A Glimpse at the Future of Journalism

A Glimpse at the Future of Journalism

What will the news look like after the newspapers disappear?

Journalists and analysts are once again thrashing around, tearing out their hair, spilling ink, and burning pixels over the fate of newspaper publishing. The latest catalyst: the bankruptcy of the Tribune Corporation.

It’s no secret that the industry’s future is bleak, and death is always a worthy story. But you seldom read about ideas for completely overhauling the industry. I don’t know why—music and cars get that treatment all the time. Perhaps it’s too much to ask journalists to prescribe their own cure—like asking a surgeon to perform a heart transplant on herself. Yet the ideas do exist. A brilliant one is Spot.us.

The site was seeded with a grant from the Knight News Challenge, a competition that rewards start ups creating new platforms for journalism. Spot.us is a clearinghouse for publicly funded journalism. Anyone can post news tips, and journalists can also pitch stories to users, who can then donate towards the reporting and writing of a story. Whether it lives or dies, the genius of Spot.us is that, unlike basically every publication started in the last 100 years, it isn’t based on ad revenues. If a story’s worth reading, the theory goes, the readers should be willing to pay for it directly.

To understand why that’s unusual, it’s important to realize that most newspaper profits don’t come from subscription or newsstand sales, but rather from the advertisers. Industry observers still believe that this basic structure will hold online, though it likely won’t be able to support massive organizations like Tribune Co. But the premise of basing some smaller version of old media on advertising is probably flawed, because advertising itself might rest on a rotting business model.

Why? First, you could argue that we live in a world drowning in advertising and it has taught us to more effectively tune ads out. If we haven’t quite learned that lesson, it’s being accelerated online—revenues, per reader, are far lower online than they are for print. That pattern is interpretable in two related ways: First, ad impressions aren’t as valuable online—for every ad dollar that a print reader brings in, an online reader brings in just ten to fifteen cents. That’s due to the nature of the web, which has users actively seeking relevant information, so they can more easily ignore ads—rather than passively consuming them in a newspaper or an hour of television. Meanwhile, the web offers advertisers incredibly rich ways of tracking how well their ads are performing, which means it also provides a truer pricing mechanism for ads. Ads have thus come up wanting; they never were as worthwhile as the ad agencies and management consultants had hoped—and companies know that now.

If the ad model is breaking down—which seems to be the case—journalism’s production model needs a revision. That’s the greatest promise of a site like Spot.us: It’s a glimpse into the DNA of a new-media baby that’s not even born yet. Once you’ve mulled its basic structure, it’s easy to imagine dozens of alternative versions. For example, geopolitical consultancies are printing money by writing reports for firms operating in dicey regions. Journalists could do that same work, if they simply had a site connecting them with the proper clients. (As on Spot.us, publishing rights could be structured into the deal.)

The crossroads that media now faces recalls a similar situation from the interstice between the Renaissance and the Industrial age. At that time, the model that supported writers and the written word changed completely. Writers, who once depended on the largesse of a patron, suddenly had to earn their money from a publisher. (The changeover eventually led to the rise of advertising.) Early on, self-published pamphlets and myriad (scurrilous) “news” sources littered European streets.

Sound familiar? We now live in the rubble of an obliterated system. We can hear a million new voices, on blogs and Twitter. The media is becoming more specialized—think of how narrowly focused the best blogs are—but also more trivial and shrill.

My guess about the shape of publishing’s future is that there won’t be a “bridge” between this phase and the next. Rather, in a situation analogous to 200 years ago, we’ll see the wholesale collapse of our present big-media system, and its replacement with another that severs the cord with advertising revenue. In the meantime, we’ll get teases of the future, through sites like Spot.us, as investors and charities like the Knight Foundation do the hard work of panning for new ideas.

(Image: Derived from a photo by Flickr user eschipul.)

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