At the Aspen Institute FOCAS event, where we presented our CUNY New Business Models for News, there came to be an unspoken debate – that is, an idea thrown out but never really engaged – about whether there is a crisis in news and journalism.
I now say that there isn’t a crisis. That’s not what I used to say. Indeed, one of my mistakes in this debate has been accepting the assumption that there was one and allowing the debate to start there: “How are you going to save journalism from the scourge of your damned internet?”
Instead, the discussion should start here: “Look at all the new opportunities there are to gather and share news in new ways, to expand and improve it, to change journalism’s relationship with its public and make it collaborative, to find new efficiencies and lower costs and thus to return to profitability and sustainability.”
One’s view on the question determines one’s response and its level of desperation or optimism.
To generalize unfairly, those who say there is a crisis – most often, those whose legacy institutions are fading – are often known to react by:
* Looking for others to blame for the purported problem – Google, bloggers, aggregators, craigslist, et al (which is to say, not taking responsibility for their own role in it);
* Trying to preserve their past (expecting newsrooms to be supported, unchanged, by some manna from the market – paid content being only the latest prayer);
* Seeking protection from government (antitrust exemptions) or the law (copyright extensions);
* Demanding tribute (saying they are entitled to get paid because what they do is worth so much);
* Giving up (talking about abandoning growth by building walls or shifting to not-for-profit and begging for charitable support).
Those who say there is not a crisis (for- and not-for-profit entrepreneurs, inventors, and investors) instead tend to:
* Look to innovation (collaboration, algorithms, data, streams) to create new ways to make news;
* Look to entrepreneurship to sustain journalism (in blogs and networks);
* Be open to new ways to define journalism;
* Irritate the legacy people by not seeing the crisis they see.
So if we’re looking for an original sin in this saga, I’ll confess that mine has been viewing news from the perspective of the old controllers rather than from that of the community (the people formerly known as the audience), the inventors, and the entrepreneurs. At Aspen, it was Sue Gardner, head of the Wikimedia Foundation, who made me see this as she talked about the wonders that have been done with news on Wikipedia, which no one could have predicted. Being open to such new possibilities is key to building news’ new future.
There are so many reasons to be optimistic about the future of news:
* The audience for news is only growing online.
* The audience isn’t an audience anymore. News is becoming more and more collaborative as witnesses share what they see and communities join together to create news.
* Those who make news are more accountable to their publics.
* News is opening up to more diverse voices and perspectives.
* News is becoming far more specialized and targeted, which is to say that it can give deeper service to more communities.
* New technology – and freedom from the limits of the old means of production and distribution – allow the reinvention of the form of news, organized around streams, topics, ideas, and concepts still being imagined.
* News is more efficient thanks to the link – do what you do best and link to the rest – and specialization. That is what makes it more sustainable.
Some – but not nearly enough – of this optimism is inherent in the future we imagined in the New Business Models for News Project, funded by the Knight Foundation. We used the financial lingua franca and assumptions of the present world – CPM advertising, page views per user, even the concept of a page and a site – because that made it easier to describe what can follow and made our vision of sustainable news more credible. We were criticized for being too optimistic about audience penetration and ad rates.
But I think we were not nearly optimistic enough. We have to leap past the idea that news is a collection of pages worth 12 views per user per month (or, quoting Martin Langeveld, 0.5% of time spent online). News shouldn’t be a site we force people to come to but, as Google’s Marissa Mayer said at Aspen, we have to find ways to insinuate news and its value into anyone’s – her words – hyperpersonal news stream. We shouldn’t create sites but instead create platforms that enable communities to share what they know and need to know, with journalists contributing value – reporting, editing, aggregation, curation – to their ecosystem. We should build and assume much greater engagement and define engagement not as consumption but as creation. We must value that creation (and not consider it merely a reaction to what we do). We should forecast much greater relevance and thus value for both the market and the marketer.
We should set the bar way higher. And that is the real problem with letting the discussion start with the pessimism, depression, and desperation of the perceived crisis among the past’s players, who aren’t inventing the future. It limits the possibilities.