News Leadership 3.0

February 09, 2009

Ideas that get in the way of saving journalism, Part 1

First, we need to stop flatly equating good journalism with newspapers as more journalistic players enter the field.

We’ve seen a flurry of talk of late about ways to pay for journalism. (See Romenesko just about any day last week for a long menu.)

This is an important and urgent discussion. Important because good journalism is so valuable to our society. And urgent because the newspaper newsrooms that create most of the original reporting are struggling, caught in a vise of a declining business model burning in an accelerant of debt.

Like all debates, this one is generating some good ideas and some highly dubious ones. Ideally, a discussion like this brings the public to the table (since journalism is for them) and fosters experimentation with new models (since the old ones aren’t working).  Unfortunately, I am seeing time wasted on false premises that are more reflective of wishful thinking than reality. I want to explore three of them this week.

Here’s the first one:

Only the newspaper industry can create good journalism. (Related: Only large organizations can deliver quality journalism. Related: Information on the Internet is not credible.)

This conflation of journalism with the news industry is central to a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece by two Yale financial experts who contend that the way to save newspapers is to endow them as non-profits.

The piece starts by quoting Thomas Jefferson about the importance of newspapers to democracy in 1787: “If Jefferson was right that a well-informed citizenry is the foundation of our democracy, then newspapers must be saved.” The article never pauses to address new ways in which citizens can receive and contribute vital information more than two hundred years hence, except to note to assert, that “the Internet has the potential to be, in the words of the chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, ‘a cesspool’ of false information.”

There is a lot that is wrong in this article, and Dan Gillmor does a good job of probing its many flaws in “Endowing newspapers. What are we saving anyway?

Right now, the newspaper industry does produce the bulk of original reporting that we find in print and on the Internet. I think people appreciate that and feel a lot of sympathy for the struggles of newsrooms and the journalists who work in them.

But the superior performance of the Internet for a growing number of users and advertisers is transforming the journalism and the business model, and thought leaders in the industry itself recognize there is no going back.

As long as people believe that only the news industry equate newspapers-only with good journalism, the debate is heading down a blind alley. It might be possible to raise an endowment for a beloved newspaper in a few communities. But I don’t see a lot of monied people—much less taxpayers if that is proposed—willing to underwrite a product that is only one player, albeit an important one, in the field.

The future, I think, is a yet uninvented network of news sources that includes diminished newspaper companies that produce good journalism online but is not consistently dominated by them. Nonprofits play a role as do small, for-profit community start-ups and perhaps even micro-funding models.

This network produces a more diverse, chaotic and ultimately satisfying mix that enhances public knowledge and journalistic accountability. It values professional journalists who gather and present information and help make sense of the cacophony of voices that now form the news and information stream.

So “saving newspapers” is not “saving journalism.” But if journalism is saved, you can bet many newsrooms will be along for the ride.

I’ve got a couple more of questionable premises I want to discuss here later in the week. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments. What ideas do you think best serve the transformation of journalism and what ones risk holding it back?



I think you are exactly right and have done a good job of articulating some of the wrong-headed thinking that is taking place.

You might want to take a look at this piece that I wrote this weekend along the same lines:

All the best,


Interesting article with the obvious points that dyed-in-the-wool (dead in the wood) newspaper journalists choose to ignore. I was a freelancer before I was a newspaper journalist, then a wire-service reporter in 1984 (the closest thing to the internet then) before I became a long-time newspaper reporter and sub-editor ... but then I grew further and realised that newspapers aren’t forever ... and I moved on to web journalism and now researching journalism of the future.

Point is, if a very ordinary journalist such as me can see the changes and grow with them ... der, what are those people thinking who still cling to wood pulp and ink?

So who, in the future, will have the staffing and resources to dig up and report daily news and engage in long, thorny investigations?

Thanks all for the comments. David, you raise a very important question. Newspaper newsrooms have in the past been a significant (the most significant?) sources of investigations. I hope that continues, that many news organizations will devote resources to important watchdog work. That said, I think we will see other models emerge for getting this work done. Some will be non-profits. Some will be funded by donors or community contributions. Some will be small start ups that focus on one or two topics.
You do not need a big newsroom to produce investigations. You need a big newsroom to produce general news and investigations. The Web enables people to find information they want from many sources. I hope news(paper) newsrooms are one of those sources far into the future. But I don’t think they will be or need to be the only source.

