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The future of news in 4 dimensions: How real news orgs fit in the model

In my last post, I spent a lot of time laying out a fairly abstract framework for how we can think intelligently about future kinds of news organizations. I argued they could be usefully evaluated and charted on four factors: the type of work they do, how institutionalized they are, how many resources they have, and how open they are to outsiders.

But the value of any model lies not in its elegance, but in the degree to which it can help us think about the world in a useful way — the way it can give us “tools to think with,” as the saying goes — and can help us solve practical problems.

Note that by “solve practical problems” I don’t simply mean “figure out a business model for journalism.” Business models are important — but questions like “what kind of journalism best integrates with the nature of 21st-century democracy and society?” are also practical problems. So in this post I want to apply the model to a few real new organizations, describe what problems I think it might help us solve, and answer a few questions raised by my previous post.

I think this model is useful because it can help us describe not only the way things are but also the way people think things are. That’s what I mean to get across in this first chart. In the early day of the read-write web, and even to an unfortunate degree today, journalists often tended to think of themselves as members of institutionalized, resource-rich, closed organizations that “did reporting.” In other words, as professionals. The stereotype about bloggers (and by extension, about all citizen journalists) was that they were completely open, ad hoc, resource-poor individuals who practiced the art of commentary (“guys in their pajamas”).

I realize that there are are lot of generalizations in the preceding paragraph — but it isn’t as if these stereotypes have totally gone away. And this simplified vision can help us see that a more accurate picture of the new media ecosystem is a lot more complicated than the stereotypes.

Here’s a application of the model I proposed in the last post, picking a few new and old media organizations out at random. There’s Gawker, which I mentioned last week. It sits near the middle of the “institutionalized–deinstitutionalized axis,” and is of moderate size and moderate openness. (It relies upon and integrates its commenters, but doesn’t do much “citizen journalism” per se.) Gawker tends to be further toward the commentary/link-gathering end of the spectrum than the reporting end (though not entirely).

But where this starts to make sense is when we add other organizations — because now we’re not talking about absolute qualities of an organization but relational qualities. (The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once argued that “the relational is the real.”) In other words, we can make statements like “Gawker is more focused on aggregation than Politico, which is more focused on original reporting. But Gawker is also more open and deinstitutionalized than Politico, too.” Or an even more interesting comparison, between Politco and the Chi-Town Daily News: Chi-Town is more open to amateurs and more deinstitutionalized than its D.C. counterpart, but both Chi-Town and Politico are closer to each other than they are to the old I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which sits at the far end of the deinstitutionalized axis (it was a one-man newsletter that did reporting). And so on and so forth. You might disagree with my exact placements here, so I’d urge folks to chime in, or try the exercise at home.

The area in which I think this little schema can be the most interesting, however, is tracking the progression of new journalism organizations over time. I’ve included two well known media projects here, each of which has shifted its position on the chart. Over time, Talking Points Memo has transformed from a small, deinstitutionalized organization doing mostly aggregation and commentary into a mid-sized, slightly less open institution engaging in a larger amount of original reporting. Over the same period, the website ProPublica shifted from a moderately institutionalized reporting outfit to a slightly larger and more open organization, primarily though its hiring of Amanda Michel and its adoption of a distributed reporting project alongside its traditional journalism. And it’s arguably true that the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos have made similarly important transformations over the years, while it’s also clear that “pure” blogs like Eschaton and Instapundit have stayed pretty much the same.

So what is all this categorizing good for? I think it’s a good way to compare online news organizations, and plot the changes occurring in a news ecosystem over time. I think it’s a good way to finally break down that wall between so-called professional and amateur reporters, by putting them all on the same playing field. I think it might also be good in helping us sort through the terms getting tossed around more and more frequently as the debate over the future of journalism escalates: “aggregators,” “parasites,” “original reporting,” “linking,” and so on. I think it’s a good way to ponder the value and rarity of original reporting, especially on a local level, but it also helps us ask how fact-gathering is different from link-gathering. And I think it’s useful when we evaluate the merits of the various public-policy options being discussed to support journalism.

