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Dec. 20, 2012, 8:19 p.m.

A market-driven comeback for high-quality reporting

“2013 will be a unique snapshot in time: the incumbents, fighting to stave off the disruptors, will invest in original journalism, and the disruptors, fighting to increase their market share, will also invest in original journalism.”

When the judges and juries sit down in early 2014 to review the journalism entries for the Pulitzer Prize, they’ll be awash with some of the highest caliber submissions in decades. It is this author’s humble opinion that 2013 will be remembered as the year investigative and beat reporting makes a comeback.

This past year, I had the privilege of studying with Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen. We tried to apply his theories of disruption to the media industry. We outlined our research in the Nieman Reports article “Breaking News.”

I’m bullish on high-quality journalism because, as the dust settles, we’ll see traditional news organizations move further up-market, investing in the kind of journalism and story telling people will pay for. We’ll also see disruptive news organizations further establish themselves as forces to be reckoned with, moving into the space abandoned by those news organizations that have cut back on in-depth reporting.

Let’s start with the traditional news organizations.

What began as a trickle with The New York Times instituting their metered-model paywall in March 2011 turned into a flood in 2012. More than 300 newspapers in the United States now charge for online content. That number has doubled in just one year.

What these news organizations are realizing is that you can’t charge for content that is available elsewhere for free. For these pay models to work, traditional news organizations need to make sure that they are satisfying the jobs that audiences, through their subscriptions, effectively hire news organizations to fulfill. At a most basic level, this means providing what Jim Moroney from The Dallas Morning News calls PICA: perspective, interpretation, context, and analysis.

In 2013, when the initial subscription results from all those paywalls comes in, those news organizations will recognize that they have no choice but to produce high-end journalism that stands out above the crowd. They’ll need to better satisfy their audiences’ jobs-to-be-done, and that means investing in high quality, in-depth reporting.

Now let’s turn to the disruptors.

They’ve been riding high for several years. It’s easy to cheaply aggregate and curate original journalism when others are investing in the resources necessary to generate those pageviews. But the days of “link bait” are coming to an end.

The disruptors have themselves been disrupted. A cursory Google search on the news story of your choice shows that virtually every media organization is now in the curation game. The challenge for these aggregators is that drastic cutbacks in many of those traditional newsrooms mean they can no longer rely on traditional newsrooms to do the heavy lifting. In order to stand out, the disruptors now need to invest in some original reporting of their own.

We’ve already seen this happen with The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Gawker. They’ve launched impressive original content verticals, not because they’ve wanted to (although no doubt their intentions are noble), but because they’ve had to fill the vacuum left by diminishing providers of original content. Disruption theory argues that they’ll continue to move up market. They have no choice because as they grow, they need to further increase their audiences.

2013 will be a unique snapshot in time: the incumbents, fighting to stave off the disruptors, will invest in original journalism, and the disruptors, fighting to increase their market share, will also invest in original journalism. This is great news for all of us.

Making predictions is a dangerous game, especially in a world where an article will live on for all to see. But my prediction is based on a theory, an underlying understanding of what causes what and why. Understanding Christensen’s theories and how they apply to journalism is about as close to predicting the future as one can get. For example, those familiar with how the automobile industry was disrupted by low-end manufacturers like Toyota, and recently, Hyundai and Kia, know that what happened was exactly what Christensen predicted. Here’s hoping that these theories apply equally as well to journalism. If they do, 2013 will be the next great year for all of us.

David Skok is director of digital for the Canadian news portal Globalnews.ca. He was a 2012 Martin Wise Goodman Canadian Nieman Fellow.
POSTED     Dec. 20, 2012, 8:19 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Predictions for Journalism 2013
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