Saturday, November 21, 2009

The crisis in journalism: Short-term hope, long-term uncertainty

It's a tough time to be a journalist, but at the same time I see some reasons to be optimistic. I thought I would share some of my thoughts about what's going on, and offer some insights into where the news industry is headed.

First, the state of the industry today:
  • A seemingly never-ending cascade of layoffs and restructuring, especially at older publishers which used to enjoy monopoly or oligopoly status. 
  • An inability on the part of publishers and advertisers to find an online business model that works. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch has some bizarre concepts about the way the online news ecosystem should operate, but when it comes to online advertising he is right on target: "There is an almost infinite increase in inventory for websites and for display," he noted earlier this year. This results in a great deal of "downward pressure" on CPMs. 
  • A broken system of journalism education: Too many students with unrealistic expectations, too many programs that are preparing too many people for careers that don't exist (this fall, 49 percent of students in the Columbia journalism masters program are in the print track), and too many teachers with impeccable 20th-century credentials but little online media experience.
  • Widespread unwillingness in sales and editorial departments to let go of old ways of doing things and experiment with/expand new initiatives.
So who will save journalism? I'm encouraged by inroads made by blog-based news sites and new news technologies. TechCrunch's "Scamville" exposé of Facebook gaming ripoffs put the New York Times' lapdog coverage of the industry to shame. I regularly use Techmeme and Twitter to keep abreast of what's going on in the world, and to monitor interesting online discussions.

But these services can't replace quality reporting and investigations. It's simply too expensive for current online business models to support. In the short to medium term, I see an opportunity for local and national television news websites to pick some of the slack -- they have far more robust advertising-based revenue streams than newspapers and magazines, and some broadcast outlets (at least in Boston) have proven to be avid users of new technology and shown a willingness to experiment with ways in which online and video content can be integrated. They are taking some important steps toward reinventing themselves online, and that's a good thing.

Long-term, however, broadcasters' rich revenue model will fade, as advertisers move away from expensive 30-second video clips and demand more interactivity and engagement from their campaigns. What will replace it? That's the billion-dollar question that publishers are trying to figure out. Until they do, many sectors of the news industry will continue to downsize and disintegrate, as fast-moving broadcasters and technology-driven upstarts pick up some of the pieces.

Sources and research: Twitter, WFXT Facebook page and website, WBZ website, New York Times website, TechCrunch, Fake Steve Jobs blog, IAB website, Poynter Online

Related blog posts by Ian Lamont:


  1. Hi Ian - all of your comments are insightful and I believe are accurate. I am a technical writer who's written a couple of trade books and a whole lot'ta manuals and training materials. That said, when I do write, it is for a specific reason - to teach and/or organize information.

    I have found that a lot of writers are generalists and many believe that they can interpret information instantly and intelligently, even if they know little about the subject. There is another group that believe that their personal experiences are insanely interesting to others and because of this, they should be paid.

    It is so easy to write today (especially for folk like me who can't spell and rely on spelling checker and computer editing features) that the value of producing a written product (no matter what) have been devalued. An example of this can be found through simple web searches. Material is plagiarized from site-to-site. If material is paraphrased, it is very shallow and reveals no more than the plagiarized material.

    As online media owners are constantly counting clicks, writers are pushed to increase publishing on a minute-by-minute basis, pushing any scrap of new information that comes their way. This push further dilutes content.

    Then there are what I call "content neighbors." If you shop for jewelry or furniture, for example, the mass of available selections creates excitement. If you regularly read or scan traditional publications, it's surrounding content that makes the whole publication appealing. I'm more likely to read a broad array of information from the NY Post, NY Daily News, and the NY Times papers, for example, than on their websites. Even when I do buy their papers, I appreciate neighboring content even if I don't read it from start to finish. (I admit, I don't read that fast anyway.)

    Content neighbors on generalized websites, however, are simply 6-word headlines. When I'm presented with such a menu, I'll select gossip almost exclusively. Yes, the world may be coming to an end at 9PM, but before then, I prefer to be entertained and will exclude almost all hard issues (especially those dribbled out during the preceding days) for as long as possible. Clicking to briefly scan a website article is just way too much effort, especially on a slow connection.

    Yesterday, I read an article in the NY Times discussing Google's latest incentive to categorize and push hard news. The NYT article said that while the Times already has that technology, its content barely gets clicks. Now the Times is going to partner with Google to see if Google can make this information more appealing. [I read the article quickly and may not have presented it thoroughly, but the bottom line is that when given an option on how to spend spare time, readers don't gravitate to hard issues. Dramas, for example, do not comprise the most popular Broadway plays no matter how they are categorized and intellectuals deem them worthy experiences.)

    As a writer, I am struggling with my own focus and future direction, so agree 100% with you that everyone is trying to figure it out. I am not, however, going to pursue what does not work.

    Last comment: There is very little concentrated news about the state of New Jersey where I live. There are no main newspapers here and the two that do represent the state are having trouble. I regard the current New Jersey news and communications model as what is now happening to the rest of the country. Apparently, there is not enough market to pay for writers to investigate and report the states activities. While in their heyday, state papers used to be read over breakfast and lunch breaks, printed "content neighbors" would instantly be browsed. Today, people generally go directly to the web for daily information, with web-access at coffee shops and restaurants, with traditional newsstands disappearing. The effect of "content neighbors" at this point, become totally lost. In their place are selected bright spots (usually gossip) just a click away.

  2. Karen, thanks for your comment. I agree with your comments about dilution of value (caused by the explosion of content and publishing tools) and the "content neighbors" concept, which I have seen others describe as well -- usually in the context of the pleasure of reading print publications and the serendipitous nature of reading an adjoining article that has little or no topical connection.

    However, while I enjoy experiencing neighboring content, I like even more the experience of reading recommended articles from friends as well as "most read" articles on major news publications. They serve as a filter, which is a very important tool to have to tackle two realities of the Internet age: Limited time and a nearly unlimited well of available content.

    Curious to know what you or other readers think of the Kindle and other e-readers, which have the potential to bring back neighboring content from individual publishers in a more meaningful way than the Web has been able to do (Google the Sports Illustrated tablet demo to see what I'm talking about).



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