A new consensus on the future of news By Dean Starkman

Posted on March 2, 2014

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Just a couple of years ago, although it feels like a lot longer, the media world was embroiled in something like a gigantic family argument over the idea of whether it was good idea to charge readers for news online. Among aficionados, this was known as the “paywall debate.”

The angry fracas was part of a much larger argument about the future of news itself. On one side, a new generation of technology-centered journalists trumpeted a new, decentered news system of networks, news shared and even gathered by volunteers, a more, informal, “iterative,” approach (posting news now and fixing mistakes along the way), less concern about separating business and editorial functions, and, of course, free online news for all. The other side, my side, which resisted the name “old guard,” argued about the importance of news institutions and professional newsgathering, traditional standards (or many of them), longform storytelling, reporter impartiality, strict separation of the news “church” and the business-side “state,” and paywalls. (One thing we old guarders did not insist on, by the way, was the survival of print.)

When I wrote critically about what I called the “future of news (FON) consensus” in the CJR in the fall of 2011, the technologists’ views were in ascendance and predicting, if nothastening, the death of newspapers. The intra-journalism debate that has unfurled over the last couple years has been heated and often angry, sometimes surprisingly enlightening, sometimes deeply stupid.

But now, it shows signs of abating. I see a consensus taking hold, one that, all in all, is much, much healthier for public-interest reporting than the old one. Is this inside media baseball? Most definitely! But the reality is that such debates can have an alarmingly large impact on the actual news the public will get. They matter. What was damaging about the old consensus, particularly, was its fealty to the god of clicks—digital ads revenue generated by high traffic volumes, which, in turn, require high quantities of new posts, often of indifferent quality. This side also believed that newspapers, under no circumstances, should charge readers for news online. This created what I called the“Hamster Wheel” effect in American newsrooms, speed for speed’s sake, volume without thought, and a downward quality spiral of local news. The problem with the free-content model isn’t that longform investigations and accountability reporting isn’t possible. It’s that its incentives run in the opposite direction. It is now generally understood that this belief has had disastrous effects on the newspaper industry, the backbone of American journalism (albeit an increasingly frail one), and is still doing damage in some quarters.

I’m speaking for myself here, not as the voice of CJR. But here’s what I see as the new FON consensus, or perhaps better, the Present of News (PON) consensus, since this looks like not so much as where we’re going as where we are:

Consensus #1: Free online news is a poor fit for legacy news organizations.Basically, the paywall side, the old guard, won this one. The New York Times digital subscription breakthrough in 2011 was initially dismissed as a unique case (just as the digital subscription success of The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times was similarly dismissed a few years earlier. But that argument has eroded as digital subscription meters have gone up successfully around the world. That variants of the model have been adopted by digitally native sites like Andrew Sullivan’s, Politico, and even Capital New York further illustrates that paywalls have turned some kind of corner. Determined attempts by Advance Publications, controlled by the Newhouse family, to shoehorn once-great news organizations like the New Orleans Times-Picayune andCleveland Plain Dealer, into the free-ad model have gone sideways, providing a grisly counter-example. And mostly, it’s the realization both that newspapers’ digital ad growth, the great hope of free news, has hugely disappointed, and that Times-style metered subscription systems have shown they don’t even hurt digital traffic much anyway. You can both subscriptions and keep your traffic, and whatever you can earn from ads. Digital subscriptions, properly deployed, are free money.

Consensus #2: Paywalls are just a tool, not a panacea, a straw man we’ve had toargue against for years. While paywall revenue is often meaningful, and at places like the Times and the FT, it has actually helped offset perilous declines in print ad revenue, at most places it is a helpful revenue stream that is not enough to offset total revenue declines, which set the stage for a downward spiral of newsroom cuts and quality deterioration.

Consensus #2a: Paywalls impose a quality imperative. For there to be any kind of growth story, the content behind a paywall cannot be rote newspapering. There is a reason that Gannett, which has, as Ryan Chittum puts it, “a well-earned and long-established reputation for high margins and poor quality,” has seen its digital strategy hit a wall. After initial success in selling print subscribers on a digital product (basically a stealth price increase), it has had little success selling new digital-only subscriptions on the merit of its content. By contrast, the Minneapolis Star Tribune remains a quality paper and has had early success with digital subs, showing 33-percent growth despite a price increase. Paywalls around middling content don’t wash.

Consensus #3: Digitally native news organizations are free to charge or not charge and can do pretty much whatever they want. The subscription issue pertains basically to newspapers. Huffington Post, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, and other operations rely on huge volumes of traffic—usually generated by readers sharing on Facebook and other social media platforms—to drive digital ad revenue. While usually mocked for their clickbait content (“Drake Rocked His Yarmulke And Vest Again For His Re-Re-Bar Mitzvah On ‘SNL’”—BuzzFeed, Jan. 18), they also do some news gathering and longform stories of high quality. Given that their competition in digital ads is overwhelmingly dominated by a few non-news organizations, e.g. Google and Facebook, any journalism the new organizations generate is a net addition to the news. One interesting question is how much of the quality stuff these sites can produce. Major newspapers still crank out longform stories by the hundreds and even thousands annually, although at a dramatically reduced rate from a decade ago.

