The future of journalism, and why Beauty is still searching for a new Beast

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.”

The no-brainer
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.

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13 responses to “The future of journalism, and why Beauty is still searching for a new Beast

  1. Matthew Teller

    Really interesting post. Key point for me is “good journalism doesn’t come cheap”. It’s very easy to get all over-excited about the dawning of a new age of content delivery, digital this and online that, old ways have got to go, yada yada… until one day we realise that all the professional journalists are out of a job and writing PR copy to survive, while the public has no option but to find clips on YouTube and 140-character tweets to make sense of world events.

    As with everything 2.0 – it’s up to us. We need to value “good journalism” again. Good journalism (read: professional journalism) is worth paying for – through the licence fee, through £10 a week for a paper newspaper (it’s a qualitatively better experience reading words on paper), and, if you want more, through subscribing to online content.

    Professionals provide verified facts; professionals are accountable; professionals can offer informed analysis. Pointing a cameraphone at a demo does not make you a journalist; nor does blogging about your political views. That’s why ‘traditional’ news organisations matter, and (for now anyway) digital news outlets are merely diverting.

    Journalists (or perhaps media barons) have, in a sense, shot themselves in the foot, by gaining a reputation over the last 25 years for relentlessly driving down standards, with the inevitable conclusion that their readers have ceased to value their output enough to want to continue paying for it. That not only threatens professional journalism, it in turn threatens the ‘right’ of the general public to have access to reliable, well-informed, trustworthy news and information.

    Everybody can read a paper newspaper; not everybody can read an online newspaper. We should not allow paper newspapers to die, cheerfully imagining a bright happy digital 2.0 future will replace them. In journalism, there is no such thing.

  2. Problem is… in the meantime as media outlets old and new struggle to make enough money to stay in business journalistic standards are being eroded. The distinction between ad and editorial is increasingly blurred. I posted about this myself a few weeks ago:

  3. great comments.

    Matthew… I agree with you and I disagree with you. You’re definitely right that the focus needs to be re-aligned onto quality journalism rather than just “new” journalism.

    But although “non-proffessionals” who blog and tweet and take twitpics of revolutions are not the only story to tell… but they are still an important part of the story. The key is to try to deliver both… instant coverage and broad perspective alongside professional collation and critique.

    Jeremy…yup, we are now in a situation where within the same news organisation “the future of news” (i.e. web-based) is in the same boat as the “past of news” (i.e. the paper)… costs being cut all over the place, which can certainly be cited as a reason for eroding standards.

    That said, we don’t know how lucky we are. Despite their problems, our news orgs (print, online, tv, radio) are still the best in the world. Perhaps we’ve just been spoilt.

  4. Great post Benji. Personally can’t ever see paid content (online) being the future, ultimately the majority of consumers don’t currently value proper journalism over (heck what do you call it) amateur journalism! I guess there may be an argument for a mass education marketing campaign from the quality press to highlight the benefits a proper journalistic approach brings. If that worked then you’d get more paying subscribers.

    As for educating the advertisers, that is nonsense. Advertisers take a fairly scientific approach to judge the ROI, if it is good they’ll play if not they won’t. We’re in a situation where either the accountability of online advertising has highlighted that media historically over charged for advertising, or the delivery method of online adverts hasn’t yet been refined. My personal opinion is that precisely because online advertising is so accountable, brands are undervaluing the non measurable brand impact it brings.

  5. Ben… “that precisely because online advertising is so accountable, brands are undervaluing the non measurable brand impact it brings”… is the most concise explanation I’ve heard yet.

    It certainly is a double-edged sword that advertisers can work out exactly how much an ad is yielding… but you can never calculate brand equity and brand recognition etc…

    would be interesting to hear an advertiser’s perspective.

  6. As a marketing budget holder in a previous life, the brand marketing budget was in a different pot to direct marketing budgets. That meant there were different ROI requirements, different people in charge etc. It was a fact that anything in the direct marketing budget had to deliver a proven ROI or it was dropped. So we generally only ever shifted the cheapest & most competitive products online. Products that needed something more than a big price sticker (i.e. some brand messaging) to sell never entered the direct marketing pot. Not sure that provides any answers but gives you an idea of the complications and political issues with online advertising from a big brand perspective.

    I guess one solution would be for the media owners to take responsibility and invest in regular surveys of their readership to quantify the brand impact of advertisements on their site through quantitative research. They could then report to their advertisers both the brand and direct response impact of adverts.

  7. The problem with taking into “account non measureable impacts of advertising” is within the statement, they’re non-measureable, and you’re going to struggle to convince advertisers that it is their job to establish what that value is. That’s the job of the publisher (or ad network), it’s what Google did all those years ago with CPC (cost per click) and what the banner advertisers have never been able to do with CPM (cost per thousand impressions). The price of one of those models has continued to fall, the other has continued to rise. I bet you can guess which is which.

    I personally don’t think we’re going to see any “new business models” anytime soon. That always seems to be the answer (or non-answer) from people looking to find value in content (I hate that word by the way). The fact of the matter is there isn’t many options, and sitting around pretending that the world of journalism is going to have a hallelujah moment that means all those companies will see a bump in their market cap is a falacy.

    A few things are going to happen:

    1. More media outlets will move to the “Daily Mail Model,” publish more sensationalist, celebrity related nonsense in an attempt to increase PVs and squeeze every last drop of revenue out of CPM. Yellow Journalism in a Internet age, call it #CCCC33 Journalism maybe?!

    2. Take the slightly more intelligent Sun or Daily Mirror option that ties profitable subsids like Bingo and Dating to cross subsidise the written word.

    3. More and more journos will leave for the BBC.

    4. Some outlets will ask for Government funding.

    5. More outward media moguls will crop up, running papers at a loss to satisfy personal goals.

  8. My suspicion is that we’ll see a lot more journalists become individual writer publishers, covering a distinct ultra-local or ultra-niche beat.

    I know Roy Greenslade has blogged about this on the Media Guardian site (although I can’t find the link at the moment).

    Essentially, it’d be one entrepreneurial reporter with good contacts taking on a patch, breaking stories from the area and inviting discussion. In a middling sized town such as Loughborough for example, one online reporter could probably take on the Loughborough Echo and win. With a website, there are very few overheads.

    Do the job well, and the traffic and advertising will probably come. The amount of money needed to keep just one person in business is far smaller than the amount needed to keep an entire newspaper with its staff.

    The reporter can’t cover as much as the paper, but it’s covering the big things that matters. Let’s face it, beyond about five stories a week, most of what appears in local papers is filler about big cheques being handed to charities anyway.

    The next stage would probably be an organisation taking a few of these reporter/ publishers under its umbrella, so that it essentially has a network of reporters in different areas. Some of the costs can be shared, the admin/ advertising done centrally and a cut of the advertising revenue goes to the umbrella organisation.

    My tuppence worth, anyhow.

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  10. Great discussion here Benji. Have you read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies? I would be interested to hear what journalists working for big newspapers have to say about it.

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  13. We provide the best morning paper delivery with the best news agent delivery. We provide you the best news wrapping services.

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