Al Jazeera Unplugged: Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab

This is a live blog. It might be a bit rough. I’ll add links as I can and might do it in a second pass.

Josh started by saying that the disruption in the news business that began in the US is now spreading to other parts of the world. He started off with a series of “scary charts” showing the precipitous drop in advertising revenue in the US and the newspaper circulation decline in the US. The decline in terms of newspaper circulation per 100 households has been dropping since the 1940s. He then displayed the time that average internet users spent per month on news sites, 8-12 minutes a month, versus the seven hours they spend on Facebook.

The media industry is fragmenting. The number one album on the charts in the US sold just 60,000 copies last week, but it used to be that to have a number one album you would have to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. TV is fragmenting with greater choice, and Josh pointed to yesterday’s announcement of Google TV.

UPDATE: For the average internet user , 70% of the content that people under 40 consume online is produced by people they know.

Josh sees this not as a threat but as a great opportunity. Newspapers in the US used to be enormously popular. In 1990, John Morton said that it is clear that newspapers will be twice as profitable int he future, but maybe not three or four times as profitable. Those profits made owners very rich, but they also paid for investigative journalism and foreign bureaux.

On the social web, even if it doesn’t look like journalism, it can be an important source of information. People might find out about an important story from their friends on Facebook or Twitter. This is not new. With movable type, new types of information were produced. The rotary press could print much more copies, more cheaply. 1900s came newspapers, 1930s radio, 1950s TV, 1980s cable TV, 1990s internet, 2000s, mobile phones.

Context in country to country is critical. Some countries are seeing gains in literacy so are seeing a dramatic increase in newspaper circulation. Media in non-English countries aren’t seeing the same pressure.

In the US, seeing media adjust. Some are trying to grow in scale. Some trying to produce so many web pages that if they make a bit of profit on each page, they will make money. Demand Media is producing 5000 pages of content a day. Associated Media, just bought by Yahoo, is producing 2000 pages a day. It’s not necessarily news content, but it’s providing a model. We are seeing the growth of niche sites, around subjects rather than geography. Some are building paywalls.

However, I believe that the number of people who will pay will be relatively small. People will have free alternatives.

And then he said something that I’ve thought for quite a while:

News is shifting from a manufacturing industry to a service industry.

Even in the past, only bout 15% of a newspaper budget went to journalism. That’s a fascinating statistic. Service industries don’t try to create demand but rather serve demand.

With an infinite number of content choices, people are now choosing things that aren’t news. How do we (as journalists) create that demand? He sees the big organisations as being OK. He sees non-profit models developing. “I generally think we’ll be OK,” he said. This technological shift will see a huge boon he says.