Posted by: structureofnews | May 22, 2011

A Brave New (Changing) World

“Here’s the problem: Journalists just don’t understand their business” – Randall Rothenberg, former NYT reporter and head of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

There are lots of interesting insights, examples and quotes in The Story So Far, a report by the Columbia Journalism School on the impact of the digital world on the business models of the industry, but that’s probably the money quote.  So to speak.

As a profession we’ve spent decades running away from knowing how the bills – and journalists – got paid.  While we ran a monopoly business that printed money it could have been argued (not that I would have) that this was a semi-acceptable state of affairs.  But thank goodness those days are mostly over; there’s hardly any debate now that journalists need to understand how the money comes in.

The good news is that the report is a great primer on where we are; so if you’ve shied away from all the mudslinging and ideological wars that have passed for debate on this topic, you can get up to speed very quickly.  If you’ve been closely tracking the industry, you won’t find any surprises, but they’ll be good details and examples.  The bad news is that all this catch-up knowledge doesn’t have much of a lifespan; if there’s one takeaway from the report you should take away, it’s that the landscape continues to change – and at such a pace that many of the benchmarks and ways of thinking about the industry are simply not relevant any more.

Still, that’s not the report’s fault.  What’s especially refreshing about it is that it eschews ideology and pre-determined conclusions for a clean, facts-based approach.  It cites examples in details, walks you through the mechanics of free vs. paid sites, looks in depth at the hyperlocal experience and so on.  In short, it’s actually journalism as opposed to religion, when it comes to The Future of Journalism.  That really shouldn’t be surprising, given that Bill Grueskin, one of the authors, is the former managing editor of wsj.com and one of the clearest minds on the business of journalism; and another author, Ava Seave, teaches a very smart course on that subject at Columbia. (The book she co-authored, The Curse of the Mogul, is well worth reading.)

But all that reality is also disconcerting.  Take the issue of traffic, for example.  Readership numbers used to mean something relatively simple, however flawed circulation and reader surveys were.  But now there are segmentations and sub-segmentations of readership statistics galore, from how people come to a site, how long they stay, how often they come, and so on.  So now the broad numbers of, say, which news organization has the most traffic in the world is less and less meaningful as a statistic, beyond bragging rights.

Other rules of thumb – how many editorial employees per 1,000 circulation, for example – get thrown out the window. And we don’t have any reliable new metrics and guidelines to follow, at least not yet.

Finding new ones will require us radically rethinking what we do and how we do it, rather than simply trying to adapt our current practices – and products – to a vastly different landscape.  We need to get past all the proposed magic bullet solutions – paywalls, hyperlocal, the iPad – that at heart are just adaptations of our current structure.

The report points to such rethinking, for example.

Digital platforms extend the lifespan of journalism. In the analog era, news stories were as ephemeral as fruit flies. An article was prominent for a day, then available only on a library’s microfiche; a video would be broadcast to millions on the nightly news, then it would be sent to a network’s vault. Journalism now can be freely accessible for as long as a publisher wills it to be. In the words of one programmer, “There is no such thing as ‘yesterday’s news.’”

And yet we still write stories as if they last just a day – and organize newsrooms around writing those kinds of stories.  (That’s very much the premise of structured journalism, just to belabor a point.)  But there aren’t a lot of examples of broad rethinking being put into practice, at least in the mainstream media. Ideology and custom still get in the way.

Still, there is one ideology I’m happy to embrace, and the authors are pretty upfront about it in the report.

We do have a bias: We think the world needs journalism and journalists.

And again at the end:

We restate the bias we offered at the beginning of this report: We believe the public needs independent journalists who seek out facts, explain complex issues and present their work in compelling ways.

It may not be rational, I know.  But we all need something to believe in.

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