Friday, March 6, 2009

You Get What You Pay For

What is Journalism Worth?

“Holy crap,” I thought. “I have to get on the record with this.” I’ve long believed (No proof) that there are ideas floating around us. Those who are sensitive enough to detect them, motivated enough to use them, and have the means to pull it off, will win.

So, watching the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC tonight, here was a guy from “Editor and Publisher” ( ), a staid magazine of the pencil press saying what I was saying over lunch with close friends at El Arroyo this very afternoon—the mass media must find and use a new model. I told my friends today that I had not heard or read anyone say what really must be done to save traditional journalism.

And, we must save journalism. It is, as I have written before, foundational to our democracy. Yet, locally and nationally, we see the withering of the traditional media. It shouldn’t be. We cannot rely on blogs (such as this one), “The Daily Show” and YouTube for our news. Generally, you’ll find no local news there. Renew your subscription to the local newspaper!

Further, with your renewed subscription, tell you newspaper that you expect quality. You expect value for your dollar. Research proves, particularly here in Austin with a high level of education, content is king. If a medium, newspaper, television, radio, or otherwise—is not delivering valuable content, why should people subscribe, watch, or listen?

For another, similar look at this issue, I suggest that you check out Elizabeth Christian’s blog on her site:

If a newspaper, or any other news medium, is producing valuable content, that medium should be compensated for it. Frank Volpicella is news director at KVUE TV, the #1 news TV station in the Austin, Texas market. It drives Volpicella crazy to watch what is happening to Journalism with a “Big J”.

“We are giving away our content for free on the Internet. No need for anyone to buy a newspaper, or watch the 6 p.m. news. We are eating ourselves. We are modern day business cannibals. We do more with less. Quality suffers. And we wonder why viewership is eroding,” Volpicella says. But, TV stations are not the only ones.

Newspaper publishers are vexed. They see the costs of publishing a paper rise—Paper, ink, and—most of all—people. They apparently throw up their hands. They cannot cope. So, to cut costs and meet profit expectations, they cut staff and buy out veteran reporters.

For all media this is a doomed model. If content is king, a newspaper, TV station, or radio station must have a staff of experienced, seasoned journalists and editors—people with perspective. These people are the most important assets to the media. Without them, traditional media loses contacts, history, goodwill, and knowledge. Yes, these experienced people probably (should) make more money than someone right out of J school. These people who know the market, however, are the very ones who can provide the content that people will buy.

Did I say “buy”? Yes. That is the new model.

OK. New media is here. Traditional media has been feeding the new media the content it needs to become a viable force in the marketplace of ideas. So, just like selling subscriptions to the newspaper that lands in your driveway every day, it is time to assign value to the new media.

It is time to again selling “subscriptions” for access to part of the content available on the web. I do believe that some basic content should remain free. But, just like the New York Times used to charge for access to some stories, all newspapers, television stations, and other traditional media should start charging for some of their content.

This is the new model. If the citizens see something they want, if it has value, they will pay for it. Others will bitch and moan. The only Internet ads that work, I am convinced, are those hated, full-screen advertisements, the ones that make you hunt for the place where you click to close them. The little ads don’t do much. Certainly, none of them will pay the bills for a newspaper through the 21st century.

The guy (I wish I’d caught his name) from “Editor and Publisher” on Rachel Maddow’s show said that he was a fan of new media. So am I. But, solid day-in-and-day-out reporting is not the forte of most journalists in the new media. That territory belongs to the traditional, beat reporters.

Traditional news media must and can survive, but they must make tough decisions, adapt, and take the heat for change. Concurrently, TV and radio stations should also start charging for access to parts of their web sites. Access can be counted in pennies, but pennies add up.

Certainly, this “model” will be criticized. Fine. But, the Forth Estate must live. Our democracy depends on it more than we realize.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...

