‘Post-Industrial Journalism’ Report Deserves an A, and an F

A new report from Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism takes a look at everything that’s wrong with digital journalism, starting at the top and going all the way down to the hyperlocal level. The 126-page paper, authored by noted media critics C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, deserves both an A and an F.

The report deserves an A because it pins to the wall antiquated journalistic practices, showing how they disserve the public, and recommends specific fixes. It deserves an F because it says the Internet has permanently “wrecked” the advertising model that pays for most journalism.

Let’s begin with the A. The report, called “Post-Industrial Journalism,” identifies what’s wrong in blunt, sometimes provocative language:

“Most journalists, and journalistic institutions, have failed to take advantage of the explosion in potentially newsworthy content facilitated by the growth in digital communication. The reality is that most journalists at most newspapers do not spend most of their time conducting anything like empirically robust forms of evidence gathering. Like the historical fallacy of a journalistic ‘golden age,’ the belief in the value of original reporting often exceeds the volume at which it is actually produced.”

The study continues:

“Too many reporters remain locked into a mindset where a relatively limited list of sources is still relied on to gather evidence for most important stories, with the occasional rewritten press release or direct observation thrown in. This insider-centric idea of original reporting excludes social media, the explosion of digital data, algorithmically generated sources of information, and many other new strategies of information gathering.”

The report’s prescription includes the following:

 “Journalists have to become more skilled at collaboration, with technologies, crowds and partnerships, to help scale the considerable task of reporting events. … The presence of metrics and data, relating to both the outside world and their own work, will become a daily reality. Feeds of information delivered in real time — a Twitter of data — will play a greater part in shaping editorial decisions and stories. Defining the ownership of these data, deciding what can be out-sourced to other commercial technologies but what needs to be kept, will be the job of journalists. So will writing algorithms.”

As the report emphasizes, new journalistic practices, besides better serving the public, could lower the often high costs of producing “hard” news. One such practice involves enlisting the eyes and ears of the public. Card-carrying journalists aren’t replaced by this practice; they’re “displaced,” to use the report’s apt phrasing. They are free to move up the news chain and spend more time on the “sense-making” part of crafting news reports.

All this is especially true for hyperlocal news sites, whether they’re part of a big network like AOL’s Patch or an  independent one- or two-person outfit in a single neighborhood. To be sustainable, hyperlocals have to be super creative in leveraging their resources; and engaging readers to become providers is a great way to do that.

To see post-industrial news in action, consider a report by West Seattle Blog about a shooting incident Tuesday night in the Highland Park neighborhood of West Seattle. Relying on a combination of messages and photos sent by residents, the site was able to produce on the fly a dramatic, almost Hollywood-like narrative about the shots being fired. Lending a special eeriness to the incident was the fact that it took place just eight blocks away from where a woman recently shot and killed her daughter and two grandchildren and then took her own life. In the latest incident, no one was apparently hurt, and there are no suspects.

To produce this kind of compelling community news takes a level of engagement that most hyperlocals have not achieved. It’s true that West Seattle Blog benefits from serving a well-established community in Seattle, where a high proportion of residents are active citizens. But that activism wasn’t handed on a platter to West Seattle’s cofounders, editor Tracy Record and her husband Patrick Sand, who is charge of advertising. They earned their user engagement — 1 million page views a month — through persistent, intelligent community-sensitive work and use of social networks, providing their site enough eyes and ears to cover a highly diverse incorporated town of 50,000 people spread across 12.3 square miles. “Post-Industrial Journalism” doesn’t cite West Seattle Blog, but its examples show how even modest independent news sites can leverage a community’s resources to produce journalism that rises far above the “commodity” level.


Now let’s go to where “Post-Industrial Journalism” veers off course and, to my mind, earns an F. The report claims the Internet has “wrecked” advertising as a crucial element of journalism’s business model. The report starts off with this head-scratching statement: “The most important thing about the relationship between advertising and journalism is that there isn’t one.” Instead, it says, advertising is a “subsidy” that businesses pay because — at least until now — they didn’t have a choice in how to reach news customers.

Before readers have much of a chance to gulp at these astounding claims, the report unloads this:

“The shift to cheap advertising with measurable outcomes, however, wrecks much of the logic of targeting as well. To take a simplified example, it costs about 60 cents to reach a thousand people with untargeted web advertising. Ad space that costs $12 per thousand viewers (a widely discussed estimate in 2010 for certain niche sites) may well be more efficient because of targeting, but to make economic sense, the targeted ad would have to be 2,000 percent more efficient. Any less, and the junk inventory is more cost-effective.”

