Journalism’s Most Wanted

The problem facing American journalism is not fundamentally an audience problem or a credibility problem. It is a revenue problem—the decoupling … of advertising from news.” This quote is taken from the sixth edition of Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media” report. The good news is that professionally created content is not inherently less valuable. The bad news is that it has become unhinged from any viable means of support.

The collapse of the media is generating much fallout, including scores of unemployed journalists. A related Pew article on entrepreneurial journalism, “New Ventures,” looks at  how some former “mainstream” journalists are launching alternative news sites to provide “original reporting meant to fill what they see as an expanding void in what mainstream media now offer.” 

At the other extreme is an idea I have often promoted on the pages of EContent: Today, organizations of all kinds are publishers and should leverage their expertise in the form of content to do better business. Our contributing editor, David Meerman Scott, is doing a bang-up business on the lecture circuit, promoting his interpretation of this idea (examined in his books Cashing In with Content and World Wide Rave). David believes that companies should move beyond antiquated notions of passing their ideas through the filter/obstacle of the media and delivering them directly to constituents online.

In the course of doing business, many companies develop deep subject matter expertise that they can use to demonstrate their inherent value in a market; sell themselves through ideas rather than focusing on selling products via advertising rhetoric. Yet most companies don’t have experience being “publishers,” so the transition can be tough. Also, many information consumers still “consider the source” when it comes to decision making.

David will look at some of these issues in next month’s After Thought column, in which he suggests that unemployed journalists apply their skills in corporate content making. He’s not alone. At this year’s Buying & Selling eContent conference, Alacra CEO Steve Goldstein pointed me to a BusinessWeek column by Jon Fine titled “Now Comes the Journalist-Consultant,” which discusses some of the private-industry-backed sites employing journalists, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Fine also turns a critical eye to Abrams Research, which he says, “aims to help companies suss out winning corporate and media strategies … with a panel of compensated experts.” Where Fine finds folly is in Abram’s practice of using practicing journalists—a potential conflict.

It certainly isn’t new for journalists to cross over into marketing in order to—let’s face it—make more money. And as more companies wisely develop proactive content strategies, employing journalists to guide these efforts makes sense. Right now, though, the only group that rivals my journalist buddies in unemployment rates are my marketing and PR pals, so I’m not anticipating a mass migration anytime soon.

I’m also not sure that—in a world filled with myriad news that comes directly from sellers, customers, or anyone—there isn’t still life left in thoughtful, balanced (dare I say it) professional content creation. In fact, the Pew study finds that “The old media have held onto their audience even as consumers migrate online.” Venerable brands maintain credibility online or off.
Yet, as Pew reports, it’s “all but settled that advertising revenue—the model that financed journalism for the last century—will be inadequate to do so in this one.” Pew notes that “audiences now consume news in new ways. They hunt and gather what they want when they want it, use search to comb among destinations and share what they find through a growing network of social media.” While social media sites may still seek a business model, the hunting and gathering trend garners significant revenue for search engines. Again, we witness the disconnect between content creation and those able to profit from it.

In April, a group that includes Reuters, German press agency DPA, and a few dozen online publishers joined with Attributor Corp. (which provides a solution that identifies copies of articles and videos online) to form the Fair Syndication Consortium for “anyone who is passionate about fully compensating those who create valuable content, while appropriately rewarding those who aggregate, republish, and monetize it.” While it seems fairly straightforward to use Attributor’s technology to identify when full copies of works are being used without permission, it will be quite a trick to bring search engines and ad networks out of the copyright shadows and clarify “fair use” when it comes to generating revenue from third-party content.
That said, if quality content from whatever source has value to readers, it seems more than fair that the content creators—journalists, bloggers, publishers—should find a way to recraft a business model that will sustain content creation.