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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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.

— Joshua Benton
                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    July 22, 2014
The site known for social media and tech coverage has hired nearly 30 more editorial staffers since October and, like BuzzFeed before it, is expanding into more general interest news.
  • Walt French

    Traditional journalism also provided curation and reputation. The former has mostly been replaced by Googling stories or my twitter feed touting “you *must* see this landslide diagram” and the latter depends on a pretty good recollection of individuals’ expertise in covering fields that I care about.

    I have lots of problems with traditional media’s choice of what makes the front page, or even a couple inches at the bottom of page A-12. But I see almost none of that once we leave the relics behind.

    We have plenty of fine analysts (like Ben) but we still need the people who can wrestle a story that doesn’t want to be exposed. And even more, independent, even antagonistic organizations siccing reporters on what the populace needs and wants reported.

  • Greg Lucid

    With more and more bedroom communities existing throughout America, it will be the future demise of homes and a massive, progressive way of re-developing localities that will save community journalism. A number of citizens in suburbia or rural areas have to commute long distances each day to work. Often, many do not know what is going on in their respective residential community. Enter community journalism. Thing is, what happens when a given community has an abundance of homes and not enough industry to keep its residents gainfully employed? And then what about said community’s small businesses? Where are the majority of their customers? Likely working somewhere else. This is where a massive restructuring of planning and zoning steps in for people.The current teenagers and twenty-somethings likely will take their time in deciding whether or not to invest in buying a home. If the demand for homes slides, which it could with the increasing cost of higher education, then what happens? Do banks control communities? Can zoning be revised? Community journalism is just as much about smart planning and zoning as it is about getting the news out there.

  • Greg Lucid

    The overthrow of bedroom communities and big-box development, coupled with a massive, progressive way of re-developing neighborhoods, can save community journalism. A number of citizens in suburbia and rural areas have to commute long distances each day to work. Often, many do not know what is going on in their respective residential neighborhood. Enter community journalism. The thing is, what happens when a given community has an abundance of homes but not enough industry to keep its residents gainfully employed? And then what about said community’s small businesses such as community media? Where are the majority of their customers? Likely working somewhere else. This is where a massive restructuring of planning and zoning steps in for people. The current teenagers and twenty-somethings likely will take their time in deciding whether or not to invest in buying a home. If the demand for homes goes down, which it could with the increasing cost of higher education, then what happens? Can zoning ever be revised? Community journalism is just as much about smart planning and zoning, and keeping residents local, as it is about getting the news out there.