Have apples and oranges ever been so confusingly mixed in such zero-sum logic?

In the digital space, there’s room for both the 60-cent CPM ad and the $12 CPM ad — and for CPMs that cost much more. And businesses are paying all those rates in gratifyingly higher numbers. Here are Borrell Associates’ projections for local digital advertising revenue in all news media for 2012:

These numbers — driven primarily by annual increases in targeted display (105%) and video (43%), according to Gordon Borrell — don’t show any “wreck.” The local digital ad outlook for 2013 is even more bullish, with a projected overall revenue increase in the range of 30%, according to this report.

The numbers don’t mean there are no problems with digital advertising. The biggest problem, according to another study, by the Associated Press in 2010,  is the sheer number of ads that bombard audiences. As one user who participated in the study, “Belinda from New York,” said, “There is too much advertising. Every avail­able space is taken up, and I feel like I can never get away from it.” Her comments summed up what the majority of participants felt, according to the Associated Press study.

The answer, the study concluded, is convincing businesses, with the support of the news media, to “reinvent the social contract of advertising by creating communications you welcome into your life instead of avoid.” Specifically, ads would center on providing information that the consumer finds useful and wants to share with family and friends.

This won’t be easy, but it’s a lot less drastic than concluding, against the evidence, that the Internet has wrecked digital advertising now and forever.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites built to present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.

  1. December 13, 2012

    It has long been my contention that people in the hyperlocal news “business” want to produce news and they want to be paid for it, and they think that advertisers should pay for ads on their sites so that they can be paid. The harsh truth is that Joe the plumber/advertsier is having a hard a time in this economy. His phone rings from his Google Plus local page and his listings on Angies List and Merchant Circle, which are free. So why should he pay to advertise on a local news site? This report is completely correct and if editors, reporters and publishers want to cover their ears and go “la la la” , they will no doubt do so. Advertising is nothing more than bringing qualified leads to businesses for as little money as possible. Tell me, what does that have to do with reporting the Little league scores?

    The only reason the local newspaper had advertisers is because not only were there way fewer options for advertisers, but none of their ad spend was trackable. If half your ad budget is wasted anyway and you can’t find out which half, why not waste it supporting your local paper?

    Show me an example of a pureplay local news site which is producing high quality original news consistently, which is profitable and not a labor of love by a couple working a combined total of 100 hours per week. Show me a business model for this which is replicable and profitable. It doesn’t exist, for the reasons in this Cassandra report.

    1. December 13, 2012

      Hi, Ms. Brooks. Our business is no more or less a labor of love than any other business. It’s a small independent PROFITABLE business, without anything but our sales contributing to that profit – no loans, no investors, no silent partners, no rich relatives, no savings. And there is no comparison between what we bring to our advertisers and what any other option brings them, including what you derisively dismiss as the local “newspaper” on which you apparently believe money was wasted over the years. We deliver tens of thousands of eyeballs – all of whom have an interest in our area, otherwise they would not be reading the news we publish around the clock – to our advertisers daily and repeatedly. That is the ultimate targeting And yes, for a ridiculously low price, unlike the “newspapers” which have charged outrageous amounts over the years for something that might have been viewed once and then tossed. Anyway, I don’t need to impress you, but didn’t want to let this stand unchallenged. Some of our advertisers have been with us the entire five years we’ve been selling ad space. And despite a rather amazing market penetration, our traffic and sales continue to grow. Our service will be here for the long run. And we are far from the only example of a profitable small local neighborhood-news business. Corporate old media is what doesn’t scale any more. Happy holidays! – Tracy @ WSB

