How to Save Journalism? Get Rid of the Newspapers

By Kurt Cagle
February 24, 2009 | Comments: 2

I've recently been following a superb series by Michelle McLellan on the Ideas that get in the way of saving journalism. In this series of blogs, she does a superb job of raising some very uncomfortable questions for newspapers, most importantly, whether they are in fact so wedded to the idea of the newspaper that they've lost sight of the journalism.

This discussion surfaced recently when I and my family went to my parent's house for a visit. As its about a six hour trek, we don't do this nearly often enough, and as a consequence it becomes a time to discuss and debate the state of the world, and increasingly my observations of that world in my own blogs.

One morning while there we were perusing the papers while eating breakfast, and the topics of digital archiving, the Kindle, and newspaper readership came around. My mother asked whether people will read the Kindle over breakfast in the same way, especially with the possibility of orange juice getting spilled on it. A plaintive cry from my eight year old, who was having trouble getting dressed, tabled the conversation before we could take it much further, but I've thought about this heavily on the trip back home to Victoria.

As an editor, journalist and blogger, a significant portion of my day is spent reading and digesting both the news of the day and how it fits into the broader pictures of my own work, so my schedule of spending a couple of hours in the morning reading and making notes is probably not all that typical. However, I suspect that for a significant number of professionals in particular, that morning reading has become critical.

Very little of that reading, however, comes from newspapers, at least directly. Typically, I'll first go through my email, which is increasingly filled with newsletters and news alerts, then I use directed RSS feeds that I filter through the Google News reader to browse immediate topics that occurred overnight. Once past that, its on to Twitter, which I'll usually keep open and follow through much of the day for news or links that appear relevant, either from my TwitterFox plugin or via TweetFeed.

The issue here is that my working news, the information that I use in order to do my job, understand what is happening in the world or acting as catalysts for new areas of exploration is not coming from that morning read of the paper. McLellan raises an interesting point - newspaper subscriptions do not in general subsidize the journalistic production costs. Instead, they subsidize the distribution costs of the paper to the subscribers - news in the morning as you eat your breakfast. If your working news is coming via the Internet, the motivation to plunk down $100+ a year for a subscription diminishes pretty dramatically.

Newspapers built their revenue base almost exclusively from advertising. However, most newspapers failed to recognize that such advertising is both highly dependent upon prevalent business conditions and the degree to which other media can compete in providing those advertising services. Online job sites such as or Craigslist have cratered their job listings revenues. MLS services were giving papers a run for their money in the real estate markets, even before plummeting housing prices caused the market to all but evaporate. Classified sales in general have disappeared, and with it, most of the money to pay for news production.

Yet this begs the question of whether in fact such quality journalism is solely the province of the newspapers. While most news publishers would have you believe otherwise, in practice everything but local news production was usually purchased from a syndicate.

The local news, on the other hand, fell into a few distinct areas - reporting of sensational crimes or disasters, coverage of local government and business actions and human interest stories. What's fascinating here is that online social media is beginning to take over the first of these - Flickr and Youtube feeds of Hurricane Ike provided a much faster response to fast breaking events than a journalist could, typically with links providing multiple viewpoints from the perspective of the people who were actually there witnessing (or even participating in) the events.

Governmental and governmental watchdog groups are now proliferating at all levels, an emergent level of transparency that in many cases also filters up to organizations at the national and international level as well. These organizations are typically funded by members or donors interested in assuring the continued operation of democracy. There may (indeed likely will) be some bias there, but given the often heavily biased stance that many newspapers and other organizations took in the last decade, the watchdog sites are at a minimum no worse than, and in many cases far better than, the news that they are replacing.

Sports coverage is typically done by the sports organizations themselves (or through an agreement with one or more news services), while even at the microlevel, from college to the pee-wee leagues there are usually websites that the organizations overall run, and in many cases people who are willing to do (for free) the process of collating or updating this content. As Web 2.0 content management systems continue to become increasingly underlying infrastructure, the process of updating this information can also be somewhat automated and componentized.

The discovery process for this information is also emerging - an ad hoc soup of tagging, categorization and semantic web processing. One advantage that a newspaper provides is the ability to bring all of this information together in one packet, though that packet may contain a great deal of information that is not relevant to you as the reader. Tagging services, content enrichment, and syndication are now tipping the balance even there - they can serve to provide an aggregation mechanism that is much more closely aligned with a given reader's interests, organized according to a set of internal filters, and increasingly hyperlinked for more information about given topics, people or services.

Many newspapers (and other news organizations) have turned to bloggers as a "novel" form of news producers, lured originally be the fact that such bloggers would typically write for free. Here, however, is a situation where free has masked a significantly new set of expectations that are fundamentally different from what news organizations were expecting. Most serious bloggers write in order to either promote an idea or to promote themselves and their business. They are not journalists in the traditional sense. They are usually not objective, they are not interested in reporting the news unless the news is significant and important for them.

Moreover, most bloggers are not willing to work for free, or even for a nominal fee, if what they are asked to write is not consistent with their own objectives. This is very much at odds with the editorial model that has emerged over the last century, where typically an editor assigned a story to a writer, the writer wrote it, and the writer got paid if the editor accepted the story. While many "professional" journalists might decry the lack of journalistic integrity of bloggers, in reality most such journalists failed to understand that there are very different motivations at work for bloggers (and indeed that many bloggers might actually have a higher standard of personal integrity than the journalists who claim objective neutrality even when they're working under a very non-neutral editorial policy).

Consequently, perhaps the real question that should be asked is not "How do we save journalism?" but "Why should we save the existing forms of journalism if they fail our needs?" It should be noted that this is precisely the same question that should be applied to finance and automobile production.

For instance, services like Kachingle are turning the micropayments model on its head: people "donate" money to the site to support blogs that they want to help. Kachingle then distributes this money to those sites that are visited, based upon usage. This model opens up some interesting possibilities, not least of which because it does the hard work of tracking and disbursing micropayments rather than placing the onus on either reader or author. Payment is given in proportion to usage, so that the reader feels that his money is being spent specifically on content that he finds useful or entertaining, in essence providing many of the benefits of the subscription model by applying it not to distribution but to content creation.

A similar "donation" model could help with communities of interest - people subscribe to the community, with the proceeds in turn being redistributed to community members ... possibly including the subscriber. As long as the disbursement mechanism was transparent, such a model opens up the possibility of sites being supported by patrons in much the same way that many community visual and performance arts are supported by a patronage system in many cities. Indeed, this also opens up an interesting vehicle for advertising - the PBS sponsorship model applied to the web. Granted, the downside may be really bad webathons, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Models such as Kachingle may provide a form of economic stimulus in a way that doesn't come down to giving away free money. If an organization such as the National Endowment for the Arts was to provide matching funds, this type of solution might fund journalists and authors who are insightful, entertaining or provocative, giving them the means to continue doing the research or writing free of the distraction of having to find increasingly rare vehicles for publishing in the "established" media. At the same time, it rewards those with talent, skill and perseverance, as the best (at least as defined by reader popularity) of such writers would be the ones to gain the largest number of hits.

The advantage to this model? Advertisers no longer dominate culture. Advertising money has had a particularly pernicious and chilling effect upon the expression of free ideas, has established role models and expectations of behavior that are often unhealthy and in many cases downright destructive, and has all too often been the catalyst for disruptive bubbles in certain sectors of business and entertainment. Advertising won't (and shouldn't) disappear completely, but its possible that the emerging crowd-sourcing of payment systems may very at least provide some balance to the economy.

It's also very possible that getting rid of the newspapers may even spur the creation of new newspapers. Local newspapers, supported by a community subscription base, may be the best mechanism for the funding and distribution of local news, especially if such newspapers could be distributed as a PDF or similar format to high speed printers in the places where people most congregate - coffee shops, grocery stores, libraries and so forth. Add a netbook and you can select the particular articles (from headlines or tags) that you want to populate the content in the "paper", and members of the community can in turn contribute their own content as they deem desirable to the underlying database of stories.

The most important point to remember in all of this is that when a previously thriving industry seems to be dying, it is most likely because the services that it initially provided are becoming obsolete. It is better in this situation to rethink what such services should provide, then build a niche for it. Otherwise, you're just wasting money.

Kurt Cagle is Online Editor for O'Reilly Media. You can subscribe to his news feed or follow him on Twitter.

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Kurt - would you like to know more about Kachingle?

-- Cynthia Typaldos, Founder and CEO, Kachingle

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Awesome article - thanks.

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