When I was a kid, I wanted to be a journalist. My heroes were people like Woodward and Bernstein and the people reporting from war zones. The profession seemed to be both glamorous and worthwhile. Faced with a real decision as a young adult, I went into the IT industry. Then, later in my career, I started blogging, and then writing for ReadWriteWeb, and now I am COO of this news media business. So that got me thinking about the past, present, and future of journalism. Disclosure: I do not come at this from a long career as a journalist. This is a personal, blog-style view of the journalism profession by somebody who cares about the outcome.
Bloggers Becoming Journalists
Blogging is open to anyone. You do not need to be trained as a journalist, nor do you need a job that pays you to blog. But many bloggers have created media businesses that employ people, cover the news on a regular basis, and sell advertising. They have created newspapers without the paper. Which turns out to be a fairly good business, with overheads low enough to make a reasonable profit.
However, the imperatives that come with running a real business tend to shift bloggers from the classic blog mode to something else. This has generated a lot of anguish among blog veterans who worry that blogging is "losing its soul." Journalists, on the other hand, face a starker, more existential threat as newspapers close shop.
So neither bloggers nor journalists are happy today.
But my optimistic nature inclines me to the view that some new model will emerge that makes for a fulfilling and reasonably well-compensated career.
Blogging Compared to Journalism
Blogging seems wonderful compared to traditional journalism: anybody can do it; the style is informal, fun, and personal; no editor has control of your voice; you're not tied to a fixed schedule; and you encounter incredible diversity.
But now that many bloggers have morphed into small-media business owners, they are starting to feel pressure to follow a schedule and cover key news stories. This is a world that a traditionally trained journalist can recognize.
But there is a fundamental difference. Bloggers are passionate experts first and journalists second. Somebody who blogs about technology could not credibly switch to politics, and vice versa. The journalism profession is adept at taking somebody from a story on a bank robbery and allocating them to a political sex scandal. Their professional skills enable journalists to be switch-hitters.
This difference is generally advantageous to bloggers. Training somebody in the basics of journalism is easier than creating passionate expertise in a subject.
However, this is where the blog media business is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Don't Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater
We don't need print or TV to deliver news. Throw out the bathwater.
But the baby is cute. Let's keep the baby. Let's keep all the good things about journalism, the things that inspired me as a kid and that have inspired countless journalists:
- A really strong desire to find the truth, wherever it may lurk;
- An assumption that everyone knows more than you, and that your job is to find, cultivate, question, and listen to your sources, and then come to a view;
- An inclination not to take anything at face value, because everyone has a point of view, and those points of view are usually driven by self-interest;
- A resolve not to let commercial interests (in other words, advertisers) influence your search for the truth.
I don't know if this is taught in journalism school. It is a personal point of view. I hope that is okay. I did declare up front that this was a personal opinion piece.
Begone, You Self-Interested Tech Cynics
I have always been in the technology business. I like writing about the technology business because I find it fascinating and there are a lot of really smart people to talk to. But techies can spout the most self-interested baloney when it comes to content. The Web 2.0 vision of user-generated content is millions of passionate experts creating content that really clever algorithms deliver to audiences. The people who create those really clever algorithms become rich beyond the dreams of avarice while throwing a few crumbs to the content creators. Don't try paying a mortgage with AdSense or other CPC-affiliate revenue deals.
To a techie, "content" is just something to throw in a software system. Content creators don't talk about "content." They talk about their art or craft. Journalism is a form of art, albeit closer to craft than art. To a techie, art is just content. Which is more important, code or art? If you had to choose between a world without computers or a world without art, which would you choose?
But let's not get carried away with this. Journalism is still just a job.
Would Citizen Journalists Have Exposed Watergate?
Yes, they would have.
We don't need to protect journalism with public money or grants. The greater social good will be delivered by thousands of people on the ground reporting what is happening. That massive flow will be analyzed and edited ("curated") by a small number of experts who are motivated and trained to uncover the truth.
It won't be perfect. But the current system isn't perfect either. It is fair to say, though, that scumbags won't rest any easier. They will still be exposed.
Sacrifices will be made. One cannot imagine foreign bureaus surviving in anything close to their current form. Instead of having a few stringers on a loose contract, media firms will have a standardized deal that applies to anyone who covers fast-breaking news. That way, whoever is on the spot becomes a "just-in-time stringer."
Is that better or worse than what we have now? It's worse for the people working today in foreign bureaus on good salaries. But mostly, it's just different.
Online Revenue Models for Quality Need to Evolve
The newspaper business was fantastically profitable in its heyday. So it has the potential to pay a lot of journalists and editors reasonably well. The online business would likely pay less and employ fewer people because the overall revenue would be lower.
Will there be enough revenue to pay for "quality" journalism. Nobody can really define "quality" journalism. It is a bit like a judge who says, "I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it."
We can recognize "low-quality" journalism when we see it, and, boy, is there a lot of it online! The free-for-all nature of the Web is bound to produce a lot of junk. The question is, will it let the good stuff float to the top?
Why Pay $2.50 to Buy a Copy of the Financial Times?
Business people pay for quality content. The Financial Times costs $2.50 on newsstands and $99 for an annual subscription. The ROI is massive. Can you imagine a CEO making a bad decision because she neglected to read an article that would have saved her from the mistake?
Even the lowest-paid executive wastes more than $99 a year by not optimizing his cell phone bill.
I repeat: business people pay for news-driven content. If you doubt this, try prying a Bloomberg Terminal, which costs $2,000 per month, from a financial trader!
Consumers don't pay for news-driven content. Consumers pay for entertainment. Reading the news in the form of a newspaper was entertainment, a relaxing thing to do at the end of the day. People will still pay for entertainment. Just don't confuse that with the news business.
Monetizing Quality Online Is Harder
The Financial Times has been the savviest newspaper at balancing free and paid. It has a shot at getting it right because it has a business readership for whom time is money.
But the fundamental reality is that news, and everything that follows from news (opinion, analysis, insight), has to be primarily monetized by advertising; subscription revenue is the icing on the cake. Not much dispute on that score.
The problem is, how do you get an ROI from the additional investment in quality?
In a subscription-based business, that ROI is simple. If The Economist ever compromised its incredibly high standards, I would cancel the subscription I have had for decades. They would have then lost another good-quality advertiser.
But online, the correlation between quality and revenue is weaker. There is some correlation: a site focused on senior managers gets a higher CPM than a site targeting students.
But because the audience for a website is not measured in any way like an audience for, say, a controlled-circulation magazine is measured, there is a large element of faith that the "right" people (i.e. influential people with big budgets) are reading. That need for faith leads to a discount.
Until we as an industry can do a better job at monetizing quality, at correlating quality with revenue, the sensible business decision is simply to go after page views, any page views. This leads to the "aggregator bait" posts (Digg bait, Techmeme bait, Google bait, etc.) that we all deplore. Plenty among us really want to produce quality and have faith that the technology and business models will evolve to the point that quality journalism will be a rewarding profession to pursue.