Monday, April 6, 2009

Alternative Snooze

As I'm in the "alternative online news" business with my work at Uncharted, I like to have my ear to the ground when it comes to other entrepreneurs trying to figure out business models and sustainability plans for the projects they're working on the online journalism world. The more of them that I encounter, the more I realize they've got to pass what I'm going to call the "Shirky Test," so called for Clay Shirky and his powerful essay "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable." Even with my limited experience in journalism (ten years as a professional print journalist with a career that ended in two erroneous stories and career burnout) and journalism on the web (four years with Uncharted, coupled with two and a half years of study for a masters degree in technical writing, with a heavy emphasis on web writing), I'm fairly confident Shirky's assessment of the search for newspaper journalism's model for the Web will be proven to be the yardstick by which successful Web journalism models will be measured. His "Unthinkable Scenario" will be played out in newsrooms nationwide. I believe this even in light of those who insist today's print journalism crisis is linked to newspaper chains and the debt they've saddled the industry with -- because readership was declining in favor of the Internet before mergers, buyouts and the debt they carried with them occurred.

Shirky brings up two salient points which I think will make or break any long-term sustainability for the future of online journalism: First, the model where individuals pay for content, either through subscriptions or micropayments, is dead. Newspapers let that genie out of the bag in the 1990s, and there's likely little that can be done to put it back in the bottle. There are some holdouts, notably The Post Register, my hometown paper and former employer, which has earned national ink for sticking to it's online subscription model. I don't have current numbers, but last I heard, the paper had about 800 online subscribers. That's admirable, but a clear exception to the rule.

Second, Shirky posits that a truly sustainable business plan can't result in a literal translation of the old business model of a newspaper being "a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion," as Shirky says. Newspapers can't present a plan, Shirky says, that will "preserve the old form of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies." This is basically what The Post Register is telling the Associated Press as the paper threatens to pull out of the service as the service forces papers to buy packages of content, some of which they will not use. To turn around and expect it's readers to do what the paper is questioning doing itself us, at best, disingenuous.

Now, I've been a newspaper reader since childhood, with the Post as my paper of choice. And, I have to admit, it's a paper I read selectively. I rarely read the sports page. I rarely read the advertisements. The highlights of my reading were -- and remain -- in this order: the comics, the opinions, and anything that related to city growth. Occasionally, I would read national science news in the paper, but only because it was there, easy to access. Those habits only shifted slightly after I became a news purveyor at the paper, rather than a mere consumer, and is ultimately why I decided to leave the industry.

So, to survive, those looking for the revolutionary ideas -- and I believe it will be a conglomeration of ideas, not one easy to summarize silver bullet -- will have to ensure their ideas pass the Shirky Test. This revolution will include things old -- notably niche publications that can focus, for example, on hobbies, travel, and entertainment -- to things new. But each will have to be brought to Shirky to see if the ideas pass muster.

Take, for example,, a San Francisco non-profit and startup "two strikes against us," jokes founder David Cohn in an interview with ReadWriteWeb (available here). In my opinion, the idea of "crowd-based" reporting, in which news seekers pay $15 to $20 apiece to fund publishing a bit of community journalism, say a report on why it takes so long for the City of Oakland to repair potholes, for instance, might pass the second part of the Shirky Test, in that the idea of letting readers decide what is worthy of bring published is novel enough that it is not part of the old school. However, the concept, with it's up-front payment, smacks right up against the first Shirky tenet. Sure, with, the readers may get the chance to read "their" story for free, but those who wanted the story in the first place risk having to pay for it twice, as part of the model calls for stories to be sold to old media for publishing. Yes, they get their money back to "invest" in another story, but the model requires a level of commitment that us not sustainable across the masses, as right now the masses are accustomed to free local news, provided either by local TV news stations, or by the Web sites maintained by newspapers. Special interests will see this as an avenue to get word out on their special causes, but getting consistent coverage of day-to-day operations of city, county, and school government will be problematic.

Also troubling is that in the five months has been active, only two stories have been published in mainstream media, with another ten going the open source route. A handful more are close enough to the monetary threshold to be published. That's less than a day's worth of news for your standard daily. As with Uncharted, building that critical mass is the rub, and not one that's accomplished easily.

