Clearly the current business model for commercial journalism is broken. The cosy world of fat monopoly margins, internal cross-subsidies and high barriers to entry are over. And as revenues drop, there’s been a mad scramble to cut costs and look for new sources of funding – be it through micropayments, philanthropic grants, or worshiping at the altar of links and traffic.
But even if, tomorrow, we found a new business model that kept the Chicago Tribune alive, we wouldn’t have addressed some core issues about what role journalism should play in an internet-enabled world.
There are five questions that should be asked of journalism in a digital age – and only three have really been addressed, one is started to be asked, and the fifth sits off in the shadows.
- How are revenue streams affected? (And how can we get some new ones)
- What new storytelling tools are available to journalists (video, animations, etc)
- What new reporting tools are available (crowdsourcing, data mining)
- How should the factory floor – ie, the newsroom – be rebuilt?
- How should the product – the newspaper, the blog, the site, the broadcast – be reinvented?
Most of the debate about the Future of Journalism has focused on the first three questions: New revenue models (pay wall/no pay wall, etc) and new tools and practices (crowd sourcing, data mining, etc), with too much skirmishing over what journalism is and isn’t in a world of bloggers.
Those are important discussions, but not enough has been said about some other key areas: How should the newsroom change, fundamentally (beyond should reporters also shoot video and other tactical questions), and how should the news product change?
In many ways, we still structure our newsrooms the same way they were structured 50 years ago – from reporter to copy tasting to rewrite to page layout – with only minimal accommodations for technological advances. And we haven’t basically changed the basic unit of the news organization – the story – despite huge changes in the way we publish information and readers access it.
There are good reasons for staying with the story as a form, of course; the narrative tale has worked for millenia as a means of engaging and informing people. And it’s likely to stay our main means of communication. But just as stories evolved as we moved from oral societies to hand-written manuscripts to printed books, so too should news stories.
The analogy is if we were in the horse-drawn carriage business, and someone invented the internal combustion engine. We could keep making carriages and build mechanical horses to draw them; and we could even take advantage of the new-fangled technology to make them safer, faster, and more reliable. But if we kept hand-crafting them from wood in the factory, and if we didn’t think about what our customers ultimately wanted – a vehicle that would take them from one place to another – we wouldn’t make the leap from making carriages to making cars. Let alone motorcycles or anything else.
So it is with journalism, stories and newsrooms. Let’s stop doing what we do because we’ve always done it that way and start figuring out what people want.