I'd pay for a few subscriptions to an on demand internet feed of the latest local newscasts, without commercials or pop up ads. I'd pay extra for a feature called "cutting room floor" where I could see the entire
raw video shot for each item. I might pay for a text
e-mail of the audio transcription of the entire newscast..quite a few of these could be sold "down town".
I think some maturity, review, and consideration could be given to content. Is 2 minutes on the conviction of a child molester, complete with wrap around live from the victims neighborhood, really what "Austin" wants to see? Is it a good use of the staff and equipment,or it is time filling because it is lurid and easy? It's hard to watch something like that and have it followed by a gravely voiced truck salesman or a singing cleaners lady. It's disconcerting. It's not working.
We are running out of energy, people are losing their homes and jobs. We are approaching a real crisis. What is chosen to report, and creative methods of delivering it can and will make a difference. If you'll try.

David said...

I've been in "technology" for the better part of 20 years. In that time I've watched the rise of the internet and the fall of traditional news sources. With my degree in journalism in hand I had a choice to make back 20 years ago, work in traditional media or, as you say, "new" media. I chose new media mostly because it paid more, but also because it offered more freedom for a "rookie".

So, where am I going with all this? Old media must adapt and adjust their business model if they expect to survive. They need to step into their customer's shoes and look at media with a fresh look. Ask the 5 w's and the h, just like they do with any news story.
Who is my consumer?
What does today's media consumer want?
When do they want to consume it?
Where do they want to consume it?
Why do they choose one source over another?
How do they want to consume the information?

Who is fairly easy. Today's consumer is typically computer literate, has internet access, and knows how to find the information they desire.

What they want to see is local, regional, national, and international news at their fingertips, in real-time, organized in a manner which makes it easy to identify stories they have an interest in.

When they want to consume is 24x7x365. At 3am, at 4pm, all day long every day. They want regular updates to stories they are interested in or subscribed to, with some way to easily identify that the information has changed.

Where they consume is limitless. Home, care, coffee shop, office, on the go, in a cab, the list goes on...

Why do they choose one source over another is directly related to organization and timelyness of the information. Rarely is it because Bob Jones works for KJHG TV.

How they consume the information is also limitless. TV, radio, iPod, computer, cell phone, or specilized appliance, the options are unlimited.

Media consumers want the information at their fingertips, and want to view it on their schedule. News at 5,6 and 10 is dead. By 10pm, I've already read any number of internet sources, compared and confirmed the various sources, distilled out the real story and moved on. Same goes for weather, there are hundreds of weather sources on the internet. They all provide the same data, the forecast is what adds the value. Traditional media will never succeed in getting consumers to pay for information they provide for free via the traditional means (television). Why did television succeed over print media? Because the same information was more timely, and more importantly, free. The internet is doing to television what television did to print media. Charging for information that is free is a plan for failure. Traditional media must find a way to add value thus convincing consumers there is value in paying for the information. So, if the information is all the same, then the delivery and format is where we can add value. Services that provide subscriptions based on custom lists defined by the consumer, provide electronic media in other formats, cell phone video feeds, etc can all add value. Required registration and pay walls are doomed to failure. Traditional media must find a way to add value in the consumer's eyes or face certain extinction. Much like the movie and music industries, traditional media must accept that the consumer is in the driver's seat. They will consume news, videos and information in a format of their choosing, not in a format dictated by the content producer.

Anonymous said...

I'm a frustrated industry veteran trying to cope with where things are going. To me, newspapers are dead. So is the 5, 6, and 10pm news on TV. As I walk my dog in the morning I "read" the USA today on my iPhone. I also have the AP, so I get local stories from as many places I like. Often, I'm a day ahead of the "printed" news cycle. What I miss on my iPhone are the comics, local columnists, and the Sunday ads with all those coupons. Is that enough to subscribe? No. Sorry newspaper people. I can always check in on-line. TV news does a little better... but not much. When there is a story I care about... I can never seem to find it. Website providers of traditional news outlets filter too much of their content, or make it hard to find. Maybe I'm lazy, but so is "Joe Sixpack" or "Susie Homemaker". I refuse to pay for online content... make money from sidebar ads and classifieds. (I don't even like to register! Take a hint Belo!!) I do like to rant, sorry.