The End of the NYSE News Industry

As landscapes evolve, there are moments when you suddenly perceive them
differently. Maybe you see a new limb on a tree, maybe a storm blows
through or maybe there’s no catalyst at all. For whatever reason, you
suddenly see the results of slow, constant change.

The Berkman@10
conference earlier this month was such a moment for me — I was struck
by the richness and vitality of young non-profit institutions like Global Voices, Creative Commons and the Sunlight Foundation, and my view of the news business changed.

For
years, I had deep respect for newsy non-profits, but viewed them as
side-shows. I assumed that only for-profit institutions could operate
on the scale needed to have broad impact. Global Voices, Creative
Commons and the Sunlight Foundation all demonstrate that this isn’t
true. With a small budget, an ambitious mission and a platform that
empowers, it’s possible to build institutions that have enormous impact.

This
fact is changing the news business. The industry is evolving from a
handful of NYSE corporations running local monopoly newspapers to a
complex mix of institutions. As Dan Gillmor points out, the news industry is becoming more like the arts industry. There are for-profit institutions (galleries, auction houses, news aggregators,
mass-market publishers), non-profits  (museums, theaters, advocates of
investigative reporting and open data) individuals (artists, bloggers)
and all sorts of other wild cards.

This
is a view of journalism with fewer professional journalists. Careers in
the arts are tough. Yet it’s also an optimistic view that gets us
beyond layoffs and circulation declines, and on with the business of
inventing new ways to report the news.

The institutional landscape is
changing, but journalism, like the arts, will continue to flourish.

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Off to Hong Kong

Nine years ago, three days after I graduated from college, my parents
took me to Logan Airport, where I flew off to Kiev, and eventually
Moscow and The Moscow Times.

This morning, a week after my brother graduated from college, my father
and I dropped him off at Logan for a flight to Chicago, where he’ll catch another one to Hong Kong. He’s
going to begin working as a trader there next week.

I’m thrilled for
him. What an opportunity. What a reward for years of hard work studying
Chinese and economics. What a wonderful time in his life.

Excitement, Questions About Spot.us

Of all the great Knight News Challenge winners this year, I’m most excited about Spot.us.
It’s a community funding model for local news — a non-profit
marketplace where journalists will be able to propose stories, and
communities will be able to fund them. David Cohn, the man behind the plan, is using the fantastic Kiva.org as a model for Spot.us.

This
is a very important project because it addresses a core local news
problem — funding — with a potentially elegant solution — a simple
marketplace.

So what are the challenges
for Spot.us? Probably not story proposals. There are plenty of
freelancers with great stories to tell looking for the money to tell
them.

The challenge will be building a critical
mass of funders. It’s hard to get people to pay attention to local
news, it’s going to be even harder to get them to pay for it.

I’m optimistic that David will be able to solve these problems, and in this interview on Future Tense he explains what he’s thinking.

I think the project has great potential, but I have two questions about David’s current approach:

(1)
Why focus on local? This may be a News Challenge requirement, but I
don’t see anything in the Spot.us model that makes it better suited for
local news than national, international, or non-place-based news. If
you look at the tools that are changing local journalism — Blogger,
Drupal, WordPress, Google Reader, Twitter, YouTube — most have no
specific connection to place.

Why not
setup Spot.us as a site where individuals can propose stories and
funders can fund them, without any restrictions on location? This would
open the site to millions of new potential users without reducing its
value to local users.

(2) Why put limits
on how much one person can contribute? By doing so, you raise the bar
for success. It means you have to get a lot more active funders on the
site before you start paying journalists. Also, who’s to say the model
will work best with small funders? Maybe it works best with a few big
funders. Or maybe it will work differently for different types of
stories. What is there to gain from picking one approach at the outset?

In
the radio interview I linked to above, David explains that some of
these restrictions are related to concerns about Spot.us becoming a
platform for issue advocacy. Why worry about that? Great tools like
Blogger, Drupal and Twitter are content-agnostic. They enable great
content to be published precisely because they have few restrictions on the type of
content that can be published.

A better way to control the quality of content on Spot.us is via a
robust reputation management system. If the relationships between
journalists, their stories and their benefactors is clear, who cares
what’s published?

Spot.us could help define a new era of quality, independent
journalism — but it will do so as an open marketplace, not a
highly-managed assignment desk.

What Is an Entrepreneurial Journalist?

After two and a half years working independently as an entrepreneur and a journalist, this video resonated with me:

I embrace everything Dan and David say, and I think we’re lucky to have them leading the way, encouraging experiments. 

I also think the discussion of entrepreneurial journalism needs to get
more specific. Without restricting people’s thinking, we need to do a
better job explaining the existing models and their challenges. What
are the specific options for journalists that want to experiment and be
independent?

I think there are four main paths for entrepreneurial journalists:

(1) Blogging — Anybody that picks a good topic, writes passionately
and builds a community can create a sucessful blog. The catch is that a
successful blog usually isn’t a career or a business. And even if you
assume you can be one of the exceptions like Rafat Ali or Debbie Gallant, you’ll probably have to start off blogging on the side while you hold down a full-time job.

(2) Non-profit Projects — Non-profits are funding a lot of serious,
quality journalism, and some people are able to make a career out of
these projects. David Cohn has made a name for himself on non-profit
projects like NetAssignment.net, NewTrust.net and now Spot Us.
Of course, the challenge with this approach is that your work doesn’t
sustain itself — it always depends on the next grant review committee.

(3) New Online Publications — New West and MinnPost.com are great examples
of this approach. These kinds of projects are ambitious, expensive, and very hard
to raise money for. But if you can find enthusiastic, committed financial backing, why not?

