Thoughts on the Future of Journalism and the Print Media

Newspapers and the wider print media have traditionally formed an important bulwark against excessive intrusions of the State, the Fourth Pillar, as they have traditionally been referred to. However, their business model have been built on on an artificial scarcity of pathways of information to  the general public. Since newspapers owned this channel, they monetised the channel at both ends – advertisers paid to access the channel and the associated captive audience while the audience paid, upfront, for an entire year even, for access to this channel which was their limited source of news and information. The Internet destroyed this artificial scarcity of channels and of access to ‘facts’ and this is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle. In many ways this is equivalent to the problem that the music and video industry have faced as well – how do you get consumers to pay for content that they can otherwise, illegally and legally, access for free? The print media no longer is the only channel for news and certainly isn’t the fastest channel for news – when competing against the Internet it is very hard to beat digital pathways as it is to compete against ‘free’. The Nieman Journalism Lab recently wrote that “The Dallas Morning News now gets 38 percent of its revenue from circulation, 54 percent from advertising, and 8 percent from contract printing plus [and] those numbers are a far cry from the way it used to … 80% of their revenue came from advertising and 20% came from circulation.” Which leads to the question of whether the era of and advertising and subscription funded monolithic news organization is fast ending and what this means for the traditional news organization.

The recent example with Wikileaks, “the world’s first stateless news organization” as Jay Rosen a professor of Journalism at New York University called them, distributing tens of thousands of pieces of classified information from America’s war in Afghanistan points to a future where newspapers are not the first port of call for whistle-blowers and hence may no longer be sources of facts, and to an interesting model of value addition for journalists and traditional print media. Jeff Jarvis, an associate professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, believes that this value addition is what journalists and media organizations can add to facts that are otherwise both free and freely available and says that “Thanks to the internet, the marginal cost of sharing information today is zero [and] this change in market reality forces us to examine journalists’ true value to the public in the market.”

Given the proliferation of channels of news and facts and that most of them are both free and freely accessible, there seems to be little value in ‘news’ and ‘facts’ as mere reproductions of events but this  poses a challenge to the reading public as well – a challenge of an over-abundance of sources of news and facts without the ability to filter them, rank them or contextualise them. Another possible role that journalists and the print media could play is as filter to these multiple incoming sources of facts and news – to build filters of authenticity and to add context to these facts. That said it probable that such fact checking and verification will, in the future, be crowd-sourced as Truthsquad, a “community fact-checking experiment” and SwiftRiver a “free and open source software platform that uses algorithms and crowd-sourcing to validate and filter news” show. A necessary ingredient  to building such filters of authenticity is trust and this is something journalists and the print media should keep in mind – undermining the element of trust is to undermine your relevance and future business models. The current brouhaha over the paid news syndrome is a malaise that will render those sources untrustworthy and without a necessary ingredient to build future models of sustainability. 

Which brings us to the an emerging trend of data driven journalism. Governments across the world, with the United States and the United Kingdom taking the lead, have begun to disgorge vast quantities of hitherto unavailable data in to the public domain and as the Wikileaks example shows, this is an opportunity for print media to add value and context to such data and weave a narrative that data, as a standalone object, lacks or as the Nieman Journalism Lab put it, “… data in the service of somehow getting to the “big picture” about what’s really going on in the world”.

It remains to be seen, and we remain sceptical, whether placing news content behind walls, for which payment is required to access, will offset advertising and subscription revenue losses and a nuanced approach where there is greater perceived value to the end consumer of such news is likely to succeed better than a simple pay-to-view model. The Guardian has been experimenting with a very interesting platform based model that they are calling The Open Platform. This is, in their own words, “… a suite of services that enables partners to build applications with the Guardian.” The long term goal and vision of this project is to embed the Guardian as an elemental part of the Internet rather than be only a destination with the attendant risks that being a destination has. This Open Platform “… aims to make the Guardian a useful resource to partners all around the globe who want to leverage the value the Guardian can bring to their business.”

Mike Masnick has been thinking this through the challenges that traditional media face from the proliferation of digital networks and at a recent event (wonderfully titled Techdirt Saves Journalism) distilled a set of ideas that the print media could experiment with. In short, he writes that media must, mine the data to find the relevant, elevate their writers, create a platform for their community, think about multiple revenue streams, expand their brands and absorb changing ideas about “news” and its traditional notions of production.

India, of course, isn’t yet here because of a lack of ubiquitous digital networks but this will change rapidly with the roll-out of 3G wireless networks and rapidly falling handset prices. At which point it might all be too late.

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About gkjohn

Recovering lawyer, erstwhile entrepreneur, pretend polymath, hopeful zookeeper and future dilettante and farmer of organic strawberries. Work at @aksharadotorg and @klpdotorg. Previously at @prathambooks. Was a @tedfellow.
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