By Alok Verma
Journalism traditionally has involved a mostly one-way communication from producers to consumers. Until now Journalists gather and edit news, then distribute it to people who consume it rather passively. Journalism continued to flourish this way as the information so far was scarce, gathering and distributing it was expensive and technology was nowhere an enabler.
Whatever has for been published or broadcast by journalists there has been minimal public involvement in the functions of journalism and diminishing public trust in its performance. That has begun to change profoundly and permanently. Technology is opening amazing possibilities to give people convenient access to both civic and life-enhancing information, without regard to income or social status.
What one has been witnessing in the last two years is fresh thinking and new approaches to the gathering and sharing of news and information. The Internet and digital communication technologies are remarkably changing what is possible. Information is moving from scarcity to over-abundance; distribution from expensive to cheap, and news consumption from passive to interactive. People now have unprecedented ability to be their own reporters, editors and distributors of information.
Examples of this dramatic shift abound, but none is more powerful than the “Facebook Revolution” in Egypt. The social network enabled protestors to organize, coordinate and act.
Traditional media, most notably newspapers in the US, has been severely impacted by the faltering economy and by a fundamental shift of advertising revenue to the Internet. In response, a large number of American newspapers have cut journalistic resources dramatically. The result is less reporting of all kinds, but especially the independent local reporting that holds government and the private and corporate sector accountable and that helps people to participate fully in their communities. The same has been reflecting in the diminishing advertising revenues of the traditional media in India too.
Technological Disruption—Advance Local Journalism
There has been an increase in emerging news media and exciting examples of journalism being created in non-traditional settings. In some cases this emerging journalism can address coverage needs that were never effectively reported by traditional media, such as neighborhood news. This is complementing but not replacing the reporting lost in traditional media. In a time of technological disruption, it is difficult to know what might advance local journalism.
So the first priority is experimentation—tries everything, learn from what does not work and build on what does. Experimentation is needed in new business models for journalism, in new strategies for public and non-profit journalism and in new funding strategies for foundations.
The second order of business is collaboration. Competition is necessary for a healthy news ecosystem, but may not be sufficient. Modern news and information is an intensely interactive ecosystem in which all elements interrelate, making collaboration essential.
The third priority is public or community engagement. Digital technology enables news consumers to participate meaningfully in all of the traditional functions and purposes of journalism. Engagement is at the heart of re-inventing journalism, but it requires journalists to rethink their role. They need to enable people to act collectively in networks that create and share information.
It will be interesting to mention Seattle, Washington which actually witnessed emergence of hyper local websites abound in neighbourhoods following the loss of city’s two daily newspapers-the King Country Journal and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The two newspapers suffered on account of substantial losses in mainstream journalistic resources and changing local news and information ecosystem.
Interestingly, after stopping the printing in 2009 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer switched to become an online-only publication in Seattle. Now the site serves about 4 million readers each month, about the same number as when the newspaper was printing. Its staff of about 20 people generates news content that is augmented by media partnerships, content from the community and curated content in partnership with other media.
The city’s only newspapers the Seattle Times after having lost money every year through the past decade because of decreasing print advertising could manage to survive until now is due to the reason that almost 60 percent of the newspaper journalism jobs that existed do not exist any longer.
Michele McLellan studied emerging news sites as a 2009/2010 Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism. She found a stark contrast in terms of community engagement between traditional and emerging powerful online media. “Community connectedness and diverse revenue streams are critical ingredients for success for non-profit news organizations,” she reported. “I was struck by how different they (emerging online media) sound from the ‘old traditionals’ like the newspaper newsrooms where I worked. We used to talk about serving the community. But with the advertising dollars flowing, we did not really depend on our communities and as a result, we did not always know them or reflect them effectively. So it’s refreshing and inspiring that the leaders of these ‘new traditionals’ see community engagement as a vital component of their future sustainability.”
Michele McLellan at the Reynolds Journalism Institute amassed a smart, comprehensive body of knowledge about the new news ecosystem. An extensive survey of 66 of the sites provides meaningful insights, including these findings:
• Seven in 10 said they are greatly or somewhat optimistic about making their sites sustainable; none said they were not optimistic and only one said “somewhat unoptimistic.”
• Fifty-six percent of the sites said they operate as for-profits, and half of those said they made a profit in the previous year. About a third of the sites are non-profit.
• Most of the sites are relatively young. More than half launched less than two years ago; more than a third launched within the last two to five years.
Many traditional news organizations are one disaster away from extinction. They have cut costs so drastically in the past decade that more significant cutting could put them into a death spiral. Many do not have the financial strength to survive another 9/11 terrorist attack or subsequent economic downturn. Many of the traditional media organizations actually lost ground to the online media for they failed to foresee the changing behaviour of news users’ interaction with information online. The online media scored over the traditional media by turning that knowledge into new services, products and revenue streams. In fact, the online media majorly focused on relevance, research and revenues to strengthen its business model.
Ever since thereafter the online media has been working earnestly to understand and utilize market incentives for building engagement, loyalty and financial support on its strength of 3Rs of relevance, research and revenues . Most of the online media has been demonstrating about how their journalism can be made relevant to the communities they are serving, especially when news consumption habits are shifting dramatically.
So, relevance is more about understanding the value propositions for consumers, advertisers and sponsors. What benefit do they derive from the time, attention or money spent? Whether the penny comes from advertising, pay-for-content, donations or transactions, revenues are a function of the value that is provided. Value is not about merely giving people what they want; it is about knowing what matters to them and establishing a relationship of trust and enrichment. It is about respecting their values in the news judgments one makes. Interactive technology enables more meaningful connections between news producers and consumers than ever before.
Advertisers, too, are changing. They are increasingly able to bypass media as a go-between with potential customers. Digital technology promises to give them unprecedented knowledge of whether and how their ad revenues are effective. The effect is ravaging the business model that sustained journalism for the past century.
Content creators and technology service providers are also collaborating to develop shared principles and mechanisms to protect content from misuse and to appropriately compensate creators for the value of their work. This has indeed stimulated new forms of journalism from traditional and emerging media, and has encouraged the growth of new technology and services.
In fact, the emerging media has been experimenting with new revenue models that go beyond traditional notions of money from paid circulation and advertising. Among the notions being explored are the following:
• “Local Online 2.0” positions local media sales forces as experts in the digital space for small businesses;
• Ad sales networks in which online media works with local ad agencies to help local advertisers collect, analyze and present data on performance and return on investment;
• Experimenting with revenue models outside the traditional role of intermediary for advertisers, including the possibility of direct involvement with commerce;
• Brokering web marketing services;
• Integrating web marketing services with online and social media and personalization;
• Providing consulting services to local businesses in the use of online and social media;
• Running sponsored messages through a public media ad sales network.
The news ecosystem is fast evolving and learning how it can be open, diverse, inclusive and effective. With all the new tools and capabilities we should be entering a new golden age of online journalism—call it Journalism 3.0.
Re-imagining Journalism, by Micheal R Fancher, A project of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Programme and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The Knight Commission Report, Informing communities: Sustaining democracy in the digital age, Washington, D.C.: