Thursday, December 09, 2004

Catching up

As you probably can tell, I'm catching up on my reading after a busy semester, and finally got a chance to read Mark Glaser's insightful post on PressThink about "The Media Company I Want to Work For -- Not Someday, But Now."

I won't try to summarize the entire article. Here are just a few of his points:

  • A news outlet that creates new content, aggregates the best outside content, and makes sense of everything, presenting it in a clear, simple format for the consumption of everyone.
  • A company founded on the values of serving the public and allowing the public to serve journalism by participating in all discussions of mission and direction.
  • A company that answers directly to its readers and consumers and doesn't talk down to them from editorial ivory towers.
  • A company that is focused on the value of journalism, the practice, and not only of marketing and stock dividends.
  • A group of like-minded people who are willing to start from scratch and build a new way of doing smart, groundbreaking citizen journalism. Not too amateur, not too professional but something in between.
  • A company that is flexible and knowledgeable, with people who "get it" and understand how they can tap the latest technology to improve the craft of journalism -- and help it survive. ...

While I agree with much of what he says, I think it hasn't happened because a) Command and control is the ethos of much of American business -- in fact of business in general. To shake that successfully takes not just the upheaval in journalism curently under way but a societal change that I think is just now tenuously beginning, and b) Because no one's sure if it can be economically successful. Glaser and others lay out some tentative plans for that, but the new economic models are tenuous at best.

A good point-by-point discussion of Glaser's article comes from Andrew Cline, a journalism professor at Southwest Missouri State, titled "Build it and they will come ..."

But I think the question remains "Build it and will they come?" I've toyed with trying to start a hyper-local operation in the suburb where I live and which is covered by a blatantly political and poorly edited rag. I'd love to follow the model out of Bakersfield, Calif. -- produce a Web site written by local contributors and augmented with a print product culled from those contributions -- and incorporate some of Glaser's ideas about the larger organization. Yet I have tossed numerous business models around in my head, and none seems to quite work (and on an instructor's salary, the capital resources are a little thin). Eating, even with my somewhat ample frame, is an option that must be considered.

We just seem to assume this "trend," short as it is, has long-term viability. I want to believe, but the skeptic in me says things sometimes seem to be a sea change only because people rush to them for their "newsness," but then settle back into slightly changed but essentially the same patterns. Certainly, the recent report that OhMyNews in Korea is turning a profit, however modest, is encouraging. But the difficulties of sustaining this are apparent in today's Washington Post, where Leslie Walker writes about the movement toward hyper-local journalism. Northwest Voice, says publisher Mary Lou Fulton, is just about breaking even, and that's mostly on revenue from the print edition ads. In Brattleboro, Vt., iBrattleboro still remains largely a "labor of love" for its creator.

Backfence is preparing to launch in the Washington, D.C., area as Web only and "won't be hiring reporters." (Does this sound like the "on the cheap" stuff we've decried for years from the suits at trad media companies; even OhMy has some reporters.) Jeff Jarvis, president of (and proprietor of the Buzzmachine blog) talks about how his company is ready to roll out some hyper-local sites with a business strategy of "if we can get a critical mass of very local content and a local audience" then it could target ads to dry cleaners, car washes, etc. (italics mine)

It might be suggested that a true cross-media operation like the proposed Pegasus will scrape out profits from numerous channels. (See this post for why Pegasus does not completely equate itself with some of the other hyper-local operations and this one for why it feels it needs a print edition.) But scraping by (and I suspect Pegasus would say it does not intend to scrape by, but we'll see) is not going to give you the kind of resources needed for the sort of organization Glaser suggests that can do consistent, significant in-depth and relevant work. Glaser proposes a model:

For income, there would be targeted advertising, and perhaps some paid content packages, along with syndication of the best content. The site would include photography, audio and video, and perhaps Flash animation or cartoons. Eventually, the best material could be spun out for print publications, radio or TV shows or even films.

If syndication takes off, then perhaps the service would morph into a giant news wire service, serving content into various media outlets as the Associated Press might do. The difference would be that this service would lack the overhead of the AP, relying on amateur and professional stringers to provide photos and news as it happens in front of them. Contributors would be paid for material as it gets used and reused, making for a nice freelance income if they are good.

The community itself would set the payment for contributors based on how good the work is, how it is received by the community, and whether it brings in syndicated income. It might operate like a content auction of sorts.
But I think there's a lot of hope, a little hype, and not yet enough reality in all that.

(A related thought: John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., blogged about how he wants his company to move closer to Glaser's vision. But I think a comment to that post by Jim Wilson is just as thought-provoking: "The real trick comes with the journalists at this theoretical company and how they want to move up the industry ladder. Their skills and things that -- in theory --- should be valued at this 'new' media company won't be valued elsewhere, so how do they advance their career (and more importantly their pay -- since that is how journalists typically get raises that allow them to feed themselves) will be critical to the whole equation.")

I hope, dearly hope, that if they build it, people will come -- that these sites flourish and show the idea is sustainable. Bully to those who can press the experiments forward. For now, however, put me down as a hopeless optimist who nonetheless remains skeptical.


At 12/10/04, 8:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very insightful, Doug. For now, I think the wholly revolutionary thing in all this is the relatively cheap way *citizens* can publish. But putting that into a business model is still a few years off.

BTW, on a related note, Romanesko reported that Dan Gillmor has left the Mercury News this week to roll out a hyperlocal media outlet. But he has "seed money" for his venture. I wonder if there's any seed money in columbia? It seems like most of the local micro-rags that are published (I've worked for one) are done by finding some local big shots who don't like the way the news is covered/neglected. Unfortunately, they also want coverage that slants their way.

Anyway, enough rambling. Good post.

bryan murley


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