David trots out the same line I hear all the time from newspaper journalists, that they (formerly ‘we’) are the only ones who could devote enough resources to digging up daily news and engaging in long thorny investigations. Thing is, the capital intensive businesses on which we based this model have moved out from underneath (gosh, without asking our permission!) and sought new fields and most newspaper journalists—that’s you, not we—didn’t see it coming. Reality is, journalists have to look out for themselves and if they/we want to be paid for our work, we have to come up with the model ... not (as most employed staffers do just before the axe falls) whinge that “someone better pay us”. Who’s paying the GM workers, the real estate workers, the call-centre workers? Change, adapt or disappear is the rule.

Michele, I hear you. I like those ideas, too. But how do you pay for a model that doesn’t produce regularly? And how do you produce regularly and dig deep at the same time? Can you imagine the staff needed to break an investigation daily?

Dr. John, you’re acting like a jerk, and your note doesn’t contain a single suggestion. Just sarcasm and anger. That’s the last thing we need. So, either be nice, or I, for one, won’t play.

Hi David. I don’t have good answers but I am hopeful that some are emerging. I would say that I would not assume that one organization will be both producing daily and digging deep. You may have specialists to dig deep—say an investigative journalist who sets focuses on local government spending, but leaves the routine council coverage to some other Web site that focuses on more routine news and information for a wider audience. The investigative reporter might need non-commercial funding while the news site might be able to get commercial funding (advertising, subscription, contribution, micro-funding). That’s just one idea. It may work in one place and not in another. The point to me is to think in terms of multiple models in different communities rather than the larger model that tries to do it all. Is any of this going to be ideal? I doubt it. But what we have now, and had before the financial problems was never ideal either.
Yesterday, I wrote another post about the financing issues:

David, this is a game for grown-ups. I have no interest in whether you play or not. You have to get real in order to work in this profession and your comments are neither real nor constructive. I have made these same comments to national meetings of journalists and have received a deal of recognition and acceptance. You can play or not but it’s not your sandpit.

We are talking about reality and people’s livelihoods ... don’t think this is a sentimental discussion. It’s for real.

All right, Dr. John, I’ll play, but only if I feel it’s constructive. You say: “Reality is, journalists have to look out for themselves and if they/we want to be paid for our work, we have to come up with the model ...”
I hear you. So, what could the model be? What do you see in the future? I am not being sarcastic. I’m really interested.

For some reason I can’t post a reply ... will keep trying ...

Perhaps it’s a length issue, so will chop up my reply ...

The way it’s working at the moment is we’re researching and collecting ideas from a range of models which already work for small-enterprise journalism companies around the world. SMEs are looking good because they are working now, not just “a good idea” for the future.

will have to await your next comment ... i can’t get more than a paragraph in and then it refuses to post ...

The models are what we’re interested in, not that one group sells news to cruise liners and remote hotels and the other automotive reviews: the workplace and production/distribution models are what are interesting in this process.

Or maybe it’s looking for par marks? Population and business network hubs such as airports, apartment towers and large shopping malls also provide the same kind of integrated market access that journalists used to seek out and exploit in geographically bounded towns, and there is a lot of research (including by me) into how these markets will work for journalists. Distribution is now possible without enormous capital investment in presses and studios on hills. Here in Australia I’m in talks with the labour union of journalists to experiment with journalism collectives but a little more groundwork is necessary. Thing is, this is the kind of forward planning which media interests—both corporate and journalists as professionals—should have been conducting 15 years ago when Adobe was conducting its pre-IPO R&D. Our profession dropped the ball way back then and no matter how fast people like me work, it’s going to take some time. I only started researching in 2002 when I realised it was time to leave News Corporation. Have reseached and learned a lot since then—and you can view some of my research results and ideas on funding, interactivity and communities in Google Scholar—but met much resistance from those dyed-in-the-wool workplace journalists who are now, sadly being laid off. I don’t know who or where you are, dear readers, but if you want to help this research, put up your hand and we’ll get a project going. my email is j.cokley AT ... send me a note with your CV to tell me your specialist area of interest and expertise and i’ll be in touch. i don’t have the answers but i’m sure as hell not going to wait for someone else to find them.

there ... that’s it. over to you.

What kind of experiments? I might be interested…

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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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