Pondering journalism’s future in a digital universe

By David McKie

The increasing number of publications turning to the Internet for economic salvation has prompted a fundamental debate about where our business is heading and what kind of skills journalists will need. Newspapers like The Globe and Mail are shifting more of their content behind firewalls. The Toronto Star is using its digital platform to showcase some of its long-form, investigative journalism.

By David McKie

The increasing number of publications turning to the Internet for economic salvation has prompted a fundamental debate about where our business is heading and what kind of skills journalists will need. Newspapers like The Globe and Mail are shifting more of their content behind firewalls. The Toronto Star is using its digital platform to showcase some of its long-form, investigative journalism.

Publications like iPolitics, the relative newcomer on the Parliament Hill block, are attempting to make money from digital-only content. Still, others are attempting to stave off bankruptcy. What’s baffling, at least so far, is that there doesn’t seem to be any template for success – or failure.  One person’s winning formula may be another person’s path to ruin. No wonder the digital universe has been described by at least one analyst as the “wild, wild West”.

The debate about the viability of charging for online content appeared to be settled many years ago. The consensus seemed to be that it couldn’t be done.  Online advertising would never generate enough income to pay the bills.

But then publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times gave the doubters something to think about. Do large publications like these, along with aggregators such as the Huffington Post, have advantages over publications serving mid-sized, regional markets? Or how about small, niche newspapers that limit their coverage to communities? Is it easier for them to sell ads, at least enough car dealerships and supermarkets to make a go of it?

These are some of the questions we ask in Media magazine, which I’ll post by the end of the month, just in time for the Canadian Association of Journalists convention in Ottawa from May 3-5.

Related content on J-Source: 

As is my custom, I’ll use this space to profile some of the magazine’s content, kicking things off with Kelly Toughill’s article. The J-Source business of journalism editor and director of the University King’s College’s School of Journalism has been thinking a lot about various business models. In this piece, she introduces us to some of the excellent studies that have raised interesting questions about what works and what doesn’t.


New studies peek into the new universe journalism

By Kelly Toughill, for Media Magazine

If you love the spine-tingling thrill of a good horror flick, read The Filter Bubble.

Author Eli Pariser suggests journalism is about to be ravaged by the same algorithms that will radically polarize our economics, culture, education and politics.

The Filter Bubble is a key read for those curious about where journalism is headed. It is one of several new books, reports and studies that offer new ways to think about the evolution of our craft.

The news industry has been in full crisis for five years, and in serious decline for more than a decade. Many early attempts to explain the crisis didn’t make sense, or were quickly proven wrong. Many simply chronicled the destruction, but groped blindly for a framework to help us understand the forces at play. That’s what the new crop of reports offer. Here are some of the best:

1) Robert Picard was one of the first scholars to tease meaning out of the chaos of twenty-first century journalism. A media economist who currently heads the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, his research is the foundation for much of the excellent recent work published elsewhere. One good summation of his research is in a 2010 essay published as a chapter — “The Future of the News Industry” – in Media and Society, by James Curran. Picard identified five trends driving the chaos: abundance, fragmentation, portfolio development, the erosion of media firms and a power shift in communications.

“Journalism is not a form of media; it is not a distribution platform; it is not an industry; it is not a company; it is not a business model; it is not a job. Journalism is an activity, a body of practices by which information and knowledge is gathered, processed and conveyed . . . journalism will adapt because its functions remain significant for society.” Read the full chapter here.

2) A group of New York scholars picked up on Picard’s point in Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present, published last fall. C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky argue that the journalism industry has been replaced by a journalism “ecosystem” made up of individuals, crowds and machines.

“Many producers of the kind of material we used to regard as news won’t be news organizations, in any familiar sense of the word,” predicts the report.

This is a comprehensive view of what is happening both to traditional journalism organizations and to the flow of information in society, coupled with very practical advice about how to survive the transformation. Its analysis of workflow at new startups versus legacy media is particularly useful, as is its surprising discovery about how content management systems stifle change. The report is published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and can be found here.

3) Clayton Christensen is a Harvard professor who developed a key theory about disruptive innovation. His theory explains how small start-up companies regularly destroy powerful established companies and industries. Basically, Christensen points out that companies fall into the trap of worrying about the things they make, instead of the service they provide. He urges all companies to consider the “job-to-be-done” by their customers.

Last year the famous scholar teamed up with Canadian editor David Skok to write Breaking News, an examination of disruption in the news industry. The failing of this report is that it focuses almost exclusively on the “job-to-be-done” by the audience. For most traditional media, advertisers pay the bills, not readers. This report gives little thought to where and how the advertising market is being disrupted and how advertisers fit in the news ecosystem. Breaking News is published by Nieman Reports and can be read here.  

4) Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble suggests advertising will vanish completely as a source of revenue for journalism.

The Filter Bubble is about the impact of personalization on the web. Google tailors search results for geography, but also for individual interests, education, personality, age and economic status, based on past searches, email content, online purchases and other factors.

Facebook, Yahoo and others use similar filters. Big data companies can now use that information to tailor marketing to individuals and find those individuals wherever they happen to be browsing online.

The Filter Bubble is mostly about what this means to society and how personalized search will magnify inequities and shield us from the ideas, needs and reality of our fellow citizens. 

If Pariser is right about the future of so-called “big data,” the audiences assembled by newspapers and online news sites and magazines will soon be worthless. For more than a century, most journalism outlets have paid the bills by assembling an audience and charging advertisers a fee to reach that audience. Though advertising revenues have been plummeting, few have thought about a world in which journalism can’t rely on advertising at all. Listen to a Ted talk by Pariser here.

Read the New York Times’ review of The Filter Bubble here

5) Two other reports offer a glimpse of how the journalism crisis is playing out in the rest of the world.  

Disruptive News Technologies: Stakeholder Media and the Future of Watchdog Journalism Business Models, by Mark Lee Hunter and Luk Van Wassenhove, looks at how sources are now primary providers of investigative reporting. The report includes three case studies of European outlets and an examination of the potential journalism function of Greenpeace.

Chasing Sustainability on the Net examines 63 journalism start-ups in nine countries in Europe, the United States and Japan. It divides entrepreneurial journalism into two camps: those that focus on creating content and those that focus on services. The report is a useful overview of the creativity of emerging business models. It is also a useful overview of how differently journalism is evolving in Europe, Japan and North America.