Additionally, Cohn admits right now the money coming in to publish a story results in the reporter's work being "probably undervalued, " as he tells ReadWriteWeb. Freelance journalists -- and that's about all you'd get with this model -- would not be making the same amount of money than under the old, albeit broken, model. I know from experience that some money is better than no money, but for long-term sustainability, the prospects for seem limited. Additionally, seems as willing to toss out the baby with the bathwater as the old media it proposed to teach. Cash to sustain the business, even at a non-profit level, would come from non-mandatory reader contributions above what they pony up for a story. Additionally, Cohn tells ReadWriteWeb that part of the sustainability model hinges on bringing to other cities -- but then goes on to say that since is open source, anyone can take it and run with it without paying a cent. "Ive seen it pop up in Japan, and it looks just like, because they're using our open source code," Cohn tells ReadWriteWeb. What's that giant sucking sound?

The best part is: I'm likely wrong. "Any experiment," Shirky writes, "designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past." WHile there is much about newspaper journalism that is broken as far as it comes to applying it to the web, journalism itself is not broken, and is still indispensable even in the Internet age. No army of bloggers and novice writers -- willing to slave away at the less than desireable wages crowd journalism seems to offer, will make up for even local journalists worth their 20 years worth of salt building contacts and credibility.

"No one experiment," Shirky writes, (and Cohn is realistic enough to say his is not a silver bullet) "is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need."


carl g said...

What a great post, and great article by Shirky. “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.” That applies to all media, probably least of all to newspapers. But the AP, etc., will change or die. You don't need a story published in 1000 places when the whole world can read it at one place online.

I think newspapers have already been replaced (the daily me), which is why they are dying. That void is filled. As you say, general local publications are history. I think local reporting will indeed be an almost exclusively amateur pursuit going forward, published on blogs, forums and other outlets for user-generated content. This will all get "edited" together in the form of aggregation.

I think local, smaller versions of the Huffington Post are the future. I'm sure I'm not the only one to suggest that. These aggregators will have a few paid staff and make ad money, but the real challenge is for the freelancers who feed these things to find a way to make (real) money too.

Mister Fweem said...

That line about the 14-year-old kid slays me every time I read it. It'll be interesting to see what comes of the newspaper industry in the next 10 to 20 years. I don't think you're far off the mark on thinking local versions of the Huffington Post will become the norm -- they could even be run by the papers, if they could shake the old business model from their eyes. The freelancers making real money is the issue, as you say. It's my experience there are people out there willing to do this, but they'll need coaching on the writing. Professional writers won't touch this kind of stuff with a 20-meter cattle prod, just due to the high amount of work versus the low return. Mom and Pop stores may give way to Mom and Pop journalism.

Mister Fweem said...

There's actually a model of this "Mom and Pop" journalism at It's run by a former print journalist. He's principally a news aggregator on Oregon, Washington and Idaho politics, but he occasionally pens an original story. I read him regularly, and actually get a lot of good news on politics out of him. As he aggregates stuff from the right and from the left, I'm exposed to views from all parts of the political spectrum. I'd be curious to see how self-sustaining the site is -- that's the rub: finding ways to do this and make a living at it.

Mister Fweem said...

Oops. Drop the "press."

carl g said...

I think most small papers are already mom & pop journalism. The local Payson rag is, and in fact, most submissions are from readers. Editing, if any, is imperceptible. The Daily Herald (Provo) is a step up, but not a big step up. Maybe I don't see this falling as far some people might.

Local HufPos probably will not employ trained journalists, at least in any numbers. The whole field of journalism will continue to contract until, as Shirky says, it finds new subsidies. Assuming it ever does.

"For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues."

That last line points to money from special interests. I can see special interests filling the void of reporters, to some extent, with readers then having to balance point and counterpoint rather than just relying on a reporter's "balanced" perspective. Surely this is already happening. But the objectivity of the old media was never a given anyway. Again, I'm not yet sure how far the fall will really be.

carl g said...

A news wiki? Sure, why not?

Mister Fweem said...

These are all ideas that ought to be considered, but I think what's killing newspapers is that ont he Web they can't control where people enter their sites. The NYT gave up its paid online subscription model in 2007 when they figured out that most of the traffic they were seeing to their website came from people who found articles through Yahoo or Google searches. Nobody wants to come in through the "front door" these days -- and for good reason. A good Google search can take you straight to the information you want (a bad Google search takes a bit longer, true, but nothing like swimming through 80 pages of newsprint).