The Future of News
Hey, check out the new look of Third Coast Digest! What do you think? Pretty cool, huh!
Which is a great way to introduce today’s topic; the impending demise of newspapers and all that is good about journalism.
We’ve all heard about the decline of newspapers as more and more people go to the internet for news but study after study suggests that people feel very strongly about the value of news.
The challenge facing journalism isn’t one of relevance but revenue. Once people get used to not paying for something, it’s hard to pry the cost of a subscription out of their penny-pinching paws.
Radio and television were each a threat to print news when they emerged as new technologies in the 20th century. Newspapers remained a viable product as long as advertisers were willing to shell out serious bucks to reach the eyeballs of potential customers.
And readers continued to purchase newspapers so they could read about their favorite teams or struggle with the crossword at their leisure.
But that was then and this is now. Newspapers and other traditional media businesses have been hit by a double whammy of epic proportions.
First of all, there’s the matter of the internet revolution which has dramatically transformed the way people expect to get information. Until recently, publishing a newspaper was an outrageously profitable enterprise.
Not only did people take it for granted that they had to pay two bits or so to get the information they wanted but every business that had a product to sell needed to buy ads to reach their potential consumers.
A mere eight years ago or so, the profit margins at the Tribune Company, Gannett, The Washington Post and other media giants of journalism were well into the double digits which was reason for envy by just about every industry. Most retail businesses, for example, scrape by with much lower margins.
But now more and more people expect to get their news, sports, comics and just about everything provided by newspapers online and free and there aren’t very many business models that make a profit by giving something away.
When you add the catastrophic financial downturn to these challenges, you have an industry in crisis.
I remain extremely optimistic about the future of journalism. The corporate geniuses who grew complacent raking in huge profits without much thought or effort now have to figure out a new paradigm.
There are a number of interesting models being tested. One is the micropayment option by which people agree to pay a minor fee each time they read a story. Another is the non-profit model by which foundations or some kind of endowed funding mechanism is set up to support the public interest work of journalists.
Some also hope to see government play a role in saving journalism but I take a dim view of this given the huge importance of independence to newsgathering.
Interestingly, one model that seems to make a lot of sense is the one developed by public broadcasting. Supported in part by grants and corporate underwriting as well as by memberships and individual donations, PBS and NPR are both doing great journalism and have grown into fundraising behemoths.
For certain, journalism is an industry in transition, like many others including automobiles and energy, and we really have no idea where this is all heading.
But one thing seems indisputable. Successful organizations are going to be the ones that recognize the value of inviting readers and viewers to interact with them in a substantive and meaningful way.
Most people are familiar with the pros and cons of Wikipedia. At first, I was extremely skeptical of relying on the contributions of every Joe, Dick and Harry, yet this has grown into a fairly reliable source of information.
In the case of journalism, there will always be a role for an editor, someone who reviews the information and ensures certain standards of quality and sourcing. But the insistence that the traditional practices of newspapers are the only legitimate way to collect and distribute news is bogus and doomed to failure.
It is illuminating as well as entertaining to listen to some of the wizened veterans of old school newspapering who dismiss bloggers and other new media types as untalented upstarts who threaten to dismantle all that is good about the fourth estate.
Check out this discussion between the Reader’s Representative at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the online editor. The Readers’ Representative got into some hot water by dismissing bloggers and their ilk as no-nothing “pipsqueaks.”
The bottom line, as news organizations have always known, is that you have to give people what they want while maintaining the integrity of journalistic standards. Think of it as P.T. Barnum meets Edward R. Murrow.
Stay tuned because it’s going to be interesting to see how this all shakes out.