(Note: This posting is from Jeremy Pennycook, a graduate student at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. He wrote this originally for our class website.)
By Jeremy Pennycook
The Internet killed journalism.
At least, as we know it.
Legacy media is on a serious decline. It’s hard to argue with the numbers. The often named champions of web 2.0 – Google, Facebook, Twitter – these tools didn’t destroy the foundation of a business model which supported journalism and promoted a free, democratic, and open society for decades. Instead, the real culprit is a fundamental shift in how society communicates, collaborates, and disseminates information.
The Internet is no longer a network of connections, linking various documents. Web 2.0 brought about a revolution in content creation, granting the ability of self-publishing to anyone with an Internet browser. Lines between consumer and producer blur at an ever-increasing speed. And as web 3.0 looms ominously on the proverbial horizon, these trends will multiply exponetially.
The Internet is evolving into a cloud of knowledge and data. Content independent of format. This precludes the possibility of a more widespread decline of the stand-alone website as an end-user experience. With RSS, XML, RDF, and a myriad of other formats available for users to build their own media experience, the Web is atomizing into a sea of data, rewritable and reusable in any way one sees fit.
These trends confuse more than just journalists.
Journalism’s fatal mistake may lie in depending on selling eyeballs to advertisers. At least, ad revenue is the problem surfacing to the top of the list of declines legacy media faces. Despite some signs of life in the internet advertising market, the advent of more precise, dynamic metrics measuring clicks, page-views and engagement times has exposed the little secret journalism milked for years: advertising is not as effective as people thought. Huge cost structures built on basic assumptions of cost per thousand models have become outmoded. At this point in time, and for the near future, they simply cannot support the vast organizations of legacy media.
These models appear to be drawing their last breaths.
Picking through the corpses
While many old guard journalists lament the death of tangible newspapers, the real tragedy for our industry resides in the commitment to denial some of these former juggernauts continue to espouse. White papers manage to emerge claiming such ludicrous suggestions as 97 percent of reading still happens in the print form of newspapers. Regardless of the validity or accuracy of statements such as this, the Internet represents a core paradigm shift in everyday life. We as an industry should not attempt to fight these new dynamics of human behavior.
We cannot win.
Adding insult to injury, companies such as the Associated Press attempt to attack the messengers of this movement, wasting valuable resources in tough economic times. But the Googles of the world are symptoms of change more than a cause. Google, and other entities, are tools, filling basic needs in society to access information.
If the dying husks of traditional mainstream media are incapable of or unwilling to recognize these nascent truths, then there may be no hope of resuscitation.
But there is hope
As we stand at a crossroads, prophets and pariahs shout out the new pillars of our transformed society. Collaboration. Flatness. Long tails. The digital revolution changes how we communicate, but it isn’t the end. Barriers to entry are lowered, syndication becomes almost limitless, and publishing is faster than ever before. Legacy corporations watch with fevered interest from their ivory towers, even as their castles burn around them. Whose ideas should we flock to? Which tenants of this new digital world will catch hold?
While much of this conversation could pan out to by hype and fluff – and of that we must beware – I believe the components to rebuild journalism rest within. If we wait to find out who the winners and losers are, it should be obvious what category our industry will find itself in. Those who experiment and adapt quickly will survive.
One truth that seems to weave its way throughout the fabric of this conversation is openness. We must tear down the walls within organizations that prevented media companies from developing search engines. The divides which allowed journalism to exist in a silo, separated from business models. How many brilliant ideas did media companies lose by keeping the technologists in the basement?
Sitting on double digit profit margins, stagnation may have seemed ok, but it seems those days are over. Ripping out the walls of companies already on deathbeds doesn’t sound like an effective solution. We need triage. As sad as it may be to let some of the dinosaurs die, perhaps their time is over.
A new breed of journalism
If compartmentalizing journalism companies stagnated the industry – preventing them from evolving – how can we avoid this in the future? The journalism business must more agile, responsive, and open.
