Pushing to the Future of Journalism
January 22, 2009 9:10 PM   Subscribe

The Nieman Journalism Lab is a collaborative attempt to figure out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age. At Harvard they are working with the Business School on new business models, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society on understanding online life, and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations on one potential path for news organizations.
posted by netbros (10 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
And it's directed by our very own crabwalk.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:44 PM on January 22, 2009

Journalism should have no problem surviving: it's not like your average blogger is going to be able to actually, y'know, ask hard-hitting questions of the President and of corporate CEOs.

All journalists have to do is quit being damned useless bloggers. Get back to work, you lazy fucks.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:45 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

We're no longer comfortable paying for the news. Paper and printing costs are skyrocketing. The "dead tree" edition is dying out, but without a sustainable revenue stream from online advertising, there's really little hope of online versions filling the void.

I'm sure there are a lot of really smart, great, potential investigative reporters who are ready to chase after the tough story, but they're working at Starbucks or putting themselves through law school because there are no jobs in the industry. That's not going to change until news consumers are willing to pony up the dough to pay for what we read.
posted by elmer benson at 6:30 AM on January 23, 2009

... attempt to figure out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age.

A start would be to "align" with quality web designers who can create proper page margins for your showcase site... and maybe connect with some quality copywriters who can come up with better slogans than "pushing to the future of journalism." Without professional polish and internet savvy, quality journalism's only option will be putsching to the future.
posted by terranova at 6:49 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hi terranova! Would be happy to hear more of your thoughts on our page margins, and apologies if you don't like those six words.

While there are plenty of ways that journalists could do their work better -- you'll get no argument from me there -- the fundamental problem nowadays isn't that journalists are bad at what they do. It's the death of newspapers' business model. More people actually consume the journalism produced by most newspapers than ever before. But that journalism has, for decades, been funded by a functional monopoly on advertising rates, and that monopoly, of course, doesn't exist online.

Which is wonderful, of course, for folks like me (and other Metafilterians) who have 600 RSS feeds in NetNewsWire, maybe 5% of which are produced by paid journalists. But it's not so good for traditional reporters.

And while democracy would not be affected one bit by the loss of sports sections, home and garden sections, concert reviews, etc., when there's no one dedicated to watchdogging local and state governments full time -- and I'm not convinced blogs will do the job there -- there will be a lot of things lost, IMO. And unfortunately, the stuff that's important to do is also the stuff that's least profitable to do.
posted by crabwalk at 7:26 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with all of that, I pretty much have since about 2003 when the net euphoria started to wear off and the problems became really apparent. Thing is, I'm not sure there actually is an answer. People have been taking a crack at this since the mid 1990s, and nobody has come close. And commercial pressures are generally better at coming up with business models than pondering academics.

The difficulty seems to be that everyone is trying to make people pay for news, which frankly they haven't done for centuries: news has been subsidised since the first classified ad ran. In net terms, the print business model is equivalent to the profits from eBay being used to run a newsroom. But to set something like that up in our business climate seems impossible. Everything has to be made pay for itself, and that is just never going to work for news. Actually, even a subsidised model isn't going to work: websites isn't geographically limited, and it is local monopolies on advertising that have allowed so many papers to co-exist.

I've got little time for non-profit news, either. Unless the non-profit is somehow able to generate truckloads of money, there isn't going to be nearly enough for proper reporting. The BBC manages of course, but it has the legal power to menace virtually every British household into stumping up £150 a year.
posted by bonaldi at 8:33 AM on January 23, 2009

There are a fair number of nonprofit news outlets that do good work -- NPR, the St. Petersburg Times, The Nation, etc. And there are a variety of nonprofits that do work that looks a lot like journalism even if they're not technically journalists -- Human Rights Watch, for instance. The issue, for me, isn't whether they're for-profit or not-for-profit -- it's whether they're sustainable. If there's a supply of rich people who care about a topic and are willing to give money to have it covered -- hey, fine by me. That presents its own set of ethical issues, but I'd rather have the reporting than not have the reporting. And you're right that any content business built on advertising is on very shaky ground.

One other note: Not all newspapers are as dependent on advertising as you might think. In Europe, the average price of a quality daily is about $1.75, so they're able to get the majority of their revenue from circulation and not rely so much on ads. On the flipside, their staffs are generally quite a bit smaller, in some countries they receive government subsidies, they generally don't have the widespread circulation that our papers do, etc. But it is a potential model.
posted by crabwalk at 9:51 AM on January 23, 2009

The Nation advertises itself as a "journal of opinion," even if it sometimes runs pieces of magazine-style reportage. The New Republic, also considered a journal of opinion, does the same, as do many other publications similarly run as non-profits or by associated foundations (the National Review, American Prospect), etc. It's not unfair to lump them all together, given the Nation's own billing and the traditional understanding of this category.
posted by raysmj at 11:45 AM on January 23, 2009

The thing about current non-profits is that they exist in a world where the majority of news is reported and published by for-profits -- they have an ecosystem of news to draw on. In a post-newspaper world, that's not going to be the case, so instead of being able to focus on the detailed reporting they do well, they'll also have to cover the grassroots stuff.

It's this grassroots stuff that worries me: the model that works for current non-profits doesn't seem to work at these sorts of scales. Local non-profits would have much smaller pools of support to draw upon, and equally high bills for newsgathering. As for rich people doing the supporting, that's how it worked in Britain for many years. It does present some ethical issues, but healthy competition usually puts paid to them. But those rich guys have dried up, and without the lure of even a potential income, I'm not sure what's going to draw them. There's only so much influence to be gained from new media.

BTW: I'm in Europe, and the picture's really not that rosy. A system that produces French newspapers isn't one to be envied; nor does it seem likely that charging more for news is a plan with a future.
posted by bonaldi at 2:22 PM on January 23, 2009

I suspect news orgs will evolve into something closer to airline pricing, where different people will pay different amounts for something close to the same good. For NPR, you can pay nothing, you can pay a little bit, or you can pay a lot. For the NYT, you can pay hundreds of dollars a year for a print edition or nothing at all for the online edition. So I'm actually a little more optimistic about raising newsstand/subscription prices, because I think some percentage (certainly less than 100%, but also not zero) of readers are happy to pay a bit more. If you double your price and subscriptions drop off 30%, plus that 30% becomes an online audience, you're still ahead of the game.

I'll be curious to see what happens to civic foundations -- the foundations funded by local rich guys who give to the art museum, the symphony, etc. I'd like to see them shift some of that money into, say, paying five reporters to cover local governments. I think that'd be a more worthwhile civic purpose than a lot of the things their generosity goes towards.
posted by crabwalk at 2:27 PM on January 23, 2009

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