The return of bundling and the indirect value of ‘serious’ journalism

In the past, I’ve argued that serious journalism isn’t becoming less profitable, so much as being exposed as having never profitable in the first place. In doing so, I’ve leaned on Clay Shirky who argued the same in 2009:

Journalism written for that fraction of the population that follows the news closely has always been subsidized. For the last century, newspaper journalism had direct subsidy from advertisement and cross-subsidy from sports fans and coupon clippers who never really cared about the city council or the coup in Madagascar. The packages containing news have been so bundled and cross-funded that we’ve never really known precisely the size of the audience for actual civic-minded reporting, or how much direct fees from that audience would amount to. We do know, however, that the rough answers are “Small” and “Not much,”

Today I want to put forward an argument that he and I are wrong. I’m not sure I believe this, but I think recent trends in media make it necessary to consider. Back in February I laid out what I think of as the best argument against Shirky’s:

In my mind, the best retort to Shirky’s point that the news was always subsidized is to argue that papers like NYT gain an indirect benefit with their credible reporting. Sure, when readers got the paper they looked at sports and lighter stuff, but they chose to buy such a premier paper in the first place in part to associate themselves with the seriousness of the brand.

These days, I see evidence in favor of this rebuttal everywhere I look.

(Quick note: There’s a lack of clarity around what actually should count as serious and not, as I discuss here. That’s not what I’m interested in now. For the purposes of this post, by ‘serious’ I just mean in terms of reader perceptions.)

There’s been a lot already written about ‘unbundling’ in media, meaning that the unit of media that we buy/consume has narrowed. We don’t subscribe to one paper; we sample articles from many sources via Twitter, Facebook, RSS, etc. Likewise, with geography less of a factor, we saw from the early days of the blogosphere on a strong move towards niche coverage. Blogs and websites could dive into a particular domain and cover it better than general journalists could ever dream.

The problem, then, was that the international reporter no longer got subsidized by the style columnist. In an age of declining media profitability, why would anyone bother to pay someone to cover Africa? The trend was toward narrow and deep, and better to go narrow in the niches that lots of readers really cared about.

Except this theory just does not do a good job of describing today’s landscape. It can’t explain why The Huffington Post would spend money hiring NYT reporters to do investigative reporting. Or why Buzzfeed would poach Ben Smith. Why worry about having a respected financial reporter at Business Insider rather than just being a slideshow shop heavy on aggregation? Even Gawker is taking pageview pressure off its stable of writers by hiring Daily What’s founder to go gung-ho after pageviews. None of these, to me, square with the basic logic of unbundling. What’s going on here?

I don’t get no respect!

The media economics answer here is CPMs, the rate at which advertisers pay media properties per eyeball. Some eyeballs are more valuable than others. That’s why advertisers will pay more to advertise next to content targeted at “the global business elite” than it will  for, well, almost anything else.

That alone isn’t at odds with the unbundling thesis. Niche business sites could collect those limited eyeballs at higher rates, while other sites could rack up the pageviews at a lower rate.

But what I see in the various re-bundling efforts above is a possible confirmation of the indirect value of serious journalism. Because the dirty little secret is that the ‘serious’ wealthy, educated person picking up the New York Times is still more likely to read about the best coffee in Manhattan than about the politics of Libya. But they wouldn’t pick up the paper if that Libya content weren’t there. Because they pride themselves on being a very serious person.

Translated to the online world, some readers who garner high CPMs based on income or other factors love the same click crack that everyone else does. But they’re more likely to read it at a ‘respectable’ outlet that also employs Ben Smith or Joe Weisenthal.

All of this is just a very long-winded way of saying that brand matters. And that ‘serious’ or civic-minded journalism may have some business value. It’s just indirect.

How Much Journalism is Worth Saving?

Back in early 2010, shortly after launching this blog, I put pen to paper on some of the core ideas guiding my views on the future of news. Here’s one of them that I still believe is crucial and often ignored:

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.

You can read the full post here.

Today, for the fun of it – yes, this is what I do for fun on a Sunday – I browsed the NYT homepage starting at the top and counted 25 headlines to see how many seemed to fit (based on headline alone, for time’s sake) my definition of civic journalism. I ended up with 12 out of 24, with one not classifiable based on headline (it was a Dowd column so we can be fairly sure it could go.)

That 12 included one story not civic  per se, but a breaking news story about an earthquake that seemed worth counting based on the idea of essential national news. You can count the top stories yourself and see what you come up with, though my screenshot below doesn’t capture all 25.

My point here is that most journalism isn’t worth saving, from a democratic perspective. Now, we might want to save it for other reasons. I’m a writer, so I’d like to have a job. I work for a startup that’s betting on the reinvention of media as a business. But whether writers have jobs and investors can get a decent return off of a content business are separate from the question of protecting capital J Journalism.

As for how to preserve that core civic journalism, I don’t have the perfect answer. (I lean toward a nonprofit model like ProPublica, and am additionally hopeful that universities will shoulder a lot of the burden.) But a lot of the discussions about how to save journalism – and about what new media experiments are worthwhile and not – become much clearer once you realize you’re really only trying to preserve a subset of existing media.

One thing that bugs me, perhaps because I work for a new media business, is that new entrants are often judged for the quality of their content without much attention to that of the incumbents. Business Insider gets panned for its slideshows or HuffPo for its celebrity gossip without any mention of the fact that the majority of traditional journalism served no civic purpose, but just existed as entertaining content.

That roughly 50% of the top stories in America’s top newspaper makes this clear. Now, I love the NYT and I’d rather read their non-essential stuff more than the non-essential stuff at various other outlets. But wanting to read a J-school grad reporting on New York’s nightlife lawyer isn’t in and of itself better than reading a Gawker writer mocking this that or the other.

The next time you have a conversation about saving journalism, or about the quality of a new media entrant, remember: the segment of media worth saving for the sake of democracy is only a very small slice of what has traditionally gone under the banner of journalism.