Clay Shirky has said it before and recently said it again, this time in response to news of Warren Buffet‘s investment in news organizations:
“(…) good local coverage isn’t enough, because ordinary citizens don’t pay for news. What we paid for, when we used to buy the paper, was a bundle of news and sports and coupons and job listings, printed together and delivered to our doorstep.
People are still happy to pay for reproduction and delivery, of course. We just pay our ISPs now. And we still care about news and sports and coupons and job listings — we just get them from different places, and, critically, money that goes to Groupon or Hot Jobs [correction] no longer subsidizes the newsroom. Ad dollars lost to competing content creators can be fought for; ad dollars that no longer subsidize content at all are never coming back. (…)”
To draw a picture of where I’m coming from (which, according to Jay Rosen, is “easier to trust than the View from Nowhere”): I have been trained and have worked as a journalist. I’ve been working with on-line news publishing concepts since the early 1990s. I’ve been a keen observer of trends brought about by the Internet affecting journalism and news media, including the rise of citizen journalism, social media, user-generated content, the democratisation of the means of production, distribution and access to “journalism”. I subscribe to the way Rosen describes what’s been going on in his maxims.
I realize that in order to use the term “journalism” here, it demands a definition - or at least a scope. That’s really a topic for a separate post, but one element I’d like to highlight here is that “journalism” is a public good. Or, as I put it in an exchange with Jeff Jarvis:
“(…) the ideal of journalism as in (…) Edwin 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. (…)
I like the way Jay Rosen has compared journalism to usability. The journalist’s task is to make it easier for citizens to use their system of democracy. (…)”
My wife, Minna Ojamies is the Editor-in-Chief of a small local news paper, Pitäjänuutiset. It’s thriving as the voice of the town, despite the obvious pressures on traditional earnings models and the fact that its subscriber base is an aging demographic. We often discuss the potential strengths of hyper-local journalism and possible on-line strategies. (Just making the point that this topic is very close to home.)
Now, we see the Great Unbundling across various aspects of journalism and the news business.
1. The Great Unbundling of the Common Frame of Reference
One driver for subscriptions to, say, an established leading national daily, is that it serves up what is commonly perceived as being the “news of the day”. If you want to have even a casual conversation with a colleague, a customer or your neighbour, you should know that this is what we are talking about today, as a nation.
Due to the proliferation of news channels, social media, and generally society’s fragmentation into subcultures and niche interest communities, people are less keen on keeping up with the Common Frame of Reference than before when we all religiously watched the eight o’clock news.
2. The Great Unbundling of the content inside the package
As Nicholas Carr wrote:
“(…) When a newspaper moves online, the bundle falls apart. Readers don’t flip through a mix of stories, advertisements, and other bits of content. They go directly to a particular story that interests them, often ignoring everything else. In many cases, they bypass the newspaper’s “front page” altogether, using search engines, feed readers, or headline aggregators like Google News, Digg, and Daylife to leap directly to an individual story. They may not even be aware of which newspaper’s site they’ve arrived at. For the publisher, the newspaper as a whole becomes far less important. What matters are the parts. Each story becomes a separate product standing naked in the maketplace. It lives or dies on its own economic merits. (…)”
3. The Great Unbundling of journalism and the publishing business
As per Dan Gillmor, one doesn’t necessarily have to be pessimistic about the future of journalism. We’re in a fertile period of innovation. But the business models for journalism are unclear. It’s no longer about who is a journalist, but about what is an act of journalism.
So, not only can “users” get the ads somewhere else, they can also get the news somewhere else, for free. Cutting out the middleman. And when they happen to be at the right place at the right time, equipped with their mobile phones, they can commit acts of journalism themselves.
4. The Great Unbundling of news content and advertizing
Shirky’s response to Buffet. It becomes increasingly difficult to subsidize news production with advertizing as the prices you can ask for ads keep going down. In a way, those prices have always been artificially high because the only way advertizers used to get their message through was by bundling it with editorial content.
5. The Great Unbundling of packaging and distribution
We don’t need trees and printing presses anymore in order to distribute news. Some argue that people will always be interested in the physical paper interface, and in having the “topics of the day” delivered to their front door.
I’m not saying there is no value in the package. The media organization has researched, curated, selected and designed a nice, tangible, usable, beautiful package. But it’s getting more and more expensive to do so, and the lack of immediately interactive features in the paper interface will become a greater and greater inhibitor as people increasingly crave for shared experiences.
So, who will continue to make money off the distribution of news? The traditional news organization? Or the ISPs, lean on-line news boutiques, search engines, aggregators and platform providers for user-generated content?
And who will continue to make money off the packaging? If you have an iPad, do you still take a paper magazine with you when you go to the bathroom?
A News Club to support the cause of journalism
As I mentioned in a blog post a while ago , Monique van Dusseldorp once pointed out that the willingness of originators to pay for the distribution of news seemed greater than the willingness of end-users to pay for it.
I think that’s still a valid observation and applies not only to news but to information in general. Advertizers are obviously willing to pay for distributing their content. But for the news industry it kinda defeats its purpose.
Is specialisation the answer? Is hyper-local the answer? A local community offers a natural user base. The people who live in the same town share common interests which they don’t share with anybody else. Their local news and opinions (not necessarily in that order) are not just entertainment to them, but of real relevance. The local paper is like a club house, the place you frequent if you want to know what’s going on.
Due to scale I guess, there often seem to be less competing local news media than, for example, nation-wide news channels. Positioning your paper as the one information club house or market square could be a sustainable proposition.
In fact, I am getting more and more excited about the concept of a news club, a community of users who discuss and debate about what’s relevant to them, research and curate topics, produce, edit and share outcomes. Journalism from a mix of professional and amateur club members.
“People don’t pay for content, but they will support a cause,” Pekka Pekkala (@pekkapekkala) has been quoted/tweeted as saying.
— Jos Schuurmans (@josschuurmans) November 10, 2011
Couldn’t “being well-informed as a local community about public matters impacting our lives” be such a cause? And could a news club be a suitable vehicle to further it?
How about turning that local news paper or special-interest magazine into a news club run by professionals and amateurs? Facilitate the cause of being well-informed as something people are willing to pay for. And why wouldn’t that provide an opportunity for sponsorship and targeted, relevant advertizing?