New models for journalism

The NYTimes is trying yet again to get readers to pay for their website. Early reactionsdon’t seem too positive. I don’t blame the NYT for trying to make money but I am skeptical this initiative will work and I suspect in a few years they will back down like they did with their previous Times Select plan.

At a broader level I don’t think people will ever pay for content in the way they used to. Fundamentally barriers to entry in the content distribution business have fallen dramatically and there is too much free content out there. Some of that content may disappear behind paywalls but what is left will still be good enough for most readers making life all the more difficult for the paysites.

Other models, perhaps from the non-profit sector, will have to replace the subscription model that is crumbling. A couple of ideas:

a) New technology may have created the problem but it also offers the solution. It allows information to be created and disseminated far more cheaply than before. Outsourcing is one obvious cost-cutting measure. It’s also much easier and cheaper to create photos, audio and video than before. The old silo mentality where a journalists creates one type of content is obsolete. Every journalist should be expected to create multiple types of content for every major story they report: a TV reporter might write a blog post or a print reporter creates a quick web video. Media organizations like the NYTimes are already doing this but they need to scale it up creating a lot more content with their existing workforce. This larger content base can then generate more advertising revenue.

b) Non-profits need to get in the journalism business in a much bigger way especially for high-value content like investigative journalism. The costs of creating and distributing this content have plummeted and they can give it away for free as a way of pushing the issues they care about and raise their own profile. Universities , foundations, thinktanks,unions,political parties between them have enormous resources a tiny fraction of which would fund a lot of journalism from a wide variety of viewpoints. Universities are especially promising since they have a ready supply of expertise and students who can do some of the grunt-work for free.

I’m deeply troubled by the churn in the media, but I’m completely puzzled as to what to do about it. On one hand, I know I have benefited greatly from free access to excellent journalism from many sources, including the New York Times, over the past many years. On the other hand, I’m now so spoiled it is hard to imagine paying for access to news.

But the above two points are ideas I feel compelled to respond to: whenever businesses are in trouble, it seems there is someone who thinks that there is some way to get more output from an organization at zero cost. It just boggles my mind how this is thought of as a realistic strategy.

If one wants to have journalists be multi-media producers, then it costs money. The print reporter doesn’t magically have video cameras to post stuff on YouTube. The TV cameraman in Afghanistan can’t just pop off and write a bunch of blog posts without impacting how much footage he is getting per day. Does anyone really think that there isn’t a cost to telling people to do their job differently, especially when “differently” means “produce more things but at the same cost and in the same number of hours per day?”

Same thing with the university or non-profit idea. Professors and grad students are doing things – they can’t just off and become journalists on the side without giving up their studies. “Free labor” isn’t a business model. Try to organize a neighborhood bake sale and you’ll see how motivated people are to do things for free. Sure, one bake sale a year may be okay, but if you want to hold a bake sale a week, people just aren’t going to put in lots of effort out of the goodness of their heart.

Besides, the real cost of good journalism isn’t how much cameras and PCs cost, IMHO. The cost of journalism relates to the value of people who are good journalists – who understand the issues, are motivated and insightful, and know how to get things done. That value cannot just be wished into existence, nor can you replace an investigative reporter with a TV cameraman doing a little extra work on Wednesdays and Fridays; and forget about hoping for grad students to do good work in informing the public – 98% of blogs are completely useless as reliable sources of information, and two thirds of blogs are written by grad students. At least, according to this one blog I once read.

Isn’t this the third attempt by the Times to go to a pay model? Why on earth do they think it will work this time?

They have one of the most popular websites on the planet. I realize online advertising isn’t as lucrative as print, but still, its kind of bizarre they can’t generate enough revenue that way.

My point is that technology had made the production of journalism a lot more flexible and this allows new content to be created at relatively little extra cost. The old model was immensely wasteful because it divided journalists into silos because by and large newspapers, TV stations and radio stations were separate organizations. Today the BBC , for example, is effectively a major newspaper through its website. The NYTimes is becoming a major source of video journalism and so on.

I am obviously not talking about a TV cameraman becoming a writer. I am talking about a reporter who writes, takes photos, does quick web-videos and contributes to a podcast. I don’t claim that these extra activities will be costless but I do think their marginal cost is quite low when the basic fixed cost of being at the scene and learning about the issue has been incurred. This is because the technology of creating and distributing content has become incredibly cheap. My phone is perfectly capable of taking reasonable photos and shooting video and posting it anywhere around the world. This content doesn’t have to be at a level of a professional photojournalist or TV crew. It just has to be good enough to add to the story and draw eyeballs. For a trained reporter it shouldn’t be difficult.

Like I said newspapers like the NYTimes already do this. For example Nick Kristoff does a lot more than write his column. He writes a blog, shoots videos, takes photos etc. What media organizations need to do is to pursue this systematically for all the stories they do and train their reporters accordingly. And if they don’t do this, smaller web outfits which are more flexible will do it instead.