      1. December 13, 2012

        Tracy, I did not mean my comment to be a criticism of your particular business and I’m sorry if you interpreted it that way. From what I can see of your site, you do an active and thorough job of covering your beat, and equally as importantly, you have a good salesperson. I have no doubt that your traffic has been growing, nor do I doubt that your business supports your family. From what I see, you don’t track clicks to your ads. In your media kit, you don’t mention tangible performance results. So why are people advertising? Because it’s affordable and they want to support your site? That’s a good reason as long as they renew their advertising. Your model is predicated on being small, having very low overhead, and almost no staff beyond one reporter/editor and one sales rep. If it supports you and your husband, fine. Maybe this is the only model that will work for local news and there’s nothing wrong with that. The minute you have to hire full time reporters or sales reps, and once advertisers start to demand tangible measurable performance results, that’s where the bottom line dips into red. I do know that in any given community, most of the hyperlocal news pureplays don’t have a lot of ads or even a sales rep, and can’t afford to hire one, so they’re going to stay stuck in hobby mode. Eyeballs and traffic are great – how can they be monetized by a small concern who barely has enough time to actually report the news in the first place? You’ve managed to do it, but the problem for online news is that it can’t be scaled and there are very few dynamic duos like you and your husband in small communities.

        1. December 13, 2012

          Julie, you’re right: there is nobody like Tracy.

          Each and every indie local publisher makes it work in different ways and thank god for that. The essence of small business is mixing the heart and work.

          Instead of wondering if these are scalable models that work the same everywhere, it might be best to ask how to make it work where you are. These are valuable spaces for their communities and their business partners. And the measurability and targeting available for local publishers is a fantastic tool to prove the value of the marketing spend.

          At The Sacramento Press we are obssesive about metrics and our low churn rates are due partly to our advertising performance as measured by impressions, clicks, time on site and an active community. Word of mouth helps too!

  2. December 13, 2012

    One of the biggest problems is that there is a mismatch. Big brands DO get better value out of remnant spaces using real time bidding and advanced targeting technologies compared to the targeting and services offered by traditional news providers. Brands do still pay premium to be adjacent to quality content on these sites, it’s just becoming a smaller part of the pie.

    Of course, this is why we started AdGlue. Our evidence shows that advertisers are willing to pay a premium for a better experience and better results. And I buck the trend that adjacency doesn’t matter. It’s not just about targeting a set of customers, brand association is vital in display. So targeting the right audience looking at the right content and having full control over message and placement are all absolutely crucial.

    How do advertisers and publishers stay aligned? Publishers must start providing tools light years ahead of remnant providers. So why not build it? We knew what our advertisers wanted. We talked with them every day. They wanted to know where their ads were showing up. Heck, they wanted to place them! And we knew that to make that an effective ad buy we had to up our game. Real time was not enough, we needed to give marketers actionable insights about where their audience will be before they get there. Yeah, it’s science fiction until you build it. So we just took the impossible task and set ourselves to it.

    It’s time to disrupt “real time” with predictive technologies. And its well past time for publishers of high quality content to give their sales teams tools that are light years ahead of their remnant competition.

  3. December 14, 2012

    I suppose it is relevant to ask what defines a successful hyper local news site. There are many examples right now of ones that get a lot traffic but make no money. There are a few that get traffic, make some money, but ultimately can’t be replicated elsewhere, have no value as a business to be purchased, and are unsustainable in the long term. There are even fewer and perhaps none that have a profitable, sustainable model that can be replicated in like markets. For all the hype and hope about hyper local news, after 15 years, when is a business model going to emerge?

  4. December 14, 2012

    A few things:

    As I’ve never made our rate card/media kit public I am left to wonder how Ms. Wallace-Brooks knows so very much about it.

    RE: results – our business owners do it the old fashion way – the stand by their cash registers and ask, “How’d you find out about me?” A few of them have shown me their tracking device, a legal pad, where they placed tally marks by entries such as “Blog” or “Word of Mouth.” This has lead to both cancellations and renewals. Overall I’ve tracked about 8 frequently given reasons why people place ads with us. The people doing it for the clicks are a very, very small group.

    Hyperlocal failure has transitioned from being insider groupthink to industry catechism. The only thing that could undo that is an adequate census of who is in this space accompanied by a quick look at their inventory. But that is a nearly impossible task as neighborhood sites seem to appear as consistently as lightning strikes. (It’s up to somebody else to figure about why hyperlocal has failed to become as ubiquitous as print or as fast spreading as radio in the early part of the 20th Century.) Until that census arrives then those of us who work this space will have to put up with the rote memorized talking points about failure. And until that time I shall keep my distance from such discussions for the same reasons that the Organians took their leave of Captain Kirk.

    1. December 14, 2012

      I did not mean to say media kit, I meant advertising page. Sorry. What you’re doing with your advertisers is good old fashioned shoe-leather sales, which is obviously working for you. But, as you say, if your kind of venture is as rare as lightning strikes, why does Grubisch use your business as an example of why an extremely well-done report (IMO) is wrong? I find fault with Grubisch, not your business.

