Over the last couple of weeks, several articles have appeared about how to pay for journalism, mostly journalism in legacy media, mostly metropolitan newspapers. In Time Magazine, Walter Isaacson suggested micropayments were the answer. Steven Brill offered the New York Times a solution involving micropayments. David Swensen, Yale University’s chief investment officer, and Michael Schmidt, a financial analyst at Yale, suggested endowments for news organizations. (Here’s a thorough list of recent opinions about paying for content that Mathew Ingram put together.) Len Witt suggested a cooperative trust.
The back-and-forth between Len and Vin Crosbie in the comments is worth taking a look at, because Vin noted something important:
Newspapers shouldn’t be saved. Their staffs, practices and products need to change.
Case in point: Let’s take a look at what happened when US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River on Jan. 15 after a bird strike shut down the engines. The news hit Twitter first — a photo from a cell phone, and people who saw the plane hitting the water. People on the ferries who rescued passengers took photos and sent them to Flickr. TV news crews flew helicopters over the scene and transmitted live video, pieces of which appeared on YouTube. USAirways posted regular updates on its Web site. The FAA issued public statements. CNN and AP, among many others, issued alerts that were constantly updated. Blogs picked up the news and spread it.
So, how does a reader-paid content model for such news work? What individual story about Flight 1549 would you pay 10 or 20 cents for? Do newspapers really think they have a chance of charging even micropayments for their news in such a situation? (Here’s Michael Kinsley’s take on this in a NYTimes’ op-ed “You Can’t Sell News by the Slice”.) Everybody’s on that story, including non-journalists. (And sending out a swarm of reporters and photographers for a little piece of exclusive detail is cost-prohibitive, as Newsweek has determined. The New York Times reports that the weekly magazine won’t do that anymore. It quoted Newsweek editor Jon Meacham as saying: “The drill of chasing the week’s news to add a couple of hard-fought new details is not sustainable.”)
People who say that readers should pay for news still think in terms of an individual article, with a beginning, middle and end. Something that can stand alone and be packaged to sell alone. However, in a Webcentric world, the daily stand-alone story morphs into serial, collaborative beat blogs. Most reporting will be done WITH the community. Most blog posts won’t make sense if they stand alone — they can only be understood in context of what’s come before, or related linked information.
So, if it doesn’t make sense for news organizations to charge for news that everybody has, such as the amazing story of Flight 1549, or to charge for individual blog posts, because they don’t have enough context AND they’re collaboratively reported (does the community member who provided information get a cut?), what could news organizations charge for?
Even in a world where the blogging format dominates, there’s a place for iconic storytelling, investigative reporting, the status-of article that wraps everything up prior to a vote or public policy decision. But how much of a metro news organization’s content is this? Enough to support a 200-person news organization and keep it afloat in a sea of free content?
Probably not. The days of large metro newsrooms churning out general-interest, been-there-done-that, stand-alone, we-talk-you-listen reporting are waning. Communities were growing tired of that before the Web appeared on the scene.
It’s likely that large metros will be replaced by lots of small news organizations, as the explosion of (many ad-supported) niche-based organizations, geographic and topic-based, continues. In organizations that are making just enough money to support a staff that provides daily coverage, there may still be a need for extra funding for an investigative story or in-depth story. In those cases, perhaps a Spot.Us approach can work. Only, however, if that story relates to an issue about which the community’s already expressed concern, AND if the journalist stays with the issue until it’s been resolved.
Spot.Us sells itself is as people requesting journalists to do one-off stories, or journalists pitching one-off stories to the community for funding. In response to an LA Times column by James Rainey about the weakness of the stories done so far, David Cohn says that he’s creating code that any news organization can use as it sees fit — i.e., Spot.Us is not a product, it’s a platform.
My hunch is that a loose network of small news organizations within a metropolitan area will need more than a Spot.Us platform. They’ll need a way to share trusted information with each other, they’ll need a way to collaborate on issues, they’ll need a way to share ad revenue across the network, and they’ll need a way to raise extra funding for those indepth stories.
Who out there is putting that together?