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Journalism, Observations, Opinion

In search of the new model journalism

Pity the poor journalist. For every pompous hack filing his or her daily lecture to the nation, there are countless others trying to do more and more every day with less and less. At the same time, if they’re smart, they’re trying to get a handle on the shape of the future. Which way, Journalism? And, not unimportantly, will it pay?

And will it be worth the constant nit-picking and sometimes outright abuse on social media that seems to go with the job these days? Is the good ship of the traditional publisher going down or is it just shifting course? And what, in the future, will distinguish a professional journalist from the many competent amateurs already out there with their blogs and their wonky charts?

Journalism academic Jay Rosen recently identified five distinct power shifts between writers and publishers which may give a hint of the way forward.

Not all of us can be technology bloggers Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg (the subjects of his article), but their story highlights how niche journalism is developing well beyond the traditional specialist publication model.

Rosen observes correctly that modern readers simply have less of a need for publishers. Traditionally, news was bundled together into a single package which tried to include something for everyone.

Put the package online, says Rosen, and the bundle falls apart.

And there’s the rub. As consumers we are no longer prepared to wade through all the bits we’re not interested in to get to the few stories we do want and the telly listings.

An exchange on Twitter between Australian blogger Greg Jericho (Grog’s Gamut) and Marcus Priest of the Australian Financial Review encapsulates Rosen’s point, and the dire predicament of traditional publishing.

Jericho commented to fellow blogger Paula Mathewson (Dragonista’s Blog) that he’d like to see the AFR return to a pay-per-view model so he could read just its political coverage.

You can read the full exchange here  (thanks to Matthew Lee for Storifying it).

Priest’s defence of the traditional bundle is robust but can’t alter the fact that a growing segment of news consumers – like Jericho, like me – no longer want it.

Encouragingly perhaps, Rosen thinks that puts writers in the ascendant.

As he sees it, it’s simple economics. People will pay for something which is scarce. And that’s no longer ‘news’ which, we all know, is with us 24/7 in a bewildering array of formats, nor the ability to distribute it.

What’s scarce is good journalism which serves its community.

And there are readers – like Jericho, like me – who will pay for it. Just find out how we want it, and give it to us just that way, as I’ve said before (Does journalism die not with a thunderclap but a tweet).

In the Netherlands there’s now an app for that. It’s called DNP and its readers subscribe to specific journalists who edit and market themselves. Seed money included around E25,000 raised through crowdfunding.

According to DNP managing director Jan-Jaap Heij, the journalists don’t have to invest anything, not even a start-up fee and revenue is split at around 50 per cent each between journalist and host.

Heij says the venture started out with 11 people and now has about 200 lined up to join. More details at Journalism.co.uk (and thanks to Margo Kingston for the link).

In Australia independent journalists, like Kingston, are also seeking a paid model online, primarily through subscriptions and donations to cooperative websites.

It’s a model which readers seem to be growing ever more comfortable with, but will it be enough to allow good journalism to survive?

Returning to the scarcity principle, it won’t survive on opinion alone (everyone’s got one, remember) and the trouble with good journalism is that it’s expensive.

In the past the burden of cost was borne by the publisher, who could count on the squillions of dollars coming in from the long-dried up rivers of advertising gold.

Priest was right, if out of date. The publishing bundle supported the writers who attracted people like me and Jericho, invested in training their successors and shouldered the burden of costs when eager journalists fell foul of the law.

Will reader contributions ever be able to cover those sorts of costs?

To quote Kingston, who is building Australians for Honest Politics on a crowdfunding model, “Time will tell…”

And what about access? New Model Journalists are demonstrating their worth in good old fashioned research of publicly available information. But research raises questions and good journalists need to be able to ask them.

Crikey’s Matthew Knott touched on this problem when he reported the office squeeze being felt by the Canberra press gallery, as it struggles to accommodate the smaller online players like The Hoopla (another example of New Model Journalism). His full article (I don’t think it’s behind the Crikey paywall) here:

Politically homeless: Where will the press gallery hacks go?

As Fairfax photographer and gallery committee member Andrew Meares told Knott, sticking with the status quo won’t be an option.

“The change in the future is there’ll be more sole operators rather than people working for big mastheads. As the media landscape changes, the press gallery will have to change.”

And what about institutions that aren’t as eager to deal with journalists, or which aren’t as glamorous to cover, or which are so glamorous everyone wants to cover them?

Who gets accreditation for the Olympics in the coming brave new world, for example? Who slogs for years on the crime beat or turns up day after day to the magistrates’ courts?

And who supports and defends an independent journalist from intimidation and legal threats, a common response from the rich and powerful?

If good journalism is to survive, these structural questions will need to be addressed but at the moment they’re hardly being asked.

The wheel is still very much in spin. And, to quote Bobby Dylan, there’s no telling who that it’s naming.

In the meantime, we can take some comfort from Rosen and Heij. If they’re right, the winners will be good, old-fashioned journalists.

And readers, of course. Let’s not forget the readers.

Further reading:

Rearranging the deckchairs on the RMS Fairfax by Jonathan Green

Magazines may die but the medium can thrive by Tim Burrowes

The Boy Wonder of BuzzFeed by Douglas Quenqua

© Sally Baxter 2013
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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “In search of the new model journalism

  1. Nice post, Sally.

    He has since deleted it, but Peter Van Olsen from The Australian tweeted the other day “People claim MSM bias effects election outcomes and those same people claim MSM are irrelevant. Contemplate that.”

    To restate his message, “Those of you who think we’re irrelevant should remember our lack of objectivity can influence public opinion.”

    Publications like The Australian have become a shadow of their former news-breaking selves. It’s ironic Peter isn’t able to see this for himself.

    Through no fault of their own, old media have been undermined by the democratising of information access. They no longer have exclusive access to news and information because their former audience can now access so much for themselves.

    There is no longer any point in paying for news either online or in print.

    I see a time when almost all news will be delivered by aggregation services, automated and customised to the readers’ interests. We’re close to that now but the current solutions lack the sophistication and intelligence of what’s coming. Exclusivity will endure, not as scarce information, but as high quality writing and analysis which will remain behind paywalls and which I’d happily pay for.

    I can see a time when the better investigative journos start looking for new, more rewarding homes. More and more of them may choose to work independently online but I’d like to think there will become a pool of disenfranchised quality journalists looking for a well resourced employer serious about slow journalism. Were that to happen, I can imagine a concentration of talent in one or two outlets which would mean we the consumer could afford to ignore all the other outlets and not have to hunt around for good writing. There is a demand for good journalism and a market prepared to pay for it.

    Until then, like Greg Jericho, there’s no way I’d pay $59 a month to access the one or two writers I value at the AFR.

    Like

    Posted by Damien Walker | February 27, 2013, 12:33 pm
    • I’m not a journo, just a consumer of the product. As I see it, Sally hits home when she says, “Returning to the scarcity principle, it won’t survive on opinion alone (everyone’s got one, remember) and the trouble with good journalism is that it’s expensive.”

      When I want news from boots-on-the-ground journalists I go first to Al Jazeera. The Sultan of Qatar has very deep pockets and employs some of the best in the business from around the world. When I’m lazy and want a quick fix, I go to the aggregates. Huff Post and the like.

      Out of habit, I start my mornings with a cup of tea and the NYT — digital or print. I prefer my print copy because it reads faster (I can instantly load to my brain several articles per page faster than any individual digital article can load to my mac or ipad) — and I like the rustle and feel and look of a broadsheet (which definitely dates me).

      The problem with my early morning NYT broadsheet edition, still delivered daily to my door, is that I have usually read it online, cover to cover, the day before. It’s a snip to read the NYT cover to cover. There’s just not that much to read any more. Not many boots-on-the ground left. It’s their (occasional) expensive investigate journalism that keeps me hooked. That’s what I pay for.

      The old family news favorites, even the BBC, can no longer deliver the hard goods — too few expensive boots-on-the-ground, too many inexpensive opinionators. As much as I might like some of these, I would never pay for them. Mostly the quality of writing isn’t good enough and, besides, I already know in advance what their opinion on any topic is likely to be.

      But I will, and do, pay for subscriptions to some small circulation magazines that have been around for decades. Everyone might have an opinion — but very few can write well enough to entice others to pay for the privilege of reading them year in and year out.

