few days after that. There’s no news here. The industry is shrinking. We already know that.
There’s news in reporting on people who are trying to do something about it and create new models and enterprises for news. Those are the folks we had at the conference.
* A star among them was our own David Cohn, co-organizer of the conference, as he presented Spot.US, his Knight-Challenge-funded startup to create an infrastructure for readers to support reporters doing stories. David’s elevator pitch was a model for all my entrepreneurial journalism students. His enthusiasm, inventiveness, and ability to see opportunities where others see gloom was a model to the executives in the room. What I loved best was watching executives and investors from very big companies stuffing David’s pocket with their business cards. Who says the news business is dying? If you know where to look, it’s being reborn.
Other new models and views of news included:
> Charlie Sennott presenting GlobalPost as a means to support 70 freelancer correspondents in 53 countries around the world submitting stories and also turning their journalism into a process with their audience;
> Upendra Shardanand of Daylife and Scott Karp of Publish2 [disclosure: I have a relationship with both companies] presenting their infrastructure for the link (vs. the content) economy of news;
> Michael Rosenblum showing how training citizens in video can become a source of both content and revenue;
> Mark Josephson of Outside.in on a structure of organizing local content;
> David Chase of NextNewsNet on a local ad network and Adam Bly of Science Blogs on a specialized ad and content network;
> Colin Crawford on the transformation of IDG from a print to a digital company;
> Adam Davidson of NPR talked about the creation of the Planet Money podcast there.
Late additions to the group included Debbie Galant, the monarch of the hyperlocal bloggers at Baristanet, who talked about running a business on the scale of the old independent bookstore, and Rachel Sterne, founder of citizen-journalism platform GroundReport.
* I was delighted that the amazing group we were lucky to bring together had moved past the old rivalries: business vs. edit, new media vs. old. I was also quite relieved to hear a universal sense of urgency about the need to find new means to sustain journalism. There isn’t a minute to waste.
As a result, we saw editorial and business people entering into frank conversations we don’t often hear, willing to reset assumptions and build new models. Included in that was a general acceptance that the cost structure of the news business is way too high and has to be cut. This slide from the Telegraph’s Edward Roussel resonated strongly in the room.
Roussel also said: “If you’re a newspaper group, your technology sucks.”
Just as Roussel was blunt and frank so was his fellow presenter on the topic of the disaggregated news organization, Dave Morgan, who quoted Gary Pruitt, CEO of McClatchy, from only the day before. Pruitt said: “We believe that the majority of the decline that we are currently seeing is cyclical and therefore temporary.” After heaping caveats of praise on Pruitt as an executive, Morgan called bullshit. Exactly so. We need tough, honest talk now.
* I was interested in seeing a conflict arise at the end of the day — one of the few, actually — on the relative value of content creators vs. editors. No one in the room would say that both aren’t valued and needed. But when push comes to shove with spare resources, there is a difference of opinion on what added value really means. Some put maximum resource into creating content: reporting. Some insist on the need for editors to create order, to correct and vet, to curate, as we say these days. The disagreement is only one of degree.
* I wish I’d had more people from other industries. When Tom Evslin got up to give his very good primer on network economics, he made a point of saying that he was not a journalist. After the conference, someone from an international technology company said he thought the people in the room were “not ready to make the leap” (perhaps so, but he should have heard similar folks a year ago; the change is striking). At Davos last January, I ran a session between news executives and tech executives in which the latter excoriated the former for throwing in the towel and convinced them that there was fight left in the news industry. The news business is, ironically, insular and it needs to hear that perspective. I also should have had more voices from women, bloggers, and our international participants. We could have filled two days with good discussion but decided, two weeks before an election, that wouldn’t have worked.