I find it funny that news organizations once tried to run blogs down - and now expend considerable money and energy to get their top journalists and commentators to go to work blogging for them. At least we don’t hear much anymore about “pajama bloggers” - an ignorant and dismissive term that didn’t distinguish between bloggers who knew their stuff and those who didn’t.

Some blogs are pretty well respected - Scotusblog is sited as a source pretty often by these selfsame newspapers in Supreme Court coverage. These blogs rise and fall according to the work they do, same as any other media.

The old model of getting journalists to go out and cover stories they had little expertise with by doing cold research or asking experts seems terribly inefficient today - and this applied to much journalism in the old days, except for those stories that fell into someone’s “beat” or area of expertise. Why not let the expert himself write the story, whereever that happens to appear? Even if it is an opinionated view, it likely isn’t the only viewpoint being aired and the debate can proceed.

“Hi, Dr. Expert, this is Mike at the New York Times. We know a dam broke and killed 800 people up there. We were wondering if you could write a couple hundred words about what happened?”

“Why should I?”

“Well, because this is the New York Times, and you’re an expert, and whatever you write will be read by millions of people”

“How much will you pay me?”

(Protracted haggling about price ensues.)

“Okay, I’ll try and get something to you next week.”

“Um, but this is news. People are interested in it right now.”

(Protracted haggling about deadline ensues.)

“Oh, and please visit the site, take a video camera with you, interview at least one eyewitness, get a count of the dead and missing and talk to the local emergency management director to get an idea of how they’re coping.”


Yes that’s what I am getting at. Universities, think-tanks , unions and other NGO’s already have deep expertise on a range of issues they care about. The marginal cost of creating high-quality journalism is lower for such institutions and technology has vastly lowered the barriers to entry into the media business.

Let me give an example of what I have in mind for a university. First of all many students do contribute to students newspapers for free presumably because they enjoy it and because it contributes to their resume and learning. The key will be to combine this free resource with professional expertise to create a higher quality of journalism.

So you would hire a few professional journalists to run the journalism projects and supervise the students. You would also hire a bunch of professors from various departments to spend 20% of their time working on journalism projects and this is factored into their appointments. The key is that though you pay for 20% of their time they are also bringing the expertise they have accumulated through their careers. The university also brings in some of the technical infrastructure like computers and media equipment which they typically already possess and don’t use to full capacity anyway.

All this would probably not cost the university more than a few million dollars a year; not that big a deal for a major university. It would be a major public service raising their profile and would also contribute to the education and future careers of the participating students. Multiply this by a few dozen major universities and you could create quite a lot of good journalism particularly the local investigative journalism which many people are especially worried about. My hunch is that this type of hybrid model could create better journalism at a lower cost than the traditional model.

Yeah, I used to be an editor at my college paper. Granted, it was a small college, but it was crap. Total crap.

I also grew up in a college town. Top tier public university, complete with journalism school. The university paper was crap. Not total crap, just 30% crap.

Again, you can’t depend on people to do things for free, whether they are professors, students, or neighbors.

I’m sorry, a few million dollars IS A BIG DEAL. I work in the Federal government, what with it’s $3.5 trillion dollar budget, a few million dollars is still a very big deal.

And you’re still missing the point that full time people do better work than dilettantes.

This has already been going on for years. It’s not the cure to any of the problems you’re discussing.

This is wrong. The cost of putting content online, for example, has plummeted. The cost of paying people to make it has not.

College students can’t replace the work done by experienced professionals. That’s what makes one group college students and the other group veterans. They can do some of the grunt work, I agree, but that’s the most disposable stuff. The Times is not using its Pulitzer winners to write local obituaries.

“Experts” aren’t writers. First of all they generally don’t have time to write a story for the newspapers, certainly not for free. Second, they often can’t write. There’s no reason someone who is an expert in one area should be good at writing a complete newspaper article about an event in their field, in fact I would say that hardly any are. And I do not exclude myself.

“Experts” are quoted by writers. :smiley:

The costs in terms of time of doing many things has plummeted. This means more can be done by a single person who is paid the same amount. This includes:
[li]basic research on a story[/li][li]communicating with potential sources[/li][li]creating and editing photos and videos[/li][li]transmitting content from the field to the main office[/li][/ul]

There are also lots of potential economies in outsourcing less essential functions to cheaper countries. I am not implying that you can always get the same quality as before at a lower price. Sometimes it’s perhaps 60% of the quality at 20% of the cost. However that , along with new models of distribution, fundamentally alters the economics of the industry. If traditional media organizations won’t adopt new models, someone else will and distribute the content for free.

I am not talking about college students and other volunteers doing all the work. I am talking about volunteers collaborating with paid professionals. I do believe a fair amount of the grunt work of journalism could be done by volunteers supervised by professionals.

And I wouldn’t exaggerate the expertise of professional reporters. Often they have a limited knowledge of the subjects they are covering. For example few business or economic journalists know much about the academic literature relevant to the subject they are covering. Their articles are often superficial “he said she said” efforts because they can’t do an authoritative analysis themselves. IMO a team of students, journalists and academics working together will often do a much better job than the current model particularly for long-form investigative journalism.

