will blue skies emerge for the journalism industry?
The Future of Journalism – it’s a phrase that should come with onomatopoeic sound effects (preferably something like “Whooosh!” rather than “Plop!”), as it implies a bold future full of cutting edge techniques and narratives.
The reality is that despite the concerted efforts of experts, schools, industry leaders and journalists no one really knows what the future of journalism will be. I respect these people: I’m in the mix, too, of trying to predict (or is it decide?) what the future looks like.
Given that the jury is still out on the future of the music and film industries – two fields that have suffered through shifting business models for a longer period than journalism – I suspect it will be awhile before journalism finds its next true path. Rest assured the future of journalism will in some way be tied to the revenue models of whatever formats emerge.
In my reading, I’ve found several different models that all claim to show the future of journalism. Each has potential, in my opinion, but I’m not certain that any can truly and uniquely claim to be the future of the craft, at least at this nascent stage.
Either way, here is a sometimes baffling, sometimes inspiring, often contradictory list of potential ways forward for the journalism industry.
- Community Funded Reporting: As represented by Spot.Us, the public can commission investigative pieces by journalists, which can then be re-purposed by other (ie: larger, mainstream) outlets. The community members make donations that, with reporter fund-raising, offset the costs of the investigative pieces. If pieces are purchased by larger outlets, the community payments are reimbursed, and if not they exists for wider distribution under a Creative Commons license. The public benefits from having topics of concern looked into, the journalists benefit by having the high cost of their investigations covered (ideally), and mainstream news outlets benefit by picking up pieces from a wide pool of proven freelancers.
- Hyperlocal and Nichepaper sites: To offset the crazy glut of information that we are all drowning in, Hyperlocal and Nichepaper sites suggest a radical reduction in the amount of news received, through very deliberate filtering. Hyperlocal sites (such as EveryBlock, or Placeblogger) carry or aggregate the news of extremely specific locations, such as certain districts, neighbourhoods, or even street corners; Nichepaper sites (such as TalkingPointsMemo, the now-defunct Pharmalot, or even Huffington Post) create and filter content specific to certain topics, such as politics, entertainment, etc., and allow a more profitable advertising margin for parent companies due to targeting a more dedicated audience.
- Online Only News Sources: As obvious as it may seem, the move to online-only news sources seems to be a relatively new model for news delivery (at least in terms of professional journalism goes). This could be a result of traditional (print, broadcast) media outlets not knowing how to heavily monetize the ‘net, or not trusting the web as news source without being complemented by more traditional delivery models. Online News Sources such as Global Post, the recently-shifted Seattle Post-Intelligencer, or Ground Report represent examples under this model.
- Foundation-Funded News Sources: ProPublica comes up as an example of the newer breed of foundation-funded media outlets. Courtesy of the Sandler Foundation (and, to borrow a phrase, “viewers like you”) ProPublica uses its funding to focus on investigative journalism, which is usually the most respected but least funded area of any news outlet. Other outlets (such as Grist) are funded by a combination of foundation funds, advertising and donations – it is a similar model to PBS and NPR in the US.
- Please Ignore the Dinosaurs: Sites such as Open Salon, NowPublic, and a great many others, bypass the top-down traditional media model entirely by carrying content written by the laymen (note: some of these laymen are actually experienced journalists). The model is gaining momentum, despite the obvious concerns about the veracity of information, sources and formal training, and could offer a way forward – especially if this flat business model is hybridized with other models, such as the hyperlocal example above or page-count-based model below.
- Please Feed the Dinosaurs: This model suggests that citizen journalists feed stories into the more traditional news outlets, who can then run with the story. At its best, this model offers a hybrid of trained journalism and the immediacy of on-the-ground footage and opinion (an example being NewAssignment). This model offers hope for the future because it is based on the engagement of readers and (again, at its best) a conversation between a news outlet and its committed readership – an arrangement of interest to many advertisers, with potential for value-add branding opportunities – that also benefits from the standards of professional journalist involvement. (NOTE: Before everyone gets their hackles up about me calling print-based newspapers dinosaurs, rest assured that I am both a fan and subscriber to the old, flat trees.)
- Page-Count-Based Journalism: A model that pulls straight from web analytics tracks the popularity of a journo’s piece and generates revenue for the writer based on the amount of advertising the page brings. Sites such as Newsvine even offers a leaderboard where you can see how popular contributors’ pieces are.
- Underwritten Journalism: Finally, a model representing the Ol Skool (as in, the ol skool patronage of the Medici family) sees writers receive funding from companies for the content they write. One example would be Xconony, whose writers are not specifically journalists (rather, writers are presented as “experts” in their field), or Stephenville Dreams, where the corporate sponsor expects no specific mention of their products in the site they helped originate, fund, host and benefit from. Clearly there are some gray areas in these models that raise concerns about conflicts of interest (or the payola models of mainstream radio), but perhaps there are ways to operate inside these models with transparency.
The above is only a short list of ways that the journalism field is trying to revolutionize its business model. Each of these examples is in use now, and we’ll be able to assess the effectiveness of each one in the coming months and years, as more information becomes known and more writers experiment with different revenue structures.
As well, new models will emerge as technology changes and new tools become so widespread as to become ubiquitous – a recurring theme in the news media.
If you know of other models that I’ve overlooked, or have thoughts on the above, please leave a comment.