(4) News Tools & Platforms — This is what we did, first with Atlas and more recently with 9Neighbors.
The challenge here is that the best news tools are usually not created
for the news industry — they’re broader services like YouTube, Google,
Facebook and Twitter. The limited scale of tools that focus specifically on
journalists, like Atlas, makes them harder to monetize.

If you work on
an open-source project like Drupal, you’re more likely create news
tools with broad use, but unless you do open-source work as part of a
consulting business, it’s unlikely to be a career in and of itself.

In the traditional news world, a journalist’s central career challenge was getting a job. Today the challenge is building a following.
Journalists need to be entrepreneurs not in the sense of finding a new
business model for the news, but in the sense of independently managing
their careers. They need to be entrepreneurial in the way they weave
work on blogs, non-profit projects, tools and stints with established
publications.

Two More Ways to Fund Local Investigative Journalism

Since my post Saturday
about funding local investigative journalism through a non-profit local
ad network, a few people have pointed out other ways to accomplish the
same goal. Here’s a run-down of my thoughts on each of the options:

Non-Profit Online Newspapers
Dan Kennedy and Adam Gaffin pointed out The New Haven Independent and MinnPost.com
— local online news sites structured as non-profits. These are
interesting projects producing high-quality work, but I think they’re
trying too hard to be daily newspapers. A lot of the material they
publish — human interest stories like this and this
— is already being published on blogs. I think non-profits should
focus more exclusively on what isn’t appearing on blogs, hard news and
investigative reporting.

An Endowment for Journalism
Another
approach is to create an endowment that funds local investigative
journalism. A process for selecting and editing the investigative
projects would need to be developed, but that’s it. The only risk is
that contributors to the endowment expect control over the choice of
investigative projects. Maybe this risk could be mitigated and costs
could be saved by wrapping the endowment into an organization like MassInc or The Boston Foundation.

A Non-Profit Local Ad Network
This
would be the most self-sufficient, community-controlled means of funding
investigative journalism. An ad network would have lower-startup costs
than an endowment, and once it’s operational, publishers in the network
would control the funding decisions. The risk is that the network isn’t
competitive with commercial networks, and can’t generate enough money
to sustain itself or achieve its funding goals.

I would love to see the endowment or ad network model developed in the
Boston area. The endowment model is probably the safer and more tested
of the two, but I think the local ad network could be more robust.
An endowment would be a top-down solution controlled by a small group
of people. A local ad network would be more like an open source
software project — a messy bottom-up solution controlled by its
participants.

A Way to Fund Local Investigative Journalism

Suppose The Boston Globe closed its newsroom tomorrow. Where would we feel the impact most severely?

Not in sports — or breaking news, opinion, slice-of-life stories, arts or business. The web is loaded with alternatives in those areas.

The
challenge for the Boston area would be to replace The Globe’s
investigative reporting and hard news. The sites I linked to above are
great, but none are doing the type of reporting that helped expose abuse in the Catholic Church. Independent publishers can rarely justify weeks of research or coding in order to
produce a single piece of content.

So if the Globe continues to shrink, how will we as a
community continue to give our institutions the scrutiny they need?
Some say we’re already seeing what happens when public scrutiny declines.

One
solution is to create a non-profit local ad network to fund local
investigative journalism projects. The network would be controlled by
the community, and would have a small staff to sell ads, give grants to
reporters, and manage the network. It would be a self-sustaining
mechanism for funding investigative journalism.

Folks I’ve spoken with about this idea have raised two main questions:

(1) Why does the network need to be run by a non-profit?
The
goal is to generate local income to fund local investigative reporting.
In a for-profit company, even one that doesn’t take money from
investors, that goal would be eclipsed by the need to generate income for
the business’ owners. Google and family-run newspapers have been able
to balance wealth creation and the public good, but those are monopoly
businesses. Local online news is a hyper-competitive market. Any
business dallying in unprofitable work like investigative journalism
will be run over.

There’s at least one other reason a non-profit makes sense: Many local
publishers write for non-economic reasons. These publishers are more
likely to work with an ad network created to achieve non-economic goals.

(2) Would the ad network be able to generate enough income to support itself and its goals?
I
don’t know yet. But there’s reason to believe it could improve upon the
AdSense revenue many local publishers currently receive. AdSense undervalues quality local web sites. Impressions and clicks on quality
sites likes Our Daily Red should be more valuable than impressions and clicks on splogs like Dailyred.com,
but with AdSense there’s essentially no difference. A local ad network
would help quality local publishers capture the full value they offer
advertisers, the same way Federated Media does for national publishers.

What do you think? What are the challenges with this approach? How can we try something like this in Boston?

The Future of News in Three Paragraphs

Yesterday somebody asked me to explain my thoughts on the future of news in a few sentences. Here’s what I sent them:

I think the news industry is a paradox right now. On one hand, there
is almost no good news coming from old media companies: Circulation is
declining (http://tinyurl.com/6j37sh) and great folks are leaving the industry
(http://tinyurl.com/6s5acj). MSM outlets will only continue to get
smaller, and many will die.

On the other hand, we as consumers are getting more and better
information than ever before. Flickr, Yelp, YouTube, Blogger, Twitter,
etc, etc. provide content that is as rich, honest, and authentic as
MSM, often more so.  Also, the networks these tools are built into now

act as filters
, so it’s simple to find the best, most relevant stuff.

I think there’s one big unanswered question: How will communities pay
for the type of investigative journalism and hard news coverage that
needs to be done, but that bloggers don’t do? My hunch is that this
problem will be solved by open source/non-profit journalism projects.