A way out of the woods for the future of journalism? Medill survey of news leaders gives it a shot.

September 9, 2019
Category: Business & Work

It’s a new twist on the now-familiar exercise: trying to find solid, hopeful initiatives when so many in and outside of journalism are pessimistic about the profession.

The Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University has interviewed 50 news leaders, “seeking markers of success” in the ongoing search for new business models for local news.

Predictably, there are no unanimous conclusions. Many applaud a shift to asking the audience to pay as advertising interest wanes. No one opposes giving paid digital a try, but several wonder whether that will be enough.

The report has been organized and edited in logical fashion, but its core is excerpts from the interviews.

Co-author Mark Jacob offered some favorite quotes, and I will add a couple more that caught my eye:

“The pay model strategy is deceptively simple. It is making something worth paying for. You can call it marketing strategy, you can call it a digital subscription strategy. But at the end of the day, it’s making something worth paying for.” — A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times

“Local newspapers, or the institutions formerly known as newspapers, have gone out of business or shrunk to the point of almost uselessness in many parts of the country.” — Vivian Schiller, CEO of the Civil Foundation

“I think eventually, at some point in the future, people are going to wake up and go, ‘Whoops, there’s nobody covering the news,’ when all the local news outlets have disappeared.” — Jennifer Parker, editor/publisher of the CrossRoadsNews in Decatur, Georgia

“Being all things to all people is not really possible right now, if it ever was. … One of the things I have hated the most from this era of constrained resources is the ridiculous and oft-repeated notion that the newsroom is going to ’do more with less.’ The fact that anyone says that with a straight face to its audience is offensive and the fact is newsrooms have to learn to do different with less, but it’s pretty rarely more.” — Ann Marie Lipinski, Nieman Foundation Curator and former editor of the Chicago Tribune

“The best way to innovate is always steer against the tide, and when the market of advertising is aflood with cheap, useless stuff, like, why steer into that? Why try to make more cheap useless stuff? Why don’t you say we’re actually going to do less stuff, and it’s going to be better, and we’re going to have a deeper relationship with you the advertiser?” — Jim Brady of Spirited Media

“Quite honestly, we’re approaching what I would probably characterize as the death of the 15-inch story. Because if it can’t prove itself to be really worth the investment of time and then you create a really great, rich narrative experience with the interactive graphics and the videos as well as the narrative writing, if the story doesn’t merit that, it really then needs to be in that bucket of being much more utilitarian and much more scannable.” — Randy Lovely, who recently retired as Gannett’s vice president of community news

Lovely’s comment focuses on a trend I have been seeing repeatedly over the last year: ditch the dull and dutiful to focus instead on more deep and often longer pieces. I see that at McClatchy, The New York Times and up the street at Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, as well.

I was drawn to some other interview excerpts that were non-conforming or that put a new twist on familiar themes. Among them:

Kinsey Wilson, president of WordPress.com and former chief content officer of NPR, on defining and monetizing engagement:

“Part of what we came to understand, I think very profoundly, in public radio was that the quality of the content was critical, but so was the relationship with the listener. And the way that got captured was talking about both head and heart. People had to feel both a connection intellectually, but also had to feel it in their heart, if they were going to be likely to contribute.”

Mandy Jenkins, veteran digital news executive, on the need for diversifying revenues and how one size does not fit all in business models:

“What we’re seeing out there is that there is no one perfect business model. That’s an impossibility. Know that everyone has to be dividing up how their money is coming in and not putting all their eggs in one basket. I think that that’s really what’s working for a lot of the newsrooms that are seeing gains.”

Sulzberger and Schiller on The Texas Tribune as a model for non-profits:

“One of the things I worry about is (that) we always look to the Texas Tribune  — (and) for very good reasons. They do excellent work and they’ve got excellent leadership, and it feels like they’ve got to a relatively substantial place. But Texas isn’t local. Texas is the size of a big country.” (Sulzberger)

“What The Texas Tribune has done is remarkable, and I think serves as a model for what other markets can do. Even though they are not-for-profit, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be a not-for-profit  — that you declare yourself a not-for-profit and the money just pours in. Would that that were true. So, they are a not-for-profit for a whole bunch of reasons, but from the get-go, they very much focused on growth and financial sustainability.” (Schiller)

Melissa Bell, publisher of Vox Media, on the difficulty of innovation in large organizations:

“One of the things that I know I don’t get right all the time is that I’m not hearing from the people who are coming up with the next crazy idea because we sit far apart from each other. They’re hard at work on their day-to-day, and so I try to think about opportunities for us to try to come together and share ideas across different groups and make sure that those conversations are happening pretty regularly so the company can invest in those ideas and they don’t get lost in the system.”

The Medill report is light on numbers, and I could quibble that it ducks the big question of how the sum of the encouraging developments compares with alarming declines in revenue (and at newspapers, a decline in journalists, too).

But I applaud taking a day off from the woe narrative and asking involved and committed news leaders for their unfiltered views of where to go next.

(Disclosure: I was one of the 50 “news leaders” interviewed. Lipinski and Wilson are Poynter trustees. Sulzberger, Brady and Bell are former members of our National Advisory Board. And this research initiative is under the direction of Tim Franklin, former Poynter president, now associate dean of the school). 

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. Reach him via email at redmonds@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RickEdmonds.

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