A Perfect Storm for the Demise of Journalism … or for the Rebirth of the Journalist

Jun 05, 2009

The news about news has been focused on failing newspapers, for which many are blaming the Internet, Google, the unions, journalists, owners, and even consumers. While there are many issues at play, and as many soapboxes to stand on, I recently attended a symposium that provided evidence that many professionals are not waiting around for a government bailout, but working hard and thinking creatively to construct a strategy for journalism’s future success.

The symposium, “From Gatekeeper to Information Valet: Work Plans for Sustaining Journalism,” held May 27 in Washington DC, featured a range of informed speakers that included professors, journalists, authors, and entrepreneurs. The Information Valet Project, an RJI fellows program, was the brainchild of Bill Densmore. Densmore, a journalist and entrepreneur, was an early pioneer in micropayments.

Densmore set the stage for the day addressing the “perfect storm” impacting the sustainability of journalism: the demise of newspapers, the inability of internet advertising to support news content, and the general economic downturn.

Not surprisingly, given the crisis facing the print news media, the symposium’s theme “How do we save journalism?” was frequently confused with “How do we save newspapers?” This was accompanied by a somewhat unproductive reduction of the problem to: “Google is an evil usurper of journalists’ work” and “Internet users should pay for content.” After listening to the first few speakers, I announced via Twitter (#infovalet) that I might be the lone content capitalist at the symposium. I was quickly thumped by tweets from three entrepreneurs in attendance, two of which were journalists. While we were outnumbered, it was good to know we would be contributing to the mix.

The symposium’s panelists were a who’s who of the industry. The first featured Merrill Brown, of Journalism Online and MSNBC fame, and author, journalist and former CNN CEO Walter Isaacson. Isaacson started things off on a practical note, pointing out that while he earns “the same amount in book or ebook form, to encourage content creation, there has to be a business model to depend upon for the monetization of one’s efforts.” Curtis Gans, director for the Center for the Study of the American Electorate and self-professed “dinosaur” returned to fundamentals, suggesting we need to start teaching about and appreciating journalism in grade schools again.

In another session, Joe Bergantino, founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, spoke about his new journalism business. Bergantino’s model is all about producing the best investigative reporting organization and then monetizing it through syndication (i.e., the Associated Press), sponsorships, grants, and support from Boston University. Ann Peters of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, has a similar approach, but she is focusing on the coverage gap for international reporting. Both are finding new revenue sources at the same time they are aiming to produce better content than currently exists under the old newspaper and newswire service models.

For the most part, the day was dominated by creative and constructive approaches to rethinking journalistic business models. Surprising was the support being thrown behind the general concept of a central repository for all journalism content, which would then be controlled, metered, and charged for one way or another. During the day, three variations of centralized control were represented: Journalismonline.com, Publish2.com, and RJI’s own Circlab’s “Circulate.”

As Densmore sees a perfect storm for the potential demise of journalism, I came away from the event feeling this may in fact be a perfect storm for journalists. Yes, we are in transition and many of the formerly mighty will fall. There will be collateral damage, but new business models will arise as long as we don’t try to hold on to obsolete models. Remember that at one time, Hollywood tried to block VCR movie rentals to protect theatre revenue. Fortunately for them, they lost that battle because today the majority of Hollywood’s revenue comes from rentals and downloads.

Newspapers are doomed if they continue to lament the internet and the big bad Google and its search-and-read audience. They are doomed if they continue to believe that only their editors’ opinions are worthwhile. They are doomed if they continue to believe that the “reader will be confused” without their editorial guidance. They are doomed if they continue to believe that consumers pay for news or want news from a single source and single editorial perspective. Consumers have never paid for news. Consumers pay for convenience and the delivery of news: home delivery, internet service, and cable.

Journalism will survive because of the journalists’ passion and because--together with some savvy capitalists--they will figure out a business model that leverages their talents while delivering what the consumers want and need. The challenge is to find the model that will work in the future. In the words of the great Wayne Gretzky, “I skate to where the puck will be, not where it’s been.” Our present day journalists and content capitalists need to think in the same way.

(www.infovalet.org, http://newshare.com/wiki/index.php/Gwu-program)