Media company employees must be prepared to fill multiple and sometimes overlapping roles. Perhaps, the journalist of the future is part content producer, part businessman, and at least a rudimentary programmer
So what’s the answer? How do we resurrect the industry in a new form? If we intend to rebuild the journalism business from the ground up, we must address three fundamental concerns: content, cost, and business model. If we fail to deal with these questions we cannot hope to merge these roles into a more fluid, dynamic, and adaptable company.
There is no panacea
The key to survival of this new breed will be diversity. No single model will work for everyone, nor should our industry invest its entirety in one mode. Like a solid stock portfolio, we should diversify with the understanding that not everything will succeed, but realize failure didn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying.
Advertisers still have money, but at this point they seem confused as to where to spend it. Ad revenue online don’t seem to be growing fast enough to offset the decline in print advertising. This does not mean that journalism should abandon advertising entirely, but we cannot depend on it as a primary source of revenue. Another problem facing advertisers online is the continued atomizing and syndication of content. The metrics simply don’t exist to effectively create cost models based on web dissemination.
Some might argue journalism should enter a holding pattern until advertisers figure these things out. It is my assertion that relying on advertisers got us into this mess in the first place and that our industry will be dead by the time these questions get answered.
But if media companies continue to lose money, what recourse do they have but to cut costs? We can cut costs until we have no journalists left and it still won’t revive the failed business model of mainstream media. We need innovation and entrepreneurship. Innovation doesn’t happen when companies are cutting staff and shedding resources.
Companies with resources left should put money into research and development. If newspapers went completely digital, sold the logistics and printing assets they own, they could reinvest that money without losing coverage. The Googles and Amazons of the world see this time as an opportunity to grab up the talent and ideas floating around. Other media companies should follow the leadership of the Knight Foundation and fund start-ups willing to try new models.
These new media organizations will probably have to produce more with less. This paradox precludes a new content creation model for news. Multi-skilled journalists will have to collaborate like never before. We may have to not only tear down the walls inside journalism companies, but those surrounding them. Owned content and walled-gardens may need to be abolished in favor of a more productive dynamic with other media companies and the public at large. New journalists must utilize citizen journalism and new media creation tools to create content optimized for a non-linear, dissipated web.
Own the technology
The dilemma facing journalism today and tomorrow may not be relevancy, but obscurity. If information has become commodity, one way to add value would be to create mechanisms to sift thought he extraordinary amounts of information bombarding us daily.
Tools already exist capable of deconstructing the web into fragments and reassembling those shards back into something meaningful. Journalism should invest in creating tools and/or devices allowing people to take advantage of atomized content and create their own news experience. The BBC is already starting down this path, having reworked their homepage into a dashboard full of widgets and RSS feeds.
Perhaps, content on the web is fundamentally incapable of being monetized.
Handheld digital products similar to E-ink and the Kindle could replace paper as a medium, but still allow news to be tangible. If journalism could own the device, similar to how cable companies own the digital TV boxes and modems they rent out. Journalism could adopt a similar model and sell not only devices, but also subscriptions.
In this model, journalism would make money on a product, not just eyeballs, which would help produce the revenue to support content creation.
Multiple revenue streams
No one knows which business model will work. Should all journalism companies file for 501 3c non-profit status? If all journalism moves online, will that solve everything? Is journalism finished?
None of these statements is true in its entirety, however, there may be truth to be gleaned from all of them.
The good news is the demand for media consumption is higher than ever, but it is dissipated and unfocused. This means variety will add voracity to the industry. We need more, smaller media outlets, each attempting to take less of the pie. Some should be non-profits, some could try micro payments, and others should build tools and devices. Not only should journalism companies try different approaches, but also even within companies, various revenue streams should be pursued.
This isn’t a knockout punch, no deus-ex-machima to save us, but this is probably closer to reality. It isn’t glamorous and it isn’t easy, but from the ashes of legacy media, new journalists can arise and rebuild a more agile, vibrant, and diverse industry with the same core values and goals.