* Eric Stein of Google gave us some stats that show where the potential is. He said there are 23 million small businesses in America, six million of them with one or more employees. That is the new population of advertisers who never could afford newspapers. Though as I learned when I visited Gannett’s lab a few days after the conference, those businesses don’t necessarily operate with the same needs and assumptions as present newspaper advertisers and it would be a mistake to try to impose those practices. Stein also said that newspapers reach only 20 percent of advertisers in a market. In that other 80 percent lies much of the hope for the future of local news.
* I didn’t write down who said it but I wrote down this thought: We may want to reframe journalism not as an information business but as community-building.
* At the end of it all, we asked the participants to charge CUNY with next steps as we work to build the Center for Journalistic Innovation and raise money under a matching grant from the Tow Foundation. Among those tasks:
> Develop a baseline business model to provide a community with journalism. (See the post above; I agree that that is job 1.)
> Share best practices and lessons, including mistakes, from various countries. (That will be the main job of the New Business Models for News project in the center; we have the remainder of the MacArthur Foundation grant that funded this meeting to start that work and we just received a grant from the McCormick Foundation to continue it but we need to raise more.)
> Develop new models in detail to share with the industry. (This, too, will be the work of the New Business Models for News project.)
> Develop quantitative research on community needs. (I just spoke with the Knight Commission and found that they are working on that.)
> Collaborate with our business school to better equip journalists with business knowledge. (That’s my hidden agenda for teaching entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY. We’re looking at doing more.)
> Discuss curation in a journalistic context. (I just spoke with a museum curator about creating a symposium to do that.)
> Work on an infrastructure for news organizations to share and monetize original content. (Work on that began that very evening with another group meeting).
* We had an incredible group of people at CUNY, which is a testament to their sense of urgency to work on the business of journalism. I want to thank them all and also thank the MacArthur Foundation for making this meeting possible and the McCormick Foundation for enabling us to continue this work.
At the Star-Ledger’s new LedgerLive daily news show from the newsroom (unofficial motto: It’s not TV, damnit), we are watching a big, old paper fight for its survival as it announced buyouts and a possible sale. And the grand irony is that we’re watching this even as the paper reinvents itself in a new medium: online video. The new show and the momentous news about the newspaper came in the same week.
I was in the newsroom on Friday to watch LedgerLive being broadcast and I heard the staff talking about the paper’s and their future, of course. Some of these folks are going to be, well, independent in the fall if they elect to take the buyout and it comes off as announced.
But what struck me listening to them is that they are not prepared for that independent life. I was looking at this from the perspective of being both a former newspaperman who did find a new life in the academe and elsewhere and from the perspective of now being a journalism educator. It is vital that we prepare journalists for this new and independent life or we will lose their journalism. Preparation, to me, means both training – it’s a great thing that Ledger print people are making video in the Rosenblum Method – and setting up an infrastructure to help them create sustainable journalistic enterprises if at all possible. The first factor is why I’m trying to establish a continuing education program for professionals at CUNY. The second is why I’m holding a summit for new business models for news there. That’s my perspective.
I thought the journalists there would benefit from hearing from someone who found life after print and so I suggested to the Ledger’s digiczar, John Hassell, that they get hyperlocal postergirl Debbie Galant to make a video for an upcoming episode of LedgerLive. It didn’t turn out exactly as I’d predicted but it did turn out the start of an entertaining discussion that captures the life-and-death questions journalists across the country are facing now.
Debbie’s message aired on Tuesday from her (very nice) garden in metaphorical PJs:
Baristanet weighs in on The Star-Ledger
On today‘s LedgerLive, reporter Carol Ann Campbell responded in her PJs:
A clip from Ledger Live 08-06-08
Unfortunately, this reprises an us-v-them, pro-v-am rivalry. Fine. Let’s get that out of our system.
And then I’ll challenge Deb to come back and now share her secrets with her still-ink-stained peers: How do you find life after print, Deb? What would you advise a print journalist in the post-print era to do? And I’ll challenge Carol to imagine a new world where she might operate independently. It’s hard but it may be very necessary.