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March 25, 2014, 2:52 p.m.
LINK: stratechery.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 25, 2014

Ben Thompson, a smart observer of the technology world (lots of interesting stuff at his blog Stratechery), has a piece up on the future of news. It’s a useful outsider’s view of the business, and he’s right about the unsustainable nature of anything resembling the classic newspaper business model.

The reason why I find business models so fascinating is because your business model is your destiny; newspapers made their bed with advertisers, and when advertisers left for a better product, the newspaper was doomed. To change destiny, journalists need to fundamentally rethink their business:

— More and more journalism will be small endeavors, often with only a single writer. The writer will have a narrow focus and be an expert in the field they cover. Distribution will be free (a website), and most marketing will be done through social channels. The main cost will be the writer’s salary.

— Monetization will come from dedicated readers around the world through a freemium model; primary content will be free, with increased access to further discussions, additional writing, data, the author, etc. available for-pay.

— A small number of dedicated news organizations focused on hard news (including the “Baghdad bureau”) will survive after a difficult transition to a business model primarily focused on subscriptions, with premium advertising4 as a secondary line of revenue. This is the opposite of the traditional model, where advertising is the primary source of revenue, with subscriptions secondary.

This transition will be a painful one: the number of traditional journalists and newspapers will decrease dramatically. Moreover, those that succeed will need to have a much expanded skillset from journalists of yore, including basic website management, self-promotion, business skills, speaking ability, etc. (teaching these skills is an important opportunity for journalism schools). What is sure to be most frightening — or exciting, depending on your outlook — is that the market will, for the first time in the history of news, be the ultimate arbiter of what writers are worthwhile.

I think that’s mostly right (though I’d bet on networks combining/allying/providing backoffice services to those journalists rather than a sea of one-person operations). But it’s possible to think (a) the Internet is amazing, (b) the Internet has been amazing for news, opening up far greater access to content, far greater diversity of content, and far greater specialization of content, but also that (c) some of the things that the market won’t support are nonetheless worth doing.

That, to me, is the big remaining question: Who will do the long, inefficient-by-nature investigations and the watchdog coverage of the local governments too boring for most people to watch? It’s very easy to get nostalgic for the newspaper days and overestimate how much of that stuff really existed — plenty of corruption managed to slip past journalists even at newspapers’ financial peak. But that work and its benefits were real, and thus far, it barely exists online at the local level outside newspapers.

My guess at the answer to that question is some combination of (a) nonprofit news outlets reliant on the philanthropic market rather than the advertising or subscription ones, (b) the rumps of old newspapers, smaller but still intermittently fiesty, (c) some for-profit local startups, but very unevenly distributed. And (d) plenty of stories will be missed along the way.

But plenty of stories have always been missed. For me, the enormous explosion of everything else online is a more than fair trade for that. But that doesn’t make the loss any less real.

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