Journalism is dying.
Or to be more precise, old-school newspapers and traditional media is dying. Venerable newspapers like the Chicago Tribune have filed for bankruptcy protection, and even the New York Times is under threat.
I was reading this recent interesting commentary by Walter Isaacson — former TIME editor and CNN board member — on how to save journalism using the “old’ idea of charging for content instead of giving it for free online.
This, he says, will pay for good journalism. If good journalism goes the way of the dodo, it will be a loss to society.
I’m not entirely convinced that some newspapers failing is a bad thing. Old media business models will die, but good journalism will survive in some form.
Although I believe that many traditional media practice good journalism, good journalism — with qualities like timeliness, fact checking, and quality writing — is not the exclusive domain of traditional media. Alfred, my fellow Techgoondu and ex-journalist alum, argued this eloquently and cogently in a previous post and I’m not going to rehash the same talking points.
I’m going to address Walter’s analysis about media business models, which I do agree with. Specifically, he lampoons the traditional model where journalists write for the readers, but the work is paid by advertisers.
A perfect storm is ripping the old media business model to shreds:
- Many traditional media, being stock listed corporations, have to maximize profit for shareholders. Thus, even though many media organizations claim to have a clear editorial/sales divide, it is difficult for traditional media not to be co-opted by big business advertisers. I’m not talking about individuals here, but about the nature of the businesses.
- In the past, the media players had firm control over the mediums — print, radio or TV — by which they could reach their audience. With the advent of the Internet, anybody who wanted to post content to reach a large audience could do so. The Internet destroyed barriers to entry, which paved a path for new social media experiments.
- On the Internet, end users now have a multitude of information sources like online news sites, blogs and wikis to choose from. Media’s authenticity, already suspect due to its conflicted nature, is now awash in a sea of lookalikes, many offering the content for free.
- The savvy Internet generation, intuitively understanding that any singular voice could be suspect, tends to read multiple sites to get a barometer of what is happening. Also, besides bookmarking sites they like, they use search engines to find content they want to read, rather than the other way around. Conclusion: aggregators win.
- Traditional media, hurt by loss of ad revenue, does what any money-driven corporation would be expected to do. Cut costs (read:good journalism) and pander more to advertisers. This diminishes the authenticity and brand of the publication, which leads to a vicious downward cycle as readers flee.
Note that this problem of authenticity applies not just to traditional media, but also to other content like analyst reports and blogs. Any time an analyst, journalist or blogger crafts content for an audience but is beholden to vendors or advertising, this problem exists.
The solution? Charge for content via micro-payment for slices of content, as Walter has suggested in the article. I agree that this makes sense, as it is a way to solve the fundamental problem of authenticity.
However, I’d like to extend that argument. You can go creative commons and offer the content for free, and still make money from it, as Nine Inch Nail’s online Ghost I-IV album has proven.
A freemium model works because content is valued differently by different people. Some will value convenience, customization or other perceived difference and will pay for this. Even if the majority takes the content for free (who wouldn’t otherwise pay for it anyway!), a small cadre of paying folks can float a business.
This model might have seem far fetched a few years ago, but with successful games companies trailblazing freemium models — e.g. “free” MMORPGs like Maple Story and Cabal — I don’t see why traditional media can’t remake itself.
The trick is to find out how to sufficiently differentiate the premium vs. free content. In this, media can take a leaf from the software product industry, which is rife with different charging models that cater to different crowds. Or experiment, like the Spot.US folks in journalism via crowdfunding.
In any case, I believe that one-fits-all publications that rely solely on ad revenue will be made obsolete. Death won’t come immediately, but sticking their head in the ground won’t stop the bell tolling for traditional media.