What is this model not good for? As Matthew Powers points out in his comments on my original post, it’s not good at nuance, particularly at discussing how news organizations are internally divided. It’s not good at examining the links between different organizations and the ways in which these organizations network themselves into being. It’s more about stasis than process. It makes pretty broad generalizations and needs to be grounded in actual research. Finally, as Matt Mireles points out, it doesn’t talk about things like business models, nor does it score news organizations along any sort of ultimate hierarchy — only a relational one.

In the end though, I think the benefits of engaging in these sorts of thought experiments are worth the time and effort they consume. They’re certainly more productive than calling bloggers “pipsqueaks” and participating in food fights. And while we’re all engaged in figuring out the future business models for news, it’s also worth a little time thinking about kind of journalism we want to see and how it all fits together in the larger news ecosystem.

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Justin Ellis    Aug. 25, 2014
Developers, designers, and writers from across the Vox Media family are getting involved in building new storytelling tools for the tech site and plotting its next phase of growth.
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  • Robin Harris

    You need a z-axis as well: level of self-pity and delusion. The WSJ editorial page pegs that, with WaPo’s not far behind. But major media – with the notable exception of McClatchy – isn’t far behind.

    Putting AP dispatches and classified ads on pulp delivered every morning wasn’t a business model: it was a license to print money. The news media sell trust, not fun – although a little fun is ok – and given all the slovenly reporting that passes for “news” who trusts the journos?

    These fantasies about making people pay for content are a joke. Murdoch was gong to make free until he saw how much money they were making – but here’s the kicker: most people who subscribe to are there for the quality journalism and factual content, not the bonehead editorial page. And that’s the rub: most papers don’t produce content worth paying for.

    Until that is fixed the death spiral will continue. And I welcome it.

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  • Aaron Fulkerson

    Great post. Given the recent announcement from The Washington Post’s I think the graph needs updating. I took the liberty of updating it myself. :-) You can find it here:

  • Matt Mireles

    Hey CW,

    Great post! Much more useful and thought provoking than your last one. It’s cool to see that you take comments seriously….

    Anywho, I think you need to explode linking into its own axis. The degree to which a news org links to other content has no neccesary relationship to how much original reporting it does. Look at TechCrunch (my vote for the future of news). They includes tons of links to other content AND they do buttloads of original reporting. Equally, you can have an entirely commentary-driven writer like Frank Rich of NYT who includes lots of links in his work. I think it’s a mistake to treat link-gathering as a variable that dependent upon the relative level of commentary vs fact-finding.

    Now I hate to be the only capitalist in the room, but I do think that you could use this chart to plot out profitability and forecast it going forward. My sense is that very few publications based solely on commentary (left side of spectrum) will be profitable in the future. From a strategy perspective, the barriers to entry are just too low. However, I think we are seeing that original reporting does in fact have value and that organizations who do it are growing in size and revenue.

  • Matt Mireles

    Actually, the more I think of it, the more I think you need to tweak the model.

    1) Fact-finding and opinion are NOT mutually exclusive. They need not have an inverse relationship, although in the traditional newspaper world, they have. Again see, TechCrunch as an example of where they merge both.

    2) As I previously mentioned, hyperlinking and aggregation need not vary with the amount of commentary vs fact-finding in a news org.

    3) Unless you can quantify and define it, “size of organizational resources” is way too vague. Instead, I think we should refer discretely to “number of reporters employed” or “size of newsroom budget,” in actual dollar amounts.

    Institutionalization vs de-institutionalization is the only relationship that really seems to fit the axis metaphor. It might not be as pretty, but perhaps you could score individual orgs on a scale of 1 to 100 for each of these values and then compare them? Once you have them scored, you could then analyze and generalize about their relative cost structures, revenues (CPM, CPE, etc), and web traffic. In this form, you could really start to quantify and really answer these deeper questions that are the point of the lab: What is the Future of News? and What kind of news orgs actually create enough value to be profitable in the internet age?

  • Rachel Van Dongen

    We launched, from the Washington Post Company, on Sept. 9 (check it out here:

    It’s a hybrid wiki with content from an in-house editorial team, official partners (including journalism schools, media orgs and political stakeholders), and the wisdom of the crowds.

    We have two real, live collaborative reporting projects we just debuted. All seem relevant to the very interesting debate here.

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