Panelists at the FTC workshop on journalism’s future emphasize that for the news business to survive journalists and editors need to create content that readers deem worthy of paying for.
While many blame traditional journalism’s precarious state on the encroachment of new media, Robert Thomson, the Wall Street Journal‘s managing editor, says he believes members of newsrooms’ old school are also part of the problem.
“Far too many journalists have failed to respond with flare and creativity to the extraordinary opportunities provided,” Thomson, who also serves as Dow Jones & Co. editor-in-chief, said Tuesday.
Speaking at a Federal Trade Commission workshop on journalism’s future, Thomson said that part of journalism’s survival is incumbent on news professionals, particularly newspaper employees, to adapt to audiences’ new habits and demands.
The uncertain future of newspapers, he said, reflects years of journalists who, in the face of changing media, showed an “inability to understand how fundamentally the life of the reader has changed.”
Instead of capitalizing on — and, more specifically, monetizing — new media opportunities as they emerged, traditional journalists set the stage for pending doom by being lackadaisical instead of hungry, he said.
“Instead, journalists have been seduced and become prisoners of prized consciousness,” Thomson said. “Journalists should not be prized hounds. They must be unruly, not lap dogs.”
The way Thomson sees it, moving forward — and surviving in an electronic age — means that even members of journalism’s old guard abandon that prevailing wisdom in favor of adopting new business models that will enable them to stay afloat in the ever- growing pool of information.
Newsroom business plans built on premises like keeping on-line content — particularly if it’s a simply an extension of traditional print or broadcast outlet — free is no longer going to pass muster, as an ever-growing number of platforms compete for audiences and revenues, he said.
Rather, news outlets now have to customize their content for the range of media outlets and the audiences that access them, Thomson said. Otherwise, the people who create that content are the ones who will be hurt the most.
Although there’s a “hip” factor behind keeping all electronic content free all the time, “there’s a fundamental flaw in that argument,” he said. “It benefits those who distribute the content but not those who create it,” Thomson said.
As a result, journalists and editors need to create content that readers deem worthy of paying for.
That idea — creating specialized content for different platforms, and then charging audiences to access it — resurfaced repeatedly during a panel Tuesday on emerging business models for journalism.
In addition to Thomson, panelists from traditional media outlets like the Associated Press and Reuters, academia and new media including Search Engine Land and Talking Points Memo, said charging users for content that is specialized and priced according to relative value is a crucial part of making money on line. Otherwise, journalism faces pending doom, they said.
“The business of journalism as we know it, certainly print journalism is going down fast,” said Steven Brill, co-founder of Journalism Online, the paid-content venture. “And I think … there is a pretty simple reason for that. That is that 10 to 15 years ago all the publishers in the world decided to commit suicide by giving their stuff away for free.
“That was the beginning … of what might be the end,” he said.
The New York Times‘ handling of its on-line offshoot is one such case in point, Brill said. With continual news updates, blogs and video, the New York Times‘ Web site is “a wonderful product of journalism every day,” he said. But while readers have to pay for the Times print edition, the company “gives the better product away for free,” Brill said.
“No matter how you cut it, that’s not terribly logical.”
And while Brill said “I don’t think I have all the answers,” he said he does believe the interest Journalism Online has gotten from more than 1,300 affiliates, combined with studies that show at about 10 percent of e-readers will pay for particular content, furthers the idea that content creators deserve to get compensated for unique content — and audiences are willing to pay for it.
The challenge of needing to generate content beyond selling ads is not altogether new in the news business, Brill said. “In the history of journalism it is really hard to find any sustainable, large news organization — any large, significant organization — that has been able to sustain itself with just ad revenue. “
Nor is the idea of charging readers for content they care about, he said. The premise is to “reestablish an old business model” under which readers pay for content they value and “professional people, doing something that is this important for our democracy, have to be given the recognition and wherewithal to do that job.”