Tag Archives: business models

From The Archives: Can This Profession Be Saved?

Photo courtesy SXC.

Today’s post originally ran in November 2009, but is still just as relevant to the ongoing conversation about the re-invention of American journalism in 2012! Enjoy! – Liz

Can This Profession Be Saved?

I’ve finally read the synopsis of Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson’s report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism, ” in the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as a number of reactions to it. I appreciate that CJR let the authors publish such a rich (30-page!) summary of their 100-page report.

Downie, a former executive editor for the Washington Post and currently a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, and Schudson, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, provide their take on what has led up to the current sad state of affairs at American newspapers, and to a lesser degree, at television and radio stations. They discuss the approaches of a number of new media operations (and are generous with links to the projects in question) and suggest several possible new business/nonprofit support models for the industry.

Whether you end up thinking the authors are offering sage advice to journalists, or are off in left field, you really should read the CJR synopsis or the report. It’s important that those of us working in the media have a say in what happens to our profession in the future, and the only way to do that is to be aware of where we’re at now and what people are doing NOW to adapt to the challenges and opportunities the Internet Era has brought us.

On the plus side

The report largely accepts that Web 2.0 and the other cultural factors that have disrupted American journalism are here to stay and cannot be magically “rolled back” by industry collusion (think simultaneous content firewalls on all major newspaper sites) or government mandate. I know this sounds mean, but this is a good sign!  I have been concerned about the number of journalists—including professors and veteran editors and writers—talking as if the Internet is something that must be, or even can be, “stopped.”

Downie and Schudson present a variety of options for fixing the current situation from across the business spectrum. They discuss multiple variations on publicly funded media, as well as foundation-endowed news projects and hybrid corporate/nonprofit news operations. By doing this, they are acknowledging that one model will not fit all in the future, and that journalists need to consider the context of their news operation or project when devising a funding plan.

The authors rightly identify local news coverage as one of the biggest casualties of the shifts in journalism over the past two decades, and do propose several ideas for reviving it. While local involvement and participation seems to generally be associated with our “bowling alone” culture, there are plenty of people who do care about it, and who now have fewer mainstream media resources for tapping into news about the community they live in.

On the minus side

I immediately noticed that there is almost NO discussion of the fate of the magazine industry, perhaps because that’s what my degree is in (magazine journalism) and because I have worked for nearly all my career as a journalist for magazines—either as a freelancer or a staff writer/editor. I believe that magazines had to face the decline of the so-called “mass media” far earlier than newspapers, after the death of “general interest” magazines such as Look, Collier’s and LIFE in the 1960s and 1970s.

By the time I was taking j-school classes in the 1980s, we were told that starting a magazine was much like starting a restaurant—if you know what you’re doing (business-wise) and can self-fund for part of the first five years in business, you have a good chance of making it. Notice that in that description there is no mention of whether the content (or the food) was any good, if competitors were using unfair tactics, or whether customers were reading (or going out for sit-down dinners) less and less. The focus was on establishing a niche and a business model first and foremost. Paying attention to the market, as well as knowing your craft well enough to produce a quality product, were also assumed parts of that model.

On a related note, Downie and Schuder make huge assumptions about the audience for news content and how they will, or should, behave. To be fair, this is something I’ve noticed over and over again when I read essays of this nature written by newspaper-based journalists. The report doesn’t focus much at all on what readers/viewers/listeners are telling journalists about how they’d like to receive their news, or what sorts of news they’d consider worthy of paying for online.

The authors even go so far as to proclaim that “American society must take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment,” and wonder out loud in another section whether journalism is a “significant public good whose diminution requires urgent attention.” These are important issues, but this mindset, coupled with a lack of curiosity or genuine connection to one’s audience, comes across as preachy and pedantic—not the sort of vibe one wants to project to attract supporters to an important cause!

Finally, the report points out one of the largest challenges in journalism’s current crisis—we can’t seem to decide if we’re a profession best suited to entrepreneurial or philanthropic support. I like the fact that the authors include both for-profit and nonprofit approaches to new media, but the way in which they are presented serves to highlight the lack of business sense many of us in the field seem to exhibit. What is it that newspapers do? They’re businesses. Wait, no, maybe we should run them as nonprofits? Wait, maybe we can sell ads and get foundation grants, too?

Late in the CJR synopsis, Downie and Schuder use the term “independent news reporting” fairly specifically, and that’s really what they are concerned about, not so much journalism as an industry or business sector. As they note, “it may not be essential to save any particular news medium … What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is popular or profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.” (Emphasis in that passage is mine.)

It bothers me that so many of their suggestions rely on government intervention, although I share their opinion that stronger support for radio and televisions stations receiving money through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be a good thing. I am a huge fan of public media; however, I also believe that journalistic enterprises can be successful as for-profit businesses. It remains to be seen how that will happen in the future—my feeling is that the “large public” that the authors seek to have journalism’s best work presented to may have already been replaced by a series of balkanized niches, each one hungry for content, but only within a narrow spectrum of interest.

Please use the comment section below to chime in about your reaction to the report, or the state of American journalism in general.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Recommended Reading: Mediactive, by Dan Gillmor

Image courtesy of  Mediactive.com.

I was lucky enough to grab an e-copy of Dan Gillmor’s book, Mediactive, on Amazon while it was 99 cents. Although the price has since gone back up to $5.99, the book is well worth it. It’s a great read for anyone who cares about the present and future state of journalism as it’s practiced in America, and works equally well for journalists and other nonfiction writers and those who simply wish to know about the world around them via the media.