  5. TomGrubisich
    December 14, 2012

    If Borrell’s numbers about the growth of local digital advertising in the news media don’t persuade naysayers about the present and future significance of that revenue, then I suggest they read this recent piece by Rick Edmonds of Poynter — http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/business-news/the-biz-blog/190063/video-targeted-ads-projected-to-drive-digital-ad-revenue-gains-at-small-mid-size-newspapers/

    Edmonds, who reads numbers very carefully before he decides to credit them, says: “My own read is that video content and ads are growing briskly already
    this year and that targeted display is poised to take of locally.” He does add this qualifier: “How newspapers will fare in capturing a good piece of that business is less certain.”

    But the “Post-Industrial Journalism” report is not just about newspapers — but the whole news-producing “ecosytem,” which, of course, includes hyperlocal pure plays, who are doing much better than newspapers, especially the big metros, in advertising, as Edmonds recognizes.

    So where’s the “wreck” of digital advertising?

  6. December 14, 2012

    Hi Everyone,

    Just wanted to mention that we’ve been having some technical issues with our commenting system, and it seems some people’s comments (on this story, and perhaps on others) are not showing up.

    We’ve reinstalled the plug-in, and hopefully there won’t be any more issues going forward, but we apologize if anyone has posted comments that for whatever reason haven’t made it onto the site.

    David Hirschman
    Editorial Director
    Street Fight

  7. jane stevens
    December 16, 2012

    Ugh. My comment was one of those that was lost. I’ll recreate some of it. First, great post, Tom. You’re spot-on with your analysis.

    A couple of things surprise me about the Tow Center report — that they didn’t recognize the “new” journalism that exists in the dozens of networks that jumped in as traditional news organizations began laying off beat reporters or didn’t pick up beats. I’m referring to the likes of CBS Sports, with its family of sports sites, including MaxPreps (the original crowd-sourced sports site!). There are also Federated Media and Netshelter.net, among others, and they’re all doing well financially.

    What the Tow report authors — and many who wring their hands about the future of journalism — define as “journalism” is very narrow now — investigative and local news. Most traditional journalism has pretty much abdicated high school sports, tech (including mobile), health, environment, business and entertainment to digital-native networks.

    In 2009, when we began working on WellCommons.com at the Lawrence-Journal World in Lawrence, KS (once a thriving center of innovative journalism and practice), we came up with a plan that addressed the advertising issue and the sustainability issue for local coverage. A few points:

    First, WellCommons.com was the first local health site to marry social media and journalism in its CMS. Members of the local community could post content that ran in the same news stream as the health reporter’s content.

    Second, we decided only businesses that provided health services and products would advertise in WellCommons, mostly because they’d provide information that, to many people at some time, would be more interesting and useful than something a health reporter might produce. This approach is now called “native advertising”. btw, the site was operationally profitable the first year.

    Third, WellCommons was the third of nine planned niche sites. We already had KUSports.com and lawrence.com (local entertainment). The other six included regional environment, outdoors and business. According to our analysis, there were enough businesses that would participate to make the sites profitable and sustainable. The plan was for content from all sites to be poured into the main news stream on LJWorld.com, which would have focused on breaking news and basic civic news. There was enough revenue to support investigative and feature reporting when needed.

    Unfortunately, the company decided to stop all new development, so the plan was never carried out.

    For more details on how WellCommons.com was developed, see http://rejurno.com/2011/12/12/wellcommons-revolution-under-the-radar/

    1. December 17, 2012

      Jane, thanks for sharing this. This niche + news model is exactly what I’m doing now, and it’s a profitable model for my buisiness in my market. It sounds like WellCommons would have done it better than I am doing now, too bad you were not able to see it come to life. For a bootstrapped operation like myself, I am now trying to see what the editorial budget for more niche sites would be versus what we could potentially sell for sponsorships/advertising. I am in a resort area with a lot of mom and pop businesses without large budgets who will not spend unless they get tangible results. So it’s a tough call. Reading about WellCommons has given me some food for thought so thanks gain for sharing it.

      1. jane stevens
        December 17, 2012

        Thanks, Julie. btw, WellCommons.com is very much alive, and doing well since its launch in early 2010. It was the overall digital niche-news organization plan that never came to fruition.

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