Looking the wrong way down the telescope

There is a future for news – a sustainable and once-again profitable future with the prospect of expanding and improving journalism by taking it deeper into our communities with increased relevance, engagement, accountability and efficiency.

That’s the view of uber J-blogger Jeff Jarvis who, when not asking “what would google do”, is asking (along with his students at CUNY) “what happens to journalism in a city when its last daily newspaper dies?”. According to Jeff’s article in the Guardian, what happens is that the local community could step in and fill the gap with something new and, most importantly, profitable.

Bottom line: after three years, we project that a blogger could hire editorial staff and advertising help – citizen salespeople who help support the citizen journalists – and net $148,000 out of $332,000 revenue. That’s a conservative estimate when you consider that a community weekly paper in such a town probably earns between $2m-$5m.

There are more facts and figures of amounts that, even with the exchange rate as it is, are pretty eye-popping.

In a comment, I questioned if there was enough of a culture of hyper local in the UK to sustain the ‘ecosystem’

Given that most of the metro blogging and hyperlocal networks in the US are driven by/motivated by/focused on politics, you also have to wonder if the legislative structure in the UK would effectively stop the kind of ecosystem you are talking about at a county, or at a push, city, level.

That prompted a response from the Guardians Kevin Anderson who noted that very little of the ‘hyperlocal’ stuff is to do with politics. Pointing to an older post he mused that there was still “much to learn from two-yr old report on hyperlocal” which, for him, underlined a key problem news organisations had.

One of the most common mistakes that news organisations make when it comes to community is trying to build participation strategies around an extremely narrow, overly-professionalised definition of news.

I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Maybe the media does look the wrong way down the telescope at this issue. But I still think there are questions to be asked about the roll of news in the ecosystem and the role the community has to play.

Is there room for a Preston City Chronicle?
Is there room for a Preston City Chronicle?

Much of the tone of the debate around the ‘death of the traditional media’ is framed by the general consensus that we need to know what is going on in the community around us – it’s our democratic duty. That may not be the fun stuff. It may be the hard stuff, when the community fails. It may be the dull stuff like the endless council meetings.

The argument goes that, whatever it is, we need it and as newspapers die the gap needs to be filled. It’s in that context that many of the best examples of hyperlocal journalism seem to exist. The oft cited Ann Arbour Chronicle is a great example. The frontpage is all politics and metro news and the civic watchdog roll is one that is part of their daily routine.

But that brings me back to my comment and few (of many, many) questions.

  • If sites like the Ann Arbour Chronicle are the model for a successful hyperlocal news service, will the model travel? Does it work in Ann Arbour because of the city and the way the public administration work in the US?
  • What would need to change in the UK for it to work? More open government, less ‘big media’ or a more politically motivated electorate?
  • Should we be trying to make it work at all?

Open09 seems like the perfect opportunity to ask those questions.

This article first appeared on the Open09 blog.

Broadcast thinking will be the heart of successful print models: New year convictions

Not that TV model! Image from Flickr by C-Monster
Not that TV model! Image from Flickr by C-Monster

Yesterday I set out four new year convictions. Things that I thought where going to be important this year because, well, they had to be.

First was Broadcast thinking will be the heart of successful print models this year.

In the past I’ve been pretty hard on broadcast. I think they have been slow to embrace the possibilities of the web particularly in the context of news. On reflection I guess my disappointment with the broadcast media is framed as much in my frustration that  the print media didn’t embrace the advantage it gave them. But I still think broadcast are slow.

That said there are some elements of online development, most notably the development of the web as a platform, where the broadcast players are driving the agenda.  In that context I appreciate that I live in a country where all things broadcast are skewed by the BBC and that colours competition .  But I think it’s difficult to argue (though many will try – if you want to fill a lull in conversation with independent news execs just mention BBC innovation and sit back) that some of the BBC’s multi-platform activities have produced the “proof of concept “ that the rest of the media wouldn’t or couldn’t do. I’m thinking of the equally cursed and blessed iplayer in particular.  But this follows for the broadcasters outside the UK who have taken the web to heart as a platform.

I think Clay Shirky summed it up nicely when he talks about embracing the conversation, saying:

The question is who figures out the business model that says it’s better to have 6 million passionate fans than 7 million bored ones? That is going to be the transformation because what you see with these user groups, whether it’s for reality TV or science fiction, is that people love the conversation around the shows. The renaissance of quality television is an indicator of what an increased number of distribution channels can do. It is no accident that this started with cable.

And it’s that last point that is of particular importance to me when it comes to this particular conviction.

Let me sidetrack with a (very, very) brief history of broadcast

  1. Broadcast starts as a closed-shop; state broadcasters with large production capabilities.
  2. Then large, none-state, independent/commercial broadcasters appear with equally large production capabilities.
  3. Cable/satellite/multi-channel appear and change the economies of scale
  4. A steady influx of independent production companies appear, working across broadcasters benefiting from the changing economies

Let’s stop at that point

If I was to look at the print media at the moment, I think they are at step 3 after an extended period of step 2. And this is where there is plenty to learn from the broadcast model.

When I talk about a broadcast model I’m not thinking of the platform implications discussed above, important as they are, For me the broadcast model, particularly as it relates to the changes in journalism,  starts before that.  It’s about the way content is commissioned and produced.

Broadcast has always been good at recognising the need to bring in expertise. Originally it was about employing the talent, keeping it in house. But later, in the multi-platform world, it would be about commissioning that talent; People who had the knowledge and contacts to create the best content.

Opening up their model to a more transparent broadcast commissioning style of content creation is the biggest opportunity for those changing their model. They have to develop from the model of owning the talent to commissioning talent. Those that embrace that approach can benefit from having the best people and the audience they attract. The independent producers (perhaps a single journalist) maintain a level of authority and ownership. They can take their content to the open market (just as broadcast independents do). That creates a broader content economy that benefits all.

Of course things are not that shiny bright in broadcast.

The next steps in our little broadcast history go something along the lines of

  1. Though the number of channels grow, revenue shrinks. Commissioning budgets shrink with the knock on impact on independent producers. Quality suffers all round
  2. Independent companies follow the economies of scale and consolidate to super-indies
  3. Super indies take a stranglehold on production and garner more control over rights.
  4. Large broadcasters are relegated to participating in a bidding war for superindie owned rights they can’t afford.

You can colour round the edges with failed attempts at convergence and constant rows with independents and unions but that’s about where broadcast is now (Ok, maybe  they are stuck around point 3). Imagine those next steps played out in print world. Replace independent production company with journalist and it would seem the writing is on the wall.

But I think that we are at a turning point.  Done right, the commissioning model is sustainable because the platforms are more diverse but print can still have a sustainable business, smaller perhaps, but profitable because of the diversity. To seriously engage with the model print needs to start doing things a bit differently

  • Change its relationship with their freelance providers – stop treating them as faceless labour and start seeing them as value added.
  • Be more transparent with the sources of content – broadcasters have credits and a logo of the independent company at the end of their content, why doesn’t print?
  • Pro-actively commission – Broadcasters have slots and briefs for the programmes that they want. Print needs to do the same.  There is no better example of this than Dave Cohns Spot.us model. A commission/marketplace model similar to broadcast.

If these things don’t change then the broadcast history will come to pass. We can already see signs of the superindie model appearing in the online territory print are trying to hold.  Print needs to adapt to make itself more attractive to those with the contacts and audience as the economy is fragmented by the platforms and the market becomes more fluid in favour of smaller independents.

Enhanced by Zemanta