The recession has supercharged the debate on the future of journalism. It’s not a new debate by any means. I recently came across this visionary four-year old post by Jeff Jarvis based around a comment from Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger at the time. When the company bought brand new newspaper presses in 2005, he noted that “they may be the last presses we ever own.” Jarvis’s post was a harbinger of where we are now… print is diminishing and news organisations are coming ever closer to the day when paper distribution might have to be jettisoned.
I found the post via a précis of a recent panel at the Guardian discussing journalism’s challenges in the 21st Century, in which there were obvious echoes of Jarvis’s predictions, amplified by four years of one-way movement in the industry. When Emily Bell, the Guardian’s director of digital content, was asked whether it mattered if there was no paper version of the Guardian in the future, she said no. When influential blogger Sarah Lacy was asked about print newspapers, she replied bluntly…
“Shut ’em down now. They’ve been dragging it out this long. They need to force figuring out the next model instead of dwindling and slowly dying.”
This panel, and indeed Jarvis’s post four years ago, highlight two important things. The first is the notion of delivery. The internet and social media have dramatically changed the landscape in which news is consumed and distributed, a process that has slowly but irreversibly eroded the old, monolithic delivery method: paper. An un-arguable truism.
But this doesn’t mean journalism is bound for the dustbin of history, it means that the old delivery method is. The real question is about finding “new wrappers” to replace the old ones. And the new wrappers should be whatever they need to be… according to what is being wrapped, and how the people want it to be wrapped. If there are still people who want news in paper form; give it to them in paper form. If the content is more suitable to blog form; give it to them in blog wrapping. If they want to be part of it, and interact with it, and help make, analyse and perpetuate it, and the news organisation wants this too…give them the full social media blitzkrieg. Eventually the former will die out, and the latter will take over.
What’s the big debate? The King is dead. Long live the King.
The real debate
Problem is, how do we fund this brand new purpose-inspired (and demand-inspired) method of distribution, especially when the demand also stipulates that content should be free? The debate has been raging for years, and yet this increasingly urgent problem still hasn’t been solved. Four years ago, Jarvis predicted that:
“The biggest challenge is to train advertisers that online is more valuable than print because more people are there and they are more engaged in getting what they want, and so advertising there is more efficient and should be worth more.”
The advertisers still aint trained. Online ads still aren’t yielding the profits the internet evangelists were hoping they might. As Robert Scoble noted on the panel, even Techcrunch, one of the web’s most wildly popular blogs, makes the majority of its money from charging admission to its conferences, not through ads.
This might still be a generational thing: the shape of the billboards are changing much quicker than the attitudes of the advertisers. Maybe they’ll catch up, and all will be rosy. Or perhaps, more worryingly, the advertisers have spotted a fundamental flaw in the new billboards. The financial return isn’t as big as they were promised it would be. Problem is, if the adverts don’t want to be there any more, the billboards become redundant.
Ever since advertising became the central pillar of all news organisations’ business models, the causality has been fixed: without adverts, there are no news organisations. And if the adverts don’t fit into the new modes of delivery, then you have a big problem. It becomes a Brave New World without a backer. All of your courageous, ground-breaking new wrappers for journalism, all of your participatory debate and democratisation of the news process… it’s all very wonderful, but you just can’t afford it. Beauty can’t exist without the beast.
This is the “malfunctioning business model” that Rupert Murdoch has talked about. It doesn’t add up. Reader demand and industry innovation has pushed journalism into a position of beautiful unprofitability.
But Murdoch’s suggested solution doesn’t work either…charging for content that people, indeed customers, have come to expect for free can’t work when there is a gargantuan resource in the same market that will always be free – the BBC. If you have something that people just can’t get elsewhere, fine, they will pay for it. But when you don’t…
Another suggested solution is associated money-spinners: surround your news product with profitable book clubs, branded dating sites, reader offers and so on. In this way the news content becomes a loss leader. But good businesses strive to make loss leaders as cheap as possible, and good journalism doesn’t come cheap. Sure, news organisations can cut costs by regurgitating news wires, taking PR freebies, cutting down on freelancers, and using as much user-generated and crowd-sourced content as possible. But over-reliance on these cheapo means will gradually decrease overall quality. And once the quality has gone, what’s the point?
So what’s the secret potion? Lord knows. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that the future of journalism debate isn’t about the future of journalism, it’s about the future of journalism’s business plan.