News Leadership 3.0

February 24, 2009

Ideas that get in the way of saving journalism, Part 3

“There is one magic solution, if only we can find it.”

I’ve been contemplating persistent themes in the important and urgent discussion of how to save journalism. These are ideas that reflect what we (traditional journalists like me) wish were true. But they simply are not. While it’s important to honor what we risk losing in the digital transformation (and the risk is significant), these themes often get in the way of seeing solutions that reflect the new and dynamic environment in which journalism must live.
Here are the first two in the series:
#1 “Only newspapers can produce quality journalism.”
#2 “People should pay for news.”

#3 is the idea that a single solution to journalism’s challenges—particularly the financial one—is just waiting to be found.

This idea crops up in discussions of how to pay for news. (Are micropayments The Answer? Yes, No, Maybe)

It’s natural that an industry that thrived for decades on a single source of income—advertising—over which it had a virtual monopoly would have difficulty imagining a different model.

On the revenue front, it seems clear that successful organizations will need to develop multiple revenue streams.

Some are doing that. For example, I was impressed, when Howard Weaver, ex-VP news for McClatchy, reported in January that McClatchy was making progress in diversifying its revenue streams.  “In 2000, about 97% of McClatchy’s revenues came from daily newspapers. Today it’s less than 70%, with the remainder coming mainly from online and other digital operations, niche print and targeted marketing.”

By contrast, the industry as a whole has work to do. The New York Times reported in October that print editions still bring in 92 percent of the overall revenue, according to the Newspaper Association of America. (Granted, the totals are getting smaller as are the organizations.)

Pramit Singh offers one good list of revenue models. (Link via @jayrosen_nyu on Twitter.)

Lauren Rich Fine offers more ideas:

“... Years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times probably had it right when it tried to offer very-low-cost web-site creation and hosting for local small businesses. It could still be done. Newspapers could be the local ad network that is so sorely missing from the mix. Newspapers could offer free PDF-like versions of their paper daily and only distribute a day or two a week. Newspapers could prove they are the best editors by pouring all their limited resources into great local stories and investigations, while complementing it with links to the best content on the web. New sites like Mother Nature Network, which focuses on environmental news; MedCity News, with a focus on the business of health; Politico; Global Post; Pro Publica; and others could fill the gaps, while local reporters could help make sense of all of it from a local perspective.

None of these ideas will restore newspapers to what they were financially, but they might allow papers to survive and serve their watchdog function so necessary to preserve a democracy.”

And here’s Jeff Jarvis on an ad revenue opportunity that could slip away:

“The promise of local ad support for news will come only if a new population of very small businesses can be served in new and effective ways - before Google beats everybody else to it.”

No one idea will carry the weight of a large news organization the way advertising comfortably carried the journalism that was published in newspapers, even the much smaller news organizations that are emerging. What are your thoughts on diversifying revenue streams and ways of reaching users? What models are working for you and what models would you like to know more about?


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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