I attended the Journalism That Matters and the National Conference of Media Reform last week in Denver, and had the chance to speak with Mike Fancher, one of JTM’s organizers and the former executive editor of the Seattle Times about the state of journalism today, and how journalists and their publishers need to adjust to the changing media landscape.
His key takeaway was that the new models of journalism (local and otherwise) should be based “more on networks than on institutions.”
“Some journalists still hold onto the belief they are gatekeepers for reporting news, but technology provides the tools for citizens to create and distribute on new online platforms,” Fancher told me. “If we could rebuild the structure of news reporting anew, it would not likely be a structure in which a group essentially controls news creation and distribution. It would look more like a system where those trained in the processes of news reporting and distribution would teach everybody else to participate.”
But coming up with a plan for these sorts of networked news systems isn’t easy. In fact, two major social networks have recently found themselves stymied developing social journalism models. Facebook made a foray into journalism with FacebookStories.com, which chronicles original ways people use Facebook, but the project is now in a nebulous state with the departure of its managing editor, Dan Fletcher, who left these parting comments: The company “doesn’t need reporters,” because it has a billion members who can provide content. “You guys are the reporters There is no more engaging content Facebook could produce than you talking to your family and friends.”
Tumblr also recently announced the shutdown of Storyboard, its magazine for journalistic content. The publication’s end came with the concession that “what we’ve accomplished with Storyboard has run its course for now, and our editorial team will be closing up shop and moving on.”
If the tech platforms for content are bowing out for economic reasons, it confirms these flagship projects must not be creating the synergies to elevate their brands that justifies the expenses of high-quality journalism. And it signals that those “billion members who can provide content” are frankly the most cost-effective means to bring readers to their platforms. To audiences, those flagship products were simply one more site to follow (Fletcher implicitly acknowledged that Facebook has no stand-out content: “Facebook is meant to sort of fade into the background”).
At the conference, the idea of platforms as content plays weighed heavily on the perceived loss of independent journalism and media coverage. Dan Gillmor, the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at ASU, said he was astounded that some news media are ceding their commenting systems to social media platforms like Facebook. Yes, conversations are amplified and gain more participants within a billion-member community — but when these interactions take place on private company platforms that don’t necessarily stand by journalistic ethics standards, the news reporting ecosystem may become tainted. Not to mention that these conversations themselves can be monetized by brands or political interests that stand to gain from ad placement.
“There’s a lot of talk about the importance of engagement and collaboration to the future of journalism, but we don’t yet know how they might translate into sustainable business models to support journalism,” Fancher told me. “The old economic model is disintegrating faster than new alternatives are emerging. While things seem to be falling apart, I am optimistic that new models will develop. Some will be for-profit; others will be non-profit or public. There may be new hybrid models as well. Importantly, journalism is being fostered in non-media institutions, such as libraries, universities and community organizations.
The need to build sustainable models was addressed, but the problem certainly wasn’t solved at Journalism That Matters (Tom Grubisich noted this plain as day in his article last week).
Can journalists become entrepreneurial and scale up audiences by charging small subscription fees? According to some, $1.99 per month seems like the de facto consumer price point — less than a latté. It’s what Marco Argent and Andrew Sullivan are charging for access to the weekly The Magazine on the iOS platform, and Andrew’s new and independent The Dish, the columnist brand spun out of The Daily Beast. Meanwhile, in The Netherlands, startup De Nieuwe Pers is building a platform for aggregating independent journalist columns and provides a reader subscription option for individual journalists priced at 1.79 euros per month (or about the same).
Fancher’s take on how enterprise can help sustain journalists makes complete sense. Yes, there is a lot of buzz around brands building “newsrooms” that create and curate content directly and indirectly relevant to brand marketing. There’s more. As more brands develop journalistic sensibilities, they can apply them to developing and commissioning projects that would not only sustain journalists but create bodies of work that elevate their brand.
Patrick Kitano is a founding principal of Brand into Media, a strategy group for social brand management solutions, and administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is reachable via Twitter (@pkitano) and email (firstname.lastname@example.org).