Recently, there has been a quality renaissance in the discussion about the economic future of journalism. While some are still touting the one miracle solution (usually alluding to Google’s business model and success), a lot of ideas have arisen that will probably make up for the economic future of journalism as a whole. Time for a summary.
There has always been a good deal of unpaid work in journalism. The retired schoolteacher writing for the local newspaper, the travel reporter writing for the sake of traveling, the starving freelancer writing for almost nothing or the aspiring young journalist trying to land his first big hit. Established publishing houses are pretty successful at exploiting these resources, while most citizen journalism platforms only attract fools. Over time this will change, unpaid quality contributors will start to respect these platforms and the platforms will learn to deal with the fools. This will give a new impact to citizen journalism on the web.
There are and always will be journalistic products people are willing to pay for. Nobody ever paid for news. Not on TV, not on paper. People only paid for the supporting medium to deliver it. But unique journalism from trusted names sells. If you manage to go beyond the news and set a real agenda, you might well see people subscribing to your service. Mediapart.fr is a good working example of this approach.
Branding Ads Will Come to the Internet
This will never be a love story. The push mentality of brand advertisers and the pull mentality of the Internet users are just a bad match. But even in a networked world, some products need good, old-fashioned branding (think detergents, Coca Cola). One day, these branding operations will end up where people’s attention is, and probably in a place where their branding is supported by another good, old-fashioned brand. Like the one of a news corporation for example.
Part of Apple’s success with iTunes and the App Store lies in the fact that they managed to bring online payment down to a true 1-click solution, able to get a margin from micropayment. Especially on mobile devices, people easily spend small amounts, provided they are enabled to do so in one click. Establishing a convenient payment model that spans many journalistic sources could actually make selling articles on a one per click basis possible. If enough publishers would collaborate on this, it should be feasible to establish a kind of “monopoly by ease of use” that would make paying for journalistic content seem natural to many. Similar to the way people are paying for music on iTunes, simply because for the first time this is easier than firing up BitTorrent and downloading it. BNONews does a good job at distributing free news over the Internet and selling some of its content through the App Store.
An alternative end point for paid content are telecommunication companies and cable network operators. Current is apparently doing quite well on the small revenue share it receives from the cable network operators in exchange for the permission to distribute Current’s content.
Donation Funded Journalism
There has always been the retired billionaire who wanted a newspaper so badly that he didn’t care too much about its business model. A new awareness of the importance of quality journalism and its precarious economic situation, together with the Internet’s ability to create transparency could take this model to a new level. In the end, people who are financing online journalism are getting an improved ratio of actual journalistic achievement to overhead for distribution. See the Huffington Post Investigative Fund for an example.
Publicly Funded Journalism
We will always have an uneasy feeling about it, but publicly funded journalism has been doing a pretty good job all over Europe for a very long time now. Companies like the BBC and NPR in the US are as much committed to quality and independence as any privately held journalistic operation—and these companies are huge, thus making an important contribution to the journalistic ecosystem.
An increasing amount of what we consume as daily news is actually the product of clever PR and product marketing. With the rise of free newspapers, this has reached a point where the younger generation stopped to distinguish between marketing messages and factual information. Luckily, they also developed a healthy distrust towards the kind of journalism they are confronted with daily. Let’s hope that the structural crisis journalism is currently facing will not further accentuate this development.
A lot of the established privately held media houses still have important financial resources and a long running experience in dealing with cyclical and by their nature ever-changing markets. Anything that these big players will do could be a game-changer, so we should not stop watching what comes from their side.
The future of journalism is not what Google would do—way less spectacular, it’s little bit of everything that I summarized above.