Journalism: What next?

For many news and media businesses to survive the recession and thrive after it has ended, they will have to adapt to the economics of abundance. It’s something that I’ve written about before, and Clay Shirky continues to make some of the most cogent comments about the economics of abundance and what many have been calling the attention economy for the last few years. From a keynote at the National Federation of Advanced Information Services, Clay says:

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does. Society knows how to react to scarcity.

Ann Michael at Scholarly Kitchen blog (which is now in my RSS feeds) for the Society of Scholarly Publishing also quotes Clay as saying:

It’s easy to say “preserve the best of the old and combine it with the best of the new,” but in revolution, the best of the new is incompatible with the best of the old. It’s about doing things a whole new way.

I have struggled with this tension ever since I became a digital journalist in 1996. I knew that the internet would radically disrupt journalism the first time I first used a web browser at a student computer lab at the University of Illinois in August 1993.

However, I have always, always advocated and hoped for a transition that would wed the best of the old with the opportunities provided by the new. As I often say, I’m a very traditional journalist in terms of standards and ethics who uses cutting edge tools. However, it’s clear that many news organisations don’t have the resources anymore even to make strategic decisions about keeping the best of the old and combining it with the best of the new. Tough decisions will need to be made about what they stop doing. It’s sadly, no longer an option to continue doing everything they did in the past.

What is rare in a ‘world of cheap perfect copies’?

As Adam Tinworth said recently, publishers don’t have a great track record of adapting to this disruptive development:

We, as an industry, botched the transition online. We treated the internet as, at best, the poor cousin of the print title, to be filled with the left-overs from the established product and, at worst, a mere marketing device. Then, when the invention of the single most efficient information distribution mechanism mankind has yet come up with transformed our industry and its economics, we descended into panic.

How did print botch the transition online? It wasn’t for lack of trying. Steve Yelvington, someone I consider both a friend and mentor, was one of the few people who can say he was there at the beginning in terms of the internet and print, working on digital projects in the early 1990s. In his post, “Early to the game but late to learn how to play“, he makes a key observation:

The future gets created by individuals full of fire and passion, not institutions.

Clay supports Steve’s view and experience. It wasn’t that print publishers didn’t see this coming. They tried a number of plans. Clay said:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!”

The focus on preserving the legacy institution continues, and if you look at most of the paid content strategies, they are largely based on monetising current activities and content. About the only exception to this is recent attempts to sell iPhone apps and apps and content for the iPad, Kindle and new media slates. However, in terms of the web, most of the talk is about different ways to get people to pay for existing content created using existing forms of organisation and existing methods of newsgathering.

The problem that Clay is pointing out is that the economics of content have shifted. What will people pay for? Journalists will instantly say distinctive writing. Most journalists think their writing distinctive, but let’s be honest and even slightly logical here. If everything is distinctive, it’s no longer distinctive is it? Distinctive writing will only work for a very small group of writers. Thinking we can all be distinctive writers is like every 5-a-side footie player thinking he or she can play in the World Cup.

To pay for great reporting and great writing and the social mission of journalism, we’re going to have to think beyond the story in the digital age. We’re going to have to think about services that deliver value to audiences. In a world of content with “more alternatives than the human brain can process” as Steve puts it, suddenly intelligent, social filters become important and useful. People now pay for ‘filters’ that distill the vast amount of information produced everyday or every week into something human scale, for instance magazines like The Week. Smart, social filters can do better.

As I was writing this, I have found an example of people ready to pay for a deeper connection to those they trust. I grew up west of Chicago, and I grew up watching the At the Movies, hosted by Chicago film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They were famous for their thumbs up or thumbs down movie reviews. Roger Ebert has just launched a club in which he offers some extras to his loyal fans, including special private discussions, advance ticket sales to his Ebertfest and a meet-and-greet at the festival with club members. They are only charging $5 a year. Read the comments. For everyone who thinks the web is full of nothing but venom, read those comments. Granted, he is a cancer survivor who lost his voice four years ago and just had an emotional appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, but here is someone who has created a community.

Distilled insight, intelligence and connection. Content may not be rare in a ‘world of cheap perfect copies’, but these things still are. People will support organisations that deliver this. That’s where I see my future in journalism.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

3 thoughts on “Journalism: What next?

  1. Hi Kevin
    … just a touch of the melancholy about your post – and I’m sure you’ll find niches in which you can prosper (it’ll be more than one).
    —-

    “Thinking we can all be distinctive writers is like every 5-a-side footie player thinking he or she can play in the World Cup.”

    One thought – more of an expansion than anything else – on what makes writing distinctive. In ‘ink on paper’ media, the words are paramount: there’s little else a writer can do, once they’ve found their publication.

    Digital creates a proliferation of publications, which in turn allows writers to find interest-specific contexts for their output. Now, don’t you think that highly relevant, timely writing can be “great writing” when it’s in the right context? And perhaps some of the writing quality can be traded-off against that immediacy & relevance?

    No, not everybody will be saved/elevated by context alone… and yet I reckon that in the right context some folk can play as if they’re in the World Cup.

    Will

  2. Will,

    Thanks for the comment, and I agree about your points about context, timeliness, depth and other ways to be distinctive in this new world. In some ways, the inability of established media organisations to adapt is a lack of awareness of these new ways to create a unique offering.

    The melancholy you rightly detect isn’t necessarily about my own future. Suw and I are very excited about our next steps, and they are coming together very well, possibly even better than we anticipated. I didn’t jump into the great wide open without a clue. “Distilled insight, intelligence and connection.” That’s the direction we’re headed in, and we can’t wait to get to work.

    Where does the melancholy come from? I was at the BBC eight years, and half of that time, I saw cuts. I will leave the Guardian after three and a half years, and again, for about half of the time, there were cuts. I’m continuing in the direction I’ve always been going, towards the future of journalism, but it’s sad to know that a lot of my colleagues aren’t coming with me.

  3. One of the best things I’ve read today, thanks. I’m also left curious to know your next steps!

    I totally agree with what you say regarding insight, intelligence and connection. I wonder what your thoughts are on the subject of audience fragmentation. Though communities of interested others are more valuable to people than the from-producer-to-consumer model, what about the idea of a national community? Is this still realistically possible?

    I ask with an open mind, as I’ve no clear conception of an answer.

Comments are closed.