Consensus #4: The traditional news story—not the tweet, blog post, or word cloud (remember those?)—retains its primacy in American journalism. I know this because two of the most thoughtful representatives of the technologically centered view, author Clay Shirky and Columbia’s Emily Bell, said as much in a justly celebrated2011 report, “Post-Industrial Journalism,” co-authored with Christopher Anderson. “What is of great moment is reporting on important and true stories that can change society,” they wrote. And I agree. This doesn’t mean that other news forms won’t continue to grow in prominence—video news in particular is on the rise. But I suggest they will continue to supplement the story.

Consensus #5: The utility of crowdsourced journalism—volunteers gathering or sorting through news—is real and so far really limited. Non-professionals have provided major contributions in breaking news situations like mass protests and disasters (the Arab Spring, the Fukushima nuclear accident) and sorting through masses of data (ProPubica’s “Dollars for Docs” project enabled readers to sort through millions of payments from the pharmaceuticals industry to doctors). The limits were exposed when readers on the Reddit social media site identified the wrong people as suspects in last year’s Boston Marathon Bombings. Of course, the New York Post did, too, so crowdsourcing doesn’t have a monopoly on screw-ups, by any means. Still, while a few years ago, network theorists held out great hopes for what they called peer production in journalism, the bulk of newsgathering will be done by people who are paid to do it, even as experiments in crowdsourcing continue and its potential remains untapped but large. As Jay Rosen wrote in a sweet, short post last year on where competing journalism philosophies agree and disagree: “Bloggers and citizen journalists cannot fill the gap.”

Consensus #6: Whatever one thinks about the current news ecosystem—better, worse, richer, thinner, more democratic, dumber—coverage of local and state government is a disaster area. Metropolitan newsrooms that once covered police departments, school districts, taxing authorities, and the powerful in their communities, look like they’ve been hit by a neutron bomb; the desks are there, but the people are gone. Major beats like the environment and education go uncovered. As an important Federal Communications report put it in 2011, “an abundance of media outlets does not translate into an abundance of reporting…While digital technology has empowered people in many ways, the concurrent decline in local reporting has, in other cases, shifted power away from citizens to government and other powerful institutions, which can more often set the news agenda.” Amen.

These aren’t the only things that might be said to have found consensus. And maybe I’m wrong; Maybe, there is no consensus at all. (I don’t think the church-state issue has been fully worked out, for instance, though traditional news organizations seem to be reaffirming the importance of clear boundaries.)

But unless you think the current news environment is fine as it is—and if you do, zeit gezundt—it’s high time for technologists, traditionalists, and the public to find one, and then find ways to build on it.

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TAGS: future of news

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR’s business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism(Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.

Comments Post a Comment

One day in some business school there will be a possibly (but not probably) captivating case study about some publishing company that decided it was wise to charge for its product in one medium (paper) but not another (online). The professor will say, "Students, believe it or else, there was a time when people thought that giving away a product that customers were demonstrably willing to pay for would in the long run make them lots of money." And the students will say, "No way!" And the professor will say, "Way!" And then the bell will ring and it’ll be time for lunch. True story, dat.

#1 Posted by Aaron Elstein on Fri 28 Feb 2014 at 02:19 PM

"coverage of local and state government is a disaster area."

Thank you for saying this. Every time I see an apologia for garbage disguised as an argument against paywalls, for "crowdsourcing" for Tweets-as-news, or for the idea that because a lot of news is so much more accessible now, there is no problem, I notice that the writer either never mentions local and regional coverage or pays it brief lip service, even though it’s the biggest — and probably most important — kind of coverage there is.

E.g.: http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2013/03/21/where-the-web-has-failed-journalism/

When they do this, that’s when I know they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. (Many of them also often leave out the crucial fact that journalism is a *public interest* enterprise.)

It helps to always remember that these people are *ideologues.* Dogmatists. Fundamentalists no different from any religious or political True Believer. Cultists, really. Hence, you can’t really argue with them. The reason they pretend that paywall efforts are sold as total solutions is because they believe that "crowdsourcing," "citizen journalism," and free access, etc. are total solutions despite very little evidence that they’re solutions at all (assuming that the problem we’re talking about is adequate coverage of public affairs – I really don’t know what problem they think they’re solving.) Zero-summers tend to think everybody else is also a zero-summer, most definitely including their opponents.

#2 Posted by Dan Mitchell on Fri 28 Feb 2014 at 07:20 PM

What I find pathetically amusing is that I am unable to open a forwarded email connection to an article in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, If I copy the headline and paste it into Google, the entire article from a different source usually appears. Now, I do not know if this practice is widespread (now it will be) but it is one of the cracks in the paywall argument. Information, such as news, is much like water. It will find its way to the sea of readers who want it for free.

#3 Posted by Jim Grandone on Fri 28 Feb 2014 at 10:27 PM

Jim Grandone: your argument has already been proven false. People in general don’t want to have to copy and paste for every article they want to read. What they’re paying for is frictionless access to the news they want. If news is like water, paywalls can be pretty effective dams (albeit ones with small holes in them – some of them put there on purpose by the dambuilders.

#4 Posted by Dan Mitchell on Sat 1 Mar 2014 at 11:36 AM

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