News for Digital Journalists

May 13, 2011

Report: What we know (and don’t) about digital journalism business

Judging from coverage that greeted it, a widely discussed report on the state of digital journalism may be as notable for dinging journalists about what they don’t know, as for discovering what they do about about their fast-changing business.

The 139-page research tome, “The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism,” out this week from Columbia Journalism School, takes a comprehensive look especially at the business side of digital news economics, addressing audience, advertising, subscription paywalls, alternative revenue, staffing costs, and more. The new report follows a related study of similar scope last year, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” which controversially called for a government fund to support journalism (see our coverage).

It’s the “the saga of digital journalism as a business (or a lack of one) from the mid-90s through now,” writes PaidContent.org’s Staci Kramer of the new study. “It isn’t all dismal but it isn’t pretty.” Capturing the researchers’ conclusion best, notes Columbia’s Emily Bell in the Guardian, may be a line that “leaps out” of the report, in which Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Randall Rothenberg comments: “Here’s the problem ... Journalists just don’t understand their business.”

It’s not just journalists who are having a hard time getting it, Bell adds; in a time of fundamental changes, “commercial departments are equally disoriented.” And no surprise for industry watchers, but advertising is fingered as the key fault line for the news business, per a lengthy writeup in Forbes: “The traditional model where ads are placed next to content is dead, and that it’s time for media companies to redefine their relationships with advertisers.”

The New York Times’ Brian Stelter also zeroes in for his analysis of the report on the idea that journalists must rethink their relationship with advertising, advertisers and audences. “That does not mean yielding editorial control to sponsors, but it might mean coming up with alternatives to impression-based pricing, creating higher-value content for the Web by tapping into page view data, and helping to ensure that Web ads have value on their own.”

The Columbia report does outline a series of nine recommendations for how the industry should move forward, including several related to advertising, others related to editorial content and newsroom structure, and one tamping down expectations on pay models. And an analysis of the report by Poynter’s Bill Mitchell concurs that it does explore some interesting, if controversial advertising alternatives, including custom, advertiser-produced content, as well as to examine alternative viewpoints on audience and aggregation.

Bottom line, as a piece in Mediabistro concludes bluntly: “Journalists need to understand the business side of things much more than they do now.”

There’s a pdf version available, as well as an e-book version of the text, which was co-authored by Bill Grueskin, a former top editor at Wall Street Journal and now a dean at the journalism school, along with a Columbia Business School prof and principal at Quantum Media Ava Seave, and J school researcher Lucas Graves (bios for all three here). CJR also has a Q&A with report authors, and responses from Jan Schaffer, Felix Salmon and Staci Kramer. Plus, you can listen to a podcast of a May 10 panel with report authors and other leading journalism industry figures.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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