What's the future of news? I'm tempted to say "not very much" since no one really knows too much about the future of news right now. You know this is true because senior news folk have given up on the doom and gloom stuff and are starting to talk about "the golden age of journalism" and how it's a "bright dawn" and that sort of thing. This would make sense if there had been any structural change in the economics of news, but there hasn't; so their optimism has the hollow twang of hope over reason.
Still, the optimists have got it half right. As Stewart Kirkpatrick, founder of the Caledonian Mercury, said at a #futureofnews conference a week or so back (I paraphrase): "This is a great time to do journalism. It's just not a great time to earn your living as a journalist."
What I Know
But, in these turbulent times, as I earnestly make my way from one news conference to another, a few things are starting to become clear. So this much I know:
- Even if pay walls provide a secure financial future for news organizations -- which right now seems unlikely -- they will reduce the pool of shared information, and cut those news organizations' content off from the openness, sharing and linking that characterizes the web. "You cannot control distribution or create scarcity," Alan Rusbridger said in his January Hugh Cudlipp lecture, "without becoming isolated from this new networked world."
- The pay wall is not the only way to sustain the digital newsroom. Advertising, though much maligned by many, could yet make online non-pay wall newspaper content viable within five years. Peter Kirwan did the math in Wired, calculating that if Guardian News Media manages a 20 percent annualized growth of digital revenues (it estimates growth will be 30 percent this year) it will be able to maintain a £100m digital newsroom seven days a week by 2015.
- There are other revenue models for online news -- ones that allow you to keep your news open, linked and shared, and make money. For example, there is what I call the "carrier pigeon model." In this model you let people share, link to, recommend, search, aggregate, and even re-use you content -- you just make sure it's properly marked up and credited so you can keep track of it and develop revenue models off the back of it. You do this with -- excuse the geek terminology -- "metadata." Embedded metadata has all sorts of potential benefits we're only just starting to take advantage of (hence why we've spent so much time on hNews and linked data). I call it the carrier pigeon model because the news doesn't just go out, it comes back.
- The cost base is still going to have to go down. The cost of producing news will necessarily have to be a lot lower than it has been historically. This doesn't have to mean cutting journalist's jobs or getting out of print. There are lots of ways to rethink costs in a digital world. One of the most inventive is Roman Gallo's Czech model. Gallo opened cafés in the centre of towns across the Czech Republic. He then put his news teams in the cafés. Not only does this mean they have very low office overhead (the café covers basic costs), but it means the journalists are working in amongst the local community and getting readers directly involved in production.
- There will need to be accessible, re-usable public data provided regularly and in a consistent format. Without this it will be much harder to keeps costs low because of the amount of time it takes to coax information out of public authorities and then analyze that data. This is why the launch of data.gov.uk was such an important development, and why we need to join Sir Tim Berners-Lee's quest for "raw data now" (as he shouts in his wonderfully quirky TED appearance).
- Whether or not pay walls work or online news makes money, there will be a public interest gap. Some newsgathering and reporting will almost certainly never again be commercially profitable in an open market. Online news is highly unlikely ever to pay for a journalist to sit in a local court for days on end, for example. This was one of the most important things to come out of Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie's report, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism." Schudson and Downie could not find a market solution to some of the news problems they were exploring, and so settled instead on a mixture of tax breaks, subsidies, foundation grants, and donations.
- We will rely, for aspects of watchdog journalism, on a combination of journalists, NGOs, and motivated members of the public. Note the use of the word "motivated." News organisations will need to find ways -- other than money -- to motivate and sustain people to help them scour data, dig through school and healthcare records, and alert them to corruption and injustice.
- As well as motivating people, news organizations will need to build the tools that help the non-professional journalists be watchdogs -- tools like whatdotheyknow.com, a site built by MySociety that makes it relatively easy for people to make freedom of information requests and share the results of those requests with a wider community. Or the way the Guardian got the public to search through the millions of MPs expenses claims.
- News organizations and journalists will need to form and re-form partnerships with other organizations, journalism co-operatives, NGOs and members of the public. We're seeing this start to happen with sites like the Bay Citizen in San Francisco (see a good post by Mallary Jean Tenore on Poynter) and OpenFile, the beta site just launched by MediaShift managing editor Craig Silverman et al in Canada.
Even taking all this into account there's a good chance that, without some tweaking of the market, a few tax breaks here, maybe a start-up fund there, there will be a lot of public interest news blackspots.
So there it is. Not so bleak, but not so rosy, either. And take it with a big pinch of salt since the only ones who seem to know about profitable business model for news just now are those running #futureofnews conferences.