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.