But *how*, @jeffjarvis, do your students apply those for-profit business models?

This was supposed to be my sauna evening, but soi.

Sustainable journalism, that’s what we’re all looking for. Quality journalism that will survive and thrive despite and thanks to the Internet.

Jeff Jarvis today explained his insistence on having his journalism students develop for-profit businesses. Apparently, this raised some eyebrows among an audience of teachers of entrepreneurial journalism.

In his piece, Jeff asserts that “there is not enough charity in the nation for the journalism it needs.”

First off, this begs the question: “How much journalism does the nation need?” Free market advocates will argue that the nation needs as much journalism as there is market demand for. Charity curmudgeons and other journalism idealists may argue that there is no end to how much quality jourmalism the nation needs.

My point is, how much (quality) journalism a society needs is a subjective matter.

This is what I replied to Jeff on Twitter, and what Jeff replied to me:

Now, what I’m hoping to get out of this discussion is a better grasp of the new sustainable models for (digital) quality journalism.

Commenting on the 2008 post, Bob Wyman argued that, “of course” there is demand for journalism. On the high end, people are willing to pay serious money for specialized information. On the low end, demand for free news is greater than ever.

Just to be clear: when we talk about the “need” for quality journalism, we actually talk about an ideal, a subjective measure and notion of how much and what kind of journalism our societies need.

To me, that’s the ideal of journalism as in Edmund Burke’s Fourth Estate, checking and balancing the legislative, executive and judicial powers. Journalism that is a necessary and integral part of how our systems of representative democracy work.

Of course, such journalism does not limit itself to checking the trias politica, but is equally vigilent towards any other force in society, including special interest groups, commercial entities and criminal organizations.

That’s the journalism we are talking about, at least as far as I’m concerned. If you’re talking about publishing, media, or content as a business, no offense but please take your conversation elsewhere.

I like the way Jay Rosen has compared journalism to usability. The journalist’s task is to make it easy for citizens to use their system of democracy.

So within this scope, we can omit the “high end” journalism Wyman was referring to. Specialized information that people pay serious bucks for is not the kind of journalistic produce which progresses the workings of our democracy. Y’all agree?

If it’s up to the free market – and to a large extent it is! -, there will be a severe shakeout among media entities that hold on to traditional business models too exclusively, that are too invested in traditional media infrastructure (printing presses, mainly), and whose editorial cultures don’t allow them to embrace the Internet and see digital opportunities before it’s too late.

Is there, then, enough charity and market demand combined in our societies for the journalism they need? Again, that’s a somewhat subjective and philosophical question. One possible answer is: well, it will just have to do.

The challenge, I think, lies in how the new lean-and-mean, charity-and-for-profit business models will work without being too vulnerable to corruption by political, corporate or criminal forces.

Some suggested ingredients:

  • Radical transparency about the media entity’s financial interests and editorial biases.
  • Radical accountability: offer meta-data with all your content, link to your every fact and claim.
  • Editorial independence: produce for your users, not for your advertizers. Outsource or syndicate the placement of ads on your site. Build safeguards that deprive you of the possibility to manipulate your advertizing stream through your editorial produce, and that prevents your advertizers to influence your editorial produce. (tough one)
  • Bootstrap cost structures. Customer development before product development.
  • Let your users vote with their money. Freemium subscriptions and pay-per-view micro-payments.
  • Charity and subsidy, why not? As long as you stay transparent, accountable and independent.
  • Think local, is what I keep hearing…

Maybe the brand perception has to change from:

“the media entity whose applied standards of journalism people trust (independence, integrity, relevance, completeness, accuracy, speed…)”,


“a brand that is capable of facilitating open conversation about topics relevant to its community of users, while helping to surface the facts and viewpoints that those users need in order to operate various systems within our society effectively and efficiently”.

Of course there are great challenges and catch-22s. How do you build community and engage users? How do you compete with users who prefer to cut out the middle man? How do you compete with “Internet users don’t want to pay for news”?

Some argue that there is no demand for ads. Ads are relatively easy to ignore and if you make them too intrusive, you’ll scare people away. If people want ads, they’ll go to Craig’s List. And if you inform your users really well, there will be nothing left for the ads to inform. Also, how do you serve your advertizers’ ads when people read your content via RSS or on third-party social networks like Facebook, Google+, or via third-party mobile applications?

I don’t know. Perhaps the metaphor of the club house offers some inspiration.

Anywho… I didn’t quite find what I was hoping to find from Jeff’s two blog posts. Jeff, how do you and your students deploy profitable business models for quality digital journalism? How do you assess my suggested ingredients above? What’s missing?

I’d be most obliged for your suggestions in the comments – even if your name is not Jeff :-)

UPDATE, February 20, 2012: