As Local Media Shed Staff, Personal Franchise Sites Could Fill the Void

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fingersWhen an industry (media) defines best practices as picking the bones of a dying carcass, it’s already over. (@TerryHeaton, July 15, 2013)

I was catching up with an old, well-connected friend the other day when he made note of the above tweet of mine. “It’s worse than you realize,” he said to me, “they’re seriously talking about going with part-timers or freelancers, anything to cut expenses.” Investment groups, according to my friend, are scooping up media companies and searching for economies of scale and expense cuts that will produce whatever profit they can turn before selling them off again in a couple of years. Bankrupt properties are especially vulnerable.

We’ve reached the point, apparently, where owning a newspaper or a TV station isn’t so much about running a profitable business anymore as it is about corporate profit and gains. Nobody’s revenue is really going up — despite what the industries (and their associations) keep telling themselves — so the game is all about cutting, combining, and expense manipulation. We will inevitably reach the place where freelance reporters (or “video journalists” as they’re called in local TV) will become the standard everywhere. Bet on it.

Many industries in the West have already undergone this transformation. Empire Carpet, now known as Empire Today, is “one of the country’s leading providers of installed home improvements and home furnishings.” Their catchy jingle has been around since 1959, and I’ve personally used them on several occasions. But here’s the thing about their low prices: the installers are all independent contractors, people who technically and legally work for themselves, but they are “supported” by the company with steady work.

Anybody who chooses to walk this path, however, must be aware that the government is watching. There are rules and people around to remind others of the rules. In media, though, the framework for such an environment is already being worked out, thanks to the success of blogs and blogging.

Earlier this summer, Nate Silver, the New York Times blogger famous for using mathematics to correctly — and fairly precisely — predict the outcome of last year’s Presidential election, picked up roots and moved his franchise to ESPN, where he can use his statistical genius in the sports world he loves. But the move sent ripples through the traditional media world, because it suggested that Nate Silver was “bigger” than the Times. Colby Cosh, a writer from Maclean’s in Edmonton nailed it perfectly:

Silver’s move to ESPN betokens a media world in which individual content creators have significant power relative to the titles or brands for which they nominally work — but if, and only if, they have the ability to commune with and command an audience of their own. This seems like an obvious concomitant of being a popular journalist, but until the web era it was not common for writers to test their ability to build a following without any assistance from rich dudes who owned printing presses and publicity apparatus. Many scribblers have passed on, and many more will, without ever knowing if they could have pulled it off.

Silver is not unique either. Cosh speaks of ESPN’s Bill Simmons, but there’s also Dealbook, Peter King’s MMQB, AllThingsD, Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, Andrew Sullivan, Om Malik and others.

In an insightful piece, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, himself a blogger with a significant following, called what’s happening “the rise of the personal franchise site in news.” Rosen notes this is happening within organizations, but the idea of networking outsiders is also being used successfully by both Forbes and the Huffington Post. Rosen notes these seven commonalities in the personal franchise site:

* Star journalist at the center with a large online following and cross-platform presence. (Six of the seven I named are male.)
* Editorial control rests largely or entirely with the founder and personality at the center.
* Part of a larger media company with a negotiated balance of power between the two states. (See Shafer on this.)
* Identifiable niche or niches; no attempt to be comprehensive. (It’s All Things Digital, not all things business.)
* Plenty of voice, attitude and personal expression allowed.
* Mix of news, opinion, analysis without a lot of fuss about categorizing each.
* Additional journalists are hired as the franchise succeeds and the founder gets to hire them.

The shift is evident for those with eyes to see, and it’s more viable at the local level than you might think. Journalists, for the most part, are passing through on their way to bigger and better things, but that popular former mayor is here to stay. The independent voice of the individual can make “the news” more personal, more compelling, and more exciting. The nuances of the trade can be taught, but people planted within the community with knowledge and perspective offer something that traditional media companies can’t or won’t.

And linking local bloggers together is a viable concept, just as it was when Mike Sechrist and I tried it in 2004 with Nashville is Talking.

Clearly the business world is moving in the direction of independent contractors, and I’ve been writing for ten years that this will one day be the model for media companies. In the beginning, it will likely come about as a cost savings, but in the end, I think it’ll also be a part of acknowledging the growth of what J. D. Lasica first termed the “personal media revolution” in his 2005 book “Darknet, Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation.”

Everybody is simply a media company today, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the better off we’re all going to be. While I certainly feel for my many colleagues in traditional media, the truth was uttered long ago by a speaker at the Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA): “Little did we know when we became a profit center that one day we’d have to play by the rules.”

Media companies desperate to cut expenses have every right to consider anything, and if that means that journalists need to find ways to make freelancing work, then we’ll come up with something. Meanwhile, best to be aware and perhaps even plan for a time when labor law is rewritten to fit the networked world in which we now live.

TerryNaplesTerry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.