Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Hole in the New Journalism Economy

For those of us who are interested in the future and potential futures of humanitarian and accountability journalism, there are three current must-read pieces online by Clay Shirky, Brent Cunningham and David Campbell. Each piece gives a different perspective on a shared and painful truth that faces journalism in the near and medium range future--the lack of a sustainable economic model for professional reporting.

Clay Shirky gives an excellent talk over at the Nieman Journalism Lab where he lays out how monolithic organizations like the New York Times were able to fund accountability journalism through advertisers. The nut of it is this: advertisers don't really want to be a part of accountability journalism but there simply weren't enough outlets for them to reach the audience and so they had to buy into newspapers. By buying ads in one section they supported the whole organization. The same was true for readers. One might want the sports section, the other the crossword puzzle, another the arts section and so on, but each had to pay for the whole thing.

That monolithic package kept the newsroom open. Now with newer efficiencies and many more options, the erosion of the monolithic news organization is leaving the newsroom with fewer and fewer options for income. The result? The demise of accountability journalism on a medium scale, ie state and federal reporting. Crowd sourcing can handle the hyper-local and the few remaining news organizations can handle the global, but state and federal reporting is severely diminished. Corruption goes up and accountability drops.

In the second piece, Brent Cunningham in the Columbia Journalism Review calls for journalism to step up to its role as citizen advocate and to renounce its recent functions as a mouthpiece for those with power and influence. This is an excellent and lengthy read on what hasn't been done well and what journalism could offer as a fourth estate that monitors and challenges public discourse to keep it honest and fair.

And finally, David Campbell has a thorough and thought provoking series on his blog that examines the new media strategies that are available or are being considered for journalism as it transitions into the internet. There are many new options for multimedia storytelling and rethinking the arrangement of information away from linear to nodal and matrixed forms.

To oversimplify things a bit, Shirky demonstrates why there is no current sustainable economic model for accountability journalism, Cunningham lays out in detail what journalism could offer that is of direct value to citizen consumers, and Campbell gives a look at the tools and strategies that will be employed in the new journalism of tomorrow.

If Shirky is right and the last century of accountability journalism was coincidentally funded by advertising, then the increasing and more targeted options available to advertisers are only going to continue to move them away from it. Without advertising, the current economic options for reporting dwindle. Since the only revenue sources available online are advertising related, there is no sustainable economic model going forward. And that is the hole at the center of all three of these discussions.

Cunningham's piece in CJR offers a good picture of the kind of journalism that would provide real value to consumers in our democracy, value that is worth supporting financially in some way. That is something to aim for.

In the meantime, the market has gotten so used to the idea of accountability journalism being invisibly bundled with other ad funded media that it has little or no market presence. That has to change. For the market to recognize the value of a fourth estate, even as flawed as it has been, it may have to experience its absence.

What will emerge will likely be a new economy of some kind. To put it in venture capital parlance, the pain of the market will make a new solution somewhere down the road. But there is a significant gap between where we are today and the time in the future when consumers are brought to a position where the pain is tangibly real and paying money for accountability journalism in some fashion is better than enduring a world without it.

Addendum: It's worth noting that this is primarily an American narrative. Other countries such as the UK have decided that journalism is a public good that is worth state funding. In my market in the US, local budget cuts at NPR have led to significant cuts in programming which have been replaced by the BBC World News. So, a big thank you goes out to the citizens of the UK who pay through their taxes to keep the BBC functioning. And you can already see how the shift is taking place toward the split between the global and the hyper-local.

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