      When I pay my subscription dues, I’m paying for the writing, not just for the opinion. I can get digital versions of the magazines, but I like to see the print copies pile up, reminding me of their importance. Maybe that’s how these magazines have managed to survive. Somehow they convey an illusion of being “important”.

      I happen to know a digital magazine publisher who boasts that he never pays a writer because the world is full of people who are happy to write for nothing. My answer to him was, why should I read your magazine when I can read wonderful blogs, like Sally’s, about things that interest me?

      Like

      Posted by yellowbrickbooks | February 27, 2013, 8:00 pm
    • Thanks Damien – I’ve been cogitating on my reply to you but I see most of what I was going to say has been covered most excellently by Yellowbrickbooks.

      I thought you were a little too kind to old media in your comment that their influence has been undermined “through no fault of their own.” As Y eloquently points out, there’s too much unsurprising opinion and not enough boots-on-the-ground investigative reporting in our traditional media.

      And that’s down to years of editorial budget slashing. Not just in Australia, the US or the UK but across the board. Traditional publishers have traded away their influence and now, surprise, surprise, discover they no longer have a product worth buying.

      The future may well lie in deep-pocketed individuals prepared to fund investigative journalism for the public good, and the donations/subscriptions of at least some of us.

      It’s a start…

      Like

      Posted by Sally Baxter | February 28, 2013, 8:32 am
  2. Sally, I think you have written a balanced piece highlighting some of the current problems in journalism. But you have somewhat misrepresented my views. My concern is that people are not prepared to pay for good journalism in whatever form. As you rightly point out ” the trouble with good journalism is that it’s expensive”. People have interpreted my concern as a defence of the “traditional bundle”. It’s not. Rather, my concern is that even if there was an alternative model, people would still not be prepared to pay the real value of stories, no matter how much they protest otherwise. There is little appreciation of the cost of good journalism while the internet is awash with free content.

    The problem is that media companies have given away too much and this has devalued the work of journalists. As a result, we currently seem to be locked in a downward spiral where media companies cut staff leading to fewer resources available for great journalism, leading to more disallusionment with the “MSM” and on we go. @scaprallion says “Engineers,plumbers,dog catchers all dong more, more efficiently. Why not journalists?”. Well for start, if you find a plumber who will come round and work for free let me know. I could use one of them.

    I have no problem with new models of charging for journalism as long as people pay fair value. However, those who argue for a new method of charging for journalism underscore one of the problems afflicting media at the moment:- Many only want to read – and maybe pay – for those things which confirm their world view. The demand for solid independent reporting which simply tells the facts rather than putting a spin on those facts is diminishing. As Greg Jericho highlights he will pay for Laura Tingle but he doesn’t want or need all the business and financial news that is in the AFR. In this mad, mad media world in which there is so much information around we seek those things which support but shut out the rest.

    Like

    Posted by Marcus Priest | February 28, 2013, 11:29 am
    • Marcus, let’s not overlook the inspiration for Sally’s article. It may not be my place to step in for Greg Jericho but I don’t think your unreasonable charges against him should go unchallenged.

      During that Twitter tête-à-tête with you, Greg explicitly said he is prepared to pay for good journalism but he doesn’t value enough of the AFR’s content to pay $59 a month for it. That was the *only* position Greg stated on the matter.

      For you to then call him a cheapskate and a dill who would prefer to freeload than pay his own way was poor form.

      Like

      Posted by Damien Walker | February 28, 2013, 12:11 pm
      • Naughty me. I must be spanked for being so rude; it is so unusual for people to be forthright on Twitter. I think if you go back to my exchange with Greg you’ll see that both of us were being fairly robust. It wasn’t all one way. I just adore the way that many on Twitter feel no compunction in offering free advice to journalists – often in colourful terms – but as soon as I respond in a light-hearted way there’s all this finger wagging. You really do need to grow a sense of humour.

        As for your other points, I stand by earlier comments. You’ll forgive me if I am rather cynical about people’s professed intention to pay, especially when I see all the time complaints that stories are behind a “paywall’. As it happens, the AFR is moving to a metered model of viewing stories later this year. Perhaps then we’ll see who is right.

        Like

        Posted by Marcus Priest | February 28, 2013, 1:48 pm

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