Notes – and what's next

Posted on 03. Nov, 2008 by in Uncategorized

A few of my notes upon reflection about the New Business Models for News Summit at CUNY:

* A few days after the conference, David Carr in the New York Times piled on the lamentations about more layoffs and cutbacks in the news business. On the Media continued the dirge a few days after that. There’s no news here. The industry is shrinking. We already know that.

There’s news in reporting on people who are trying to do something about it and create new models and enterprises for news. Those are the folks we had at the conference.

* A star among them was our own David Cohn, co-organizer of the conference, as he presented Spot.US, his Knight-Challenge-funded startup to create an infrastructure for readers to support reporters doing stories. David’s elevator pitch was a model for all my entrepreneurial journalism students. His enthusiasm, inventiveness, and ability to see opportunities where others see gloom was a model to the executives in the room. What I loved best was watching executives and investors from very big companies stuffing David’s pocket with their business cards. Who says the news business is dying? If you know where to look, it’s being reborn.

Other new models and views of news included:
> Charlie Sennott presenting GlobalPost as a means to support 70 freelancer correspondents in 53 countries around the world submitting stories and also turning their journalism into a process with their audience;
> Upendra Shardanand of Daylife and Scott Karp of Publish2 [disclosure: I have a relationship with both companies] presenting their infrastructure for the link (vs. the content) economy of news;
> Michael Rosenblum showing how training citizens in video can become a source of both content and revenue;
> Mark Josephson of Outside.in on a structure of organizing local content;
> David Chase of NextNewsNet on a local ad network and Adam Bly of Science Blogs on a specialized ad and content network;
> Colin Crawford on the transformation of IDG from a print to a digital company;
> Adam Davidson of NPR talked about the creation of the Planet Money podcast there.

Late additions to the group included Debbie Galant, the monarch of the hyperlocal bloggers at Baristanet, who talked about running a business on the scale of the old independent bookstore, and Rachel Sterne, founder of citizen-journalism platform GroundReport.

* I was delighted that the amazing group we were lucky to bring together had moved past the old rivalries: business vs. edit, new media vs. old. I was also quite relieved to hear a universal sense of urgency about the need to find new means to sustain journalism. There isn’t a minute to waste.

As a result, we saw editorial and business people entering into frank conversations we don’t often hear, willing to reset assumptions and build new models. Included in that was a general acceptance that the cost structure of the news business is way too high and has to be cut. This slide from the Telegraph’s Edward Roussel resonated strongly in the room.

Roussel slide

Roussel also said: “If you’re a newspaper group, your technology sucks.”

Just as Roussel was blunt and frank so was his fellow presenter on the topic of the disaggregated news organization, Dave Morgan, who quoted Gary Pruitt, CEO of McClatchy, from only the day before. Pruitt said: “We believe that the majority of the decline that we are currently seeing is cyclical and therefore temporary.” After heaping caveats of praise on Pruitt as an executive, Morgan called bullshit. Exactly so. We need tough, honest talk now.

* I was interested in seeing a conflict arise at the end of the day — one of the few, actually — on the relative value of content creators vs. editors. No one in the room would say that both aren’t valued and needed. But when push comes to shove with spare resources, there is a difference of opinion on what added value really means. Some put maximum resource into creating content: reporting. Some insist on the need for editors to create order, to correct and vet, to curate, as we say these days. The disagreement is only one of degree.

* I wish I’d had more people from other industries. When Tom Evslin got up to give his very good primer on network economics, he made a point of saying that he was not a journalist. After the conference, someone from an international technology company said he thought the people in the room were “not ready to make the leap” (perhaps so, but he should have heard similar folks a year ago; the change is striking). At Davos last January, I ran a session between news executives and tech executives in which the latter excoriated the former for throwing in the towel and convinced them that there was fight left in the news industry. The news business is, ironically, insular and it needs to hear that perspective. I also should have had more voices from women, bloggers, and our international participants. We could have filled two days with good discussion but decided, two weeks before an election, that wouldn’t have worked.

* Eric Stein of Google gave us some stats that show where the potential is. He said there are 23 million small businesses in America, six million of them with one or more employees. That is the new population of advertisers who never could afford newspapers. Though as I learned when I visited Gannett’s lab a few days after the conference, those businesses don’t necessarily operate with the same needs and assumptions as present newspaper advertisers and it would be a mistake to try to impose those practices. Stein also said that newspapers reach only 20 percent of advertisers in a market. In that other 80 percent lies much of the hope for the future of local news.

* I didn’t write down who said it but I wrote down this thought: We may want to reframe journalism not as an information business but as community-building.

* At the end of it all, we asked the participants to charge CUNY with next steps as we work to build the Center for Journalistic Innovation and raise money under a matching grant from the Tow Foundation. Among those tasks:
> Develop a baseline business model to provide a community with journalism. (See the post above; I agree that that is job 1.)
> Share best practices and lessons, including mistakes, from various countries. (That will be the main job of the New Business Models for News project in the center; we have the remainder of the MacArthur Foundation grant that funded this meeting to start that work and we just received a grant from the McCormick Foundation to continue it but we need to raise more.)
> Develop new models in detail to share with the industry. (This, too, will be the work of the New Business Models for News project.)
> Develop quantitative research on community needs. (I just spoke with the Knight Commission and found that they are working on that.)
> Collaborate with our business school to better equip journalists with business knowledge. (That’s my hidden agenda for teaching entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY. We’re looking at doing more.)
> Discuss curation in a journalistic context. (I just spoke with a museum curator about creating a symposium to do that.)
> Work on an infrastructure for news organizations to share and monetize original content. (Work on that began that very evening with another group meeting).

* We had an incredible group of people at CUNY, which is a testament to their sense of urgency to work on the business of journalism. I want to thank them all and also thank the MacArthur Foundation for making this meeting possible and the McCormick Foundation for enabling us to continue this work.

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