Future of news – various thoughts

I may not own an NBA team, but since everyone and their grandmother seems to be weighing in on the future of news and journalism, I figured I’d share some thoughts.  That’s a big part of what this blog is supposed to be about, after all.

It’s not intended to be a unified theory and the points don’t necessarily even relate to one another.  But they are all things I stress whenever I discuss the topic with anyone.

So here we go…a very rough overview of my thoughts on the future of news and journalism…

1) When I talk about how we will finance news/journalism I’m interested in only a very small subset of all journalism which I’d refer to as that which provides core civic knowledge.  In other words, the information that we feel is vital to a functioning democracy.*  By this measure, most of what we see in the newspapers is not an issue.  Go through a newspaper sometime and look.  We’re not talking about how to fund the sports section, the travel section, the style section, that article on some writer’s quest for the perfect espresso.  That is beyond the scope of what we, as a society, need to ensure exists going forward.

[Side note: I happen to think the network/the blogosphere is pretty good at providing much of this “feature” content but even if it isn’t, if people want it, let them pay.  If they won’t pay, it’s no great civic loss for it not to exist.]

2) The only stuff that is really so expensive that we don’t know how to pay for it is reporting.  Beat reporting at all levels (local, national, war reporting, etc.) and investigative reporting.  Aggregation is cheap.  Opinion, commentary, analysis is cheaper than ever.  Really good analysis isn’t necessarily cheap, but we have models of providing that stuff for free through existing institutions.  (See: professors, universities, think tanks all offering free content).

3) There are many reasons why consumers resist paying for content.  One of those is the reality that you don’t need to do so in order to be well-informed.**

The truth is that when the NYT starts charging for content I can go to the next best free paper.  If all the papers started charging, I could read only blogs.  These blogs can freely quote the lede and important ‘grafs from news stories on their way to offering commentary.  So I wouldn’t really lose much, if anything, by not reading the Times.

This won’t change unless we were to totally revamp copyright to make it infinitely more stringent and even then it might not work.  (In my view, copyright is overly restrictive already and making it more so would do more harm than good.)

4) Much of what we today consider “political journalism” is junk and not very useful from a civic perspective.  Driven by the admirable goal of “objectivity,” and by reporters’ lack of policy expertise, most of political reporting covers the polls and the “narratives” of elections and the political wrangling of the legislative process rather than offering citizens policy analysis that would allow them to shape policy preferences based on their own values.

5) As a news organization more absolutely can be done with less. (Perhaps another way of saying this is “it’s now OK to do less.”)  I don’t agree with everything Jeff Jarvis says but his line of “do what you do best and link to the rest” applies here.  There’s something to be said for multiple reporters independently checking facts but in many cases there is no reason to rewrite the exact same story 100 times.

(During my very brief first*** stint in journalism, as an intern, I would read a press release, call the source to get the same basic quotes, and then essentially reconstruct it.  Or I would do the same thing starting with a news story that another paper had written a couple days ago.  This was a waste of resources.)

In a world of links we can go “straight to the source” by linking to other stories, to press releases, to sources’ personal blogs, etc.

6) Following the NYT paywall announcement it’s obvious that some papers will start charging for content in one form or another. But for reason #3, as well as others, I am guessing many of these efforts will fail.  So what will the future look like?

Obviously, it’s hard to predict.  But here are some thoughts: I think we’ll see a blend of models.  Small niche news sites will probably find ways to turn a profit based on advertising revenues.  Some of these will include original reporting, others won’t.  Nonprofits of all kinds will step into the space with blogging and research.

Many of these will be mission-driven or advocacy-driven and not purely nonpartisan.  (These are your Sierra Clubs, etc.)  But other nonprofits like ProPublica will be formed and grow specifically around a mission of nonprofit journalism, emphasizing investigative and beat reporting.

Universities will step up their contributions.  Journalism schools will become less places to prepare for a career elsewhere in journalism, and more an avenue for universities to channel their substantial area expertise and research infrastructure into quality journalism.

7) One more thing: I haven’t said anything about crowdsourcing or user-generated content.  I think there’s a lot of room for these things to contribute significantly to the ecosystem of news and content.  But i’ve not mentioned them here because the core issue i’m interested in is figuring out how, as a society, we’ll pay for the expensive stuff that you can’t get away with not paying for, and that you need: reporting.  And i think there probably exists some role for the crowd there, but it’s a very partial one.

*You could quibble over the democratic value of some things outside my intended purview.  Does the article on travel to coastal spain has cultural value, lets readers learn about another nation, makes us tolerant of other people etc.?  This might be true, but only in the most minor, marginal sense.  So i’m discounting it here.

**Given that I could stop reading the NYT and be equally well-informed if i replaced it with various other types of content, I’d rather be asked
to donate to support the NYT than have them demand that i pay.  That’s one reason I’m more comfortable supporting nonprofit models.  Maybe that’s just me.

***Funny rereading this in September, 2013… When I wrote these words I was working in the nonprofit world. I’ve since moved into journalism.