August 21, 2009
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As another week of furious debate draws to a close without any clear path to journalism’s financial future, I find myself feeling strangely optimistic.

Though we’re still way short on answers, the questions — and quality of debate and experimentation — are getting better and better.

Take the latest hotbed of argument — Paul Farhi’s bold piece in AJR, “Build That Pay Wall High,” urging news organizations to impose steep fees or to launch a fast march away from the Web and back to print.

Finding good questions in Farhi’s provocation does not require either agreeing with him or taking his advice as a literal prescription, any more than drawing insight from Epic 2014 required us to certify Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson as media futurists.

I’ve already invoked Clary Shirky once this week, but the remedy he proposes for the revolutionary chaos he diagnoses so well is simple: experiments, lots and lots of experiments.

At the recent AEJMC convention, the gathering of journalism professors, I had a long chat with Stephen Lacy, the media economist who teaches at Michigan State University. Among his most interesting points: as useful as economic theory can be in describing a media landscape, it’s pretty useless when it comes to attaching prices to products. Setting prices, he argued, requires experimenting with the simple and complex question of how much people will be willing to pay for products and services they’ll find more or less valuable.

All you have to do is scroll Romenesko, search the future of journalism in Bing or, in my case, consider the people I wrote about this week on NewsPay, to get a sense of the experimentation under way. Is it as deliberate or as efficient as we might like it to be? Of course not.

Amid news of more staff cuts, bankruptcy proceedings and advertising revenue sinking to levels of 40+ years ago were reports of News Corp pushing to create an online news consortium, Advance and Microsoft collaborating on an ad venture, MSNBC’s acquiring EveryBlock.com, several dozen papers creating a sports content sharing plan, a new investigative reporting site showing up in south Florida, and NPR introducing a striking new iPhone app for text and audio. And that’s just a selection of this week’s news about media transformation.

My point is not that each of these initiatives will succeed, or even that, collectively, they suggest survival of journalism as we know it. I’m guessing that a few of these experiments will gain traction, though, and that new models for news will emerge.

I spent parts of Tuesday and Wednesday listening to and watching the live stream from The Aspen Institute’s remarkable FOCAS conference, “Of the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism.”

I missed Monday’s presentation by Jeff Jarvis and Steve Shepard of the “New Business Models for News” work they’ve done at the City University of New York. But I read Dorian Benkoil’s Tidbit about it and I caught the sum-ups in Wednesday’s live stream. I was struck by the apparent satisfaction Jarvis took in declaring that “one thing we know is that the models are wrong.”

Not all wrong, but wrong enough that the vetting at the conference and online will get them much, much closer to being right.

These were some of the highlights from the proceedings in Aspen:

  • Brad Smith of Microsoft making the point that it’s not so much that online news is failing to generate sufficient revenue, it’s that not enough of that revenue is getting to the producers of the news.
  • International digital entrepreneur Esther Dyson urging caution about government-related solutions to journalism’s problems, reminding us how much the rest of the world looks to the U.S. as a beacon of free press, unfettered by the government’s financial involvement or editorial control.
  • ProPublica editor-in-chief (and former Wall Street Journal managing editor) Paul Steiger saying, “I feel very optimistic about the path to the future. I think technology, while damaging the institutions of the sort I spent my entire career working at, is generally enabling more good than bad. As times goes on, the good things described here will continue to outnumber the bad.”
  • Journalism Online co-founder and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz touting the Journalism Online “model to build extremely flexible commerce platforms to allow publishers of all kinds to experiment in all kinds of ways.”
  • Center for Investigative Reporting executive director Robert Rosenthal offering a hat tip to the Knight Foundation for “offering hope to hundreds and maybe thousands of journalists around the world” struggling to figure out the future of news.
  • Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli reminding everyone that simply “because things are free now” does not necessarily mean that will be so in the future. (It is interesting that, in such revolutionary times, so much of the opposition to paid content is rooted in the way we’ve done things for the past decade.)
  • Google vice president Marissa Mayer asking why news organizations don’t invite readers and users to DO SOMETHING at the conclusion of online articles in the way that Amazon invites the purchase of another book, for example.
  • NPR president Vivian Schiller describing contributions from 2.5 million listeners and noting that, despite the recession, “donations are up because people understand the need.”
  • Media News CEO Dean Singleton outlining his plans to introduce substantial paid content to his newspapers’ sites after the first of the year, not so much for the revenue it will generate but “to improve our print readership and let us know exactly who is reading what so we can charge a higher CPM for contextual ads.”

I also drew encouragement this week from people who didn’t make the Aspen guest list, including a poster named Matt who added a comment to Alan Mutter’s “Reflections of a Newsosaur” blog.

Matt, who described himself as director of Web development at The Hour newspaper in Norwalk, Ct., said the paper managed to double its online traffic when it lifted its pay wall last December — and still hang onto half its online subscribers, most likely out of loyalty to a subscription-only online replica of the print edition each day.

This morning, I dug into some of the discussion generated by the Farhi piece and visited Jason Fry’s assessment. Fry concludes his thoughtful critique of Farhi’s recommendations (he found them “baffling and then profounding depressing”) by describing Farhi’s prescription for print newspapers as just what’s needed for papers on the Web.

It was a good illustration of the course I found myself on this week — finding answers in places I didn’t expect, often in response to questions I hadn’t thought to ask.

Finally, as the perfect kicker to the week, just as I was clicking SUBMIT on this post, I noticed the Romenesko headline about NPR shifting from paid to free for its transcripts. It was that kind of week. It’s that kind of revolution.

For updates on what’s happening with NewsPay topics, please subscribe to my Twitter feed. You can also receive NewsPay via e-mail and subscribe to it as an RSS feed.

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
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