Gillmor is the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship and the Kauffman Professor of Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. (And in interest of full disclosure, I’ve interacted with Dan in my day job at ASU, via a podcast on writing today and asking him to judge a writing contest for the magazine I edit.) Before coming to ASU, Gillmor wrote the book We the Media and was a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News from 1994 to 2005.

The main thing that makes the book so good is Gillmor’s ability to parse both the current state of American media and what skills citizens need to cope with the implosion of traditional journalism’s business models. As a consummate participant-observer in the new media landscape (and a veteran of the old-school newspaper industry), he’s well equipped to critique what went wrong with journalism over the past 20 years, why it hasn’t adapted well to the rise of the Internet and digital culture in general, and what exciting experiments are going on along the fringes that are poised to move to the mainstream soon.

Here’s what he says about the promise and the challenge of the media landscape in the early 21st century:

Welcome to 21st century media. Welcome to the era of radically democratized and decentralized creation and distribution, where almost anyone can publish and find almost anything that others have published.

Welcome to the age of information abundance. And welcome to the age of information confusion: For many of us, that abundance feels more like a deluge, drowning us in a torrent of data, much of whose trustworthiness we can’t easily judge. You’re hardly alone if you don’t know what you can trust anymore.

But we aren’t helpless, either. In fact, we’ve never had more ways to sort out the good from the bad: A variety of tools and techniques are emerging from the same collision of technology and media that has created the confusion. And don’t forget the most important tools of all—your brain and curiosity.

Mediactive is useful to both professional journalists and those who care about what happens in our society because he discusses skills needed by both media producers and their so-called consumers. He focuses especially intently on work being produced by those who are not traditional journalists, but who create media that gets into our virtual news feed, including bloggers or YouTube’s amateur broadcasters. While he often notes the shortcomings of such work, he generously praises citizen-journalists and nonprofit organizations for engaging in what he calls “almost journalism,” producing fact-filled background reports that shed light on stories the mainstream media misses.

I’ve read a number of articles and books discussing the state of journalism today, and I have to say that Gillmor surveys the media landscape far more clearly and less defensively than most of his peers. I particularly like his explanations of nuanced concepts. For example, he makes a persuasive case that media outlets should drop the charade of presenting themselves as bias- or viewpoint-free, and suggests reasonable alternatives. Here’s a sample of what he has to say on the issue:

Professional journalists claim independence. They are typically forbidden to have direct or indirect financial conflicts of interest. But conflicts of interest are not always so easy to define. Many prominent Washington journalists, for example, are so blatantly beholden to their sources, and to access to those sources, that they are not independent in any real way, and their journalism reflects it.

Mediactive is potentially useful to a wide variety of people who care about journalism and other forms of nonfiction writing – reporters and editors, new media creators such as bloggers and podcasters, and ordinary people who care about what they read in the news and want to ensure they are truly well-informed. Gillmor walks newbie media creators through the essential tenets of trustworthiness (and provides an excellent refresher for the rest of us) without becoming pedantic or stodgy.  The book, like the thinking behind it, is fresh, and Gillmor has used his http://mediactive.com site to make the book a living document, adding examples and continuing the conversation on these topics in his blog.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for September 9, 2012

Photo courtesy of SXC.

How I Write About Science | Wellcome Trust Blog

An interesting blog series that ran earlier this year on the blog for the Wellcome Trust, which funds health research, in which talented science writers (mostly from the United Kingdom) discuss how they report on complex scientific research topics.

When Should You Write Your Memoir? | Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner reflects on her reading of Cheryl Strayed’s recently released memoir “Wild.” She notes that Strayed experienced most of what’s in her book in the 1990s, but did not finish the memoir until years later. Gardner asserts that perspective is important to writing a good autobiographical account:

In order for your story to resonate with deeper truth, you should have enough distance from it that you’ve gained perspective. When you’re still too close to it, you won’t be able to write it well.

Rex Sorgatz: What the New York Times Should Do Next – Membership

Sorgatz, a digital media consultant, provides a detailed proposal for how the Times can survive the post-print, post-advertising business model. Using the NYT’s existing assets, he points out how they could be tweaked to form part of a compelling membership-oriented business.

Here’s what he has to say about how the newspaper could exploit their events division as part of a membership-driven model:

Access to Times events. As part of your membership, you get access to upcoming events with Paul Krugman, Yoko Ono, and Nathan Myhrvold. Did you see that David Carr did a live interview with Robert Pattinson and David Cronenberg the other day? Did you know they do these events all the time? Why isn’t this franchise — TimesTalks — as big as TED? NYT has the clout, the curatorial insight, and an awesome physical location, but TimesTalks is treated like a fringe product that isn’t even respected enough to get on the nytimes.com domain. Awareness isn’t even the primary problem — product integration is. It’s so obvious that these events should be bundled with digital memberships to propel overall growth.

Coders Can’t Put Writers Out of a Job Yet, But We’d Better Watch Our Backs | TechCrunch

Klint Finley reports on the wild, weird world of companies trying to develop applications that can find high-interest, low-coverage topics for editors to assign to writers, how “bots” are taking over some basic research duties from cub reporters, and the rise of Narrative Science, a business that is already having computers generate newspaper reports on Little League games and corporate earnings statements. If you didn’t think nonfiction writing could get outsourced to a robot, think again! And read this piece.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,