One of the things that concerns me regarding modern journalism is the trend towards “Infotainment” and Celebrity Gossip, with stuff from Facebook and Twitter increasingly taking the place of actual research into stories and analysis.

There are several reasons for this IMHO, but of the ones I’m least likely to get flamed over, I’d say one of the more prominent is that the way people have accessed news has changed and that whilst distribution costs have gone down, so have advertising revenues. And whilst there’s a trend towards UGC (User Generated Content, AKA “Free Content, Hurrah!”) nowadays, that doesn’t change the fact that professional journalists, photographers, web designers etc don’t work for free.

There’s also issues with information overload (There’s just so much going on it’s hard for people- even in the media- to keep up), and increased competition. In Ye Olde Days starting your own newspaper was an expensive proposition. Nowadays anyone with an internet connection and a computer (or even a smartphone) can be a blogger if they want.

First to define some terms.

Hard journalism: 1) Straight news reporting, often beat based, i.e. courts, crime, business, etc. 2) Investigative and analytic reporting. There is significant overlap, but I would say investigative focuses on exposés of previously unknown events and information, while analytic is in-depth reports that focus on known issues. The first was traditionally the province of the dailies, while the latter was the province of the weekly news mags.

Soft journalism: 1)Infotainment - some good, some bad. Arts criticism, food and dining features, entertainment event calendars - good. Celebrity scandals and gossip, superficial profiles, fluff stories - bad.

Advocacy journalism: 1)Op-eds, most blogs and think tanks. No pretense at being un-biased, but presenting strong arguments and information for their particular point of view. (Arts criticism can easily fit in here also.)

I agree that hard journalism needs major reform especially at the local level. The commercial market will continue to trend toward soft journalism, since it makes less waves and does not piss off advertisers or sources. Such a trend is decent for magazines, but horrible for the dailies. Advocacy journalism has no shortage of practitioners.

I think that hard journalism will have to continue to turn toward non-profits or public institutions since that seems to be the only sector that can guarantee the independence needed for that type of reporting. Some form of public funding may be necessary, but that could be limited to just capital costs, and donors and subscription fees used for operational funding. Just granting tax-exempt status could be sufficient support (though I personally doubt it.)

I also agree that universities can play a large role there, but also public libraries. Not to have librarians become journalists, but that local community journalism could find a good home under their umbrella. Journalists and librarians are two sides of the same coin - information. The former create it and the latter archive it. Formal partnerships, under either a public or non-profit organizational model, between journalism schools, public universities and public broadcasting would pick up a lot of the slack from commercial journalism.

Students and volunteer/citizen journalists can definitely play a larger role in beat reporting, while veteran professional journalists can focus on investigative, analytic and editorial roles.

One thing I would love to see and would gladly purchase would be monthly digests of investigative and analytic news, particularly at the local level. (All the ‘facts’ - none of the ‘fluff’.) I don’t know of any newspaper or mag that has ever done so, but I think it would be a decent supplemental income. Print copies would not even be necessary. Just send me a PDF of all the stories (minus the advertisements and infotainment. A section devoted to advocacy journalism would be okay since it serves as a good barometer of public opinion.)

Hard journalism is definitely going through rough times, but if it leads to model where it is seen as a public service (and thus deserving of public support) and not a commercial venture, then I think that would be an improvement in the long term. Let commercial publishers continue to focus on advertiser-supported soft journalism.

Another major reform I think needs to occur is the formal professionalization of ‘hard’ journalists. Something similar to lawyers or accountants, where journalists who pass the ‘bar’, are granted greater credentials and protections than ‘soft’ non-credentialed reporters (who often love to claim they are not journalists anyway and thus not required to meet journalistic standards hiding behind 1st amendment speech protections over those for the press.) Rather than requiring the latter to disclose if they are really journalists or not, I would make it easier for those that wish to be hard journalists to distinguish themselves. Allow them to post their certification in their by-lines (such as John Smith, CPA, or Esq.). Anyone who does so without certification could then be fined.

I would follow the same institutional model as the bar associations or accounting societies - primarily self-regulated, but sanctioned/endorsed by legal statutes. Some of that infrastructure is already in place. It would mostly be a matter of taking it to the next level.

Quite. I have been a Sunday newspaper subeditor for 10 years now, and chief sub of one section of the newspaper for three and a half years. In that time, the job has changed out of all recognition. I work a five-shift/four-day week, and in the past I had four days to get the section out. In an ideal world, it took about three and half days to put the section to bed and the remaining half day was spent getting as much done on the following week’s section as possible.

Now, the whole print section has to be done in three days (ideally two and a half), with the remaining day spent redoing the whole section for the iPad edition. I think the powers that be imagined this would just be a case of cutting and pasting the text into new page templates, job done. No, it requires new layouts, new interactive images and graphics to commission, reflowing and re-editing copy, producing a plain-text version, proofreading, correcting, and so on and so forth.

And did I mention all the extra online-only blogs we now have to sub as well? And extra news in brief items, online-only videos, picture galleries, captions…

All this, and we have about 30% fewer staff in the department than we had 10 years ago.