Journalism: Best of Times, Worst of Times

It's a strange time for journalism. We have more outlets than ever before. Mobile, social, and cloud tools have transformed the craft--and the business-letting us reach more people than ever before. We can have two-way conversations with our readers. We even know our audience at a granular level.

Think back just two decades. Newspapers, television, and radio were the dominant ways to get news. There were only a few choices. From a journalist's perspective, we simply published an article and moved on to the next one. We didn't know if 10 people or 10,000 read our work.

From a business perspective, we could count the number of copies of any issue sold, but the analytics pretty much stopped there. Unless we convened focus groups, there was really no way to know very much about our audience. It was the same for advertisers. They published an ad, and when people came into the store, maybe they could see the power of the medium. Beyond that, it was hard to know if the newspaper ad they were paying for was giving them any real bang for their buck.

Today, that's all different. We can measure everything. We can understand-at minute levels-our audience, as well as the ads they look at and click. But we are still in a strange place. Some publications make money and some don't. We should be in a golden age, but the fate of many publications is more uncertain than ever. The New York Times-the face of old journalism-has pushed hard to become an online and mobile property in recent years, but it's still cutting back in the newsroom, with reports at the end of last year of more than 100 newsroom personnel getting the ax.

If you want the perfect cautionary tale for modern journalism, look no further than Gigaom, an online publication started by Om Malik in 2006. He was an early tech blogger and grew his online business from the ground up. He had a great model. He hired smart writers and gave some of the content away. He also offered a subscription piece. The company had 6.5 million monthly visitors. It sounds as if it was the perfect recipe for online journalism success. And yet, it shut down quite suddenly in March.

Just last year, Gigaom received an $8 million influx of cash from investors, and Malik stepped back, perhaps thinking his baby was ready to stand on its own. Apparently, the debt load was too much, and investors decided to shut it down. It's hard to know what's working and what's not when a company with recurring revenue, ad revenue, outside investment, and 6.5 million visitors a month isn't making it.

My intent here isn't to be a voice of gloom and doom. There are online publications that are succeeding in a modern context, and it's easy to get sucked into negativity by one public shutdown. What's more, we have also succeeded in democratizing online publishing. Anyone with a keyboard (or two thumbs) can publish his or her thoughts. With tools such as Periscope and Meerkat, ordinary folks can broadcast video live from their smartphones (and so can journalists). Journalists and publications have to change with the times and embrace new tools-such as video and data-find new ways to tell stories, and take advantage of the fact we are online and all that entails.

The good news is that plenty of Gigaom's contemporaries-think TechCrunch (which I work for), VentureBeat, Mashable, or Business Insider-are still around and seem to be doing just fine, using various methods (such as outside investment) to keep growing their businesses. And yet, it's undeniable that there are still publications-especially from the old guard-struggling to not only figure out how to deliver content online but, more importantly, how to find a viable way to make money.

It's interesting to note that, in an age when data is supposed to lead us to the promised land and we have more of it than ever, it's still not easy to figure this all out-and that's what makes this business so challenging and exciting.    

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So I came up with a new resolution for 2016: instead of deleting these accounts all together, I will take small steps to limit how much time I spend on these sites, and will therefore reduce the amount of energy I expend sifting through hundreds of tweets and statuses a day. Honestly, after about 2 weeks of curtailing my social media appetite, I'm feeling pretty good, and the time I do spend online feels less meandering and unguided.