By Steve Outing
SaveTheNews.org‘s first big public meeting of journalists and community members (September 16) — strategically planned for the U.S. city at ground zero for the “News Crisis,” Denver — was clearly a success in sounding the alarm about the decline of serious public-interest journalism. Six months ago, the city lost one of its two major daily newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News, and other newspapers and traditional media outlets in metro Denver and around the state have suffered severe cuts. The result: important stories not told, an environment ripe for abuse by less-closely monitored public officials and business leaders, and a less-informed citizenry.
The SaveTheNews event attracted a capacity crowd of about 200 people who filled the bottom floor of the Colorado History Museum just south of the State Capitol Building. While the abundance of laid-off journalists in the room (many once employed by the Rocky) were looking for answers to the question of how to fund public-interest reporting — and thus continue making a livelihood from doing journalism — the room also included a large contingent of community members alarmed by the Rocky’s demise and wondering where (and if) they will get news about the most important things going on in their hometown in the future, if things keep getting worse.
The event included 14 small-table discussions on a variety of sub-topics, which preceded a general panel discussion featuring former Rocky Mountain News editor and publisher John Temple and other local luminaries. At the discussion tables, facilitators (including me) warmed up the attendees with intense exchanges about how to tackle the various facets of the problem. It was our job to ask questions and listen, not to lecture on what we know or believe.
I was assigned as the facilitator of the “Commercial News Models: Where will we get our news?” table, and interest in that topic outnumbered the chairs available. Our standing-room-only group was animated and opinionated, and not of one mind when it came to solutions. And even though the journalists around the table outnumbered the non-journalists, the community members, I think, gave we journalists some hope that the issue of sustainability of public-interest news reporting is beginning to resonate outside of the media cognoscenti and news-industry working stiffs.
Susan, who described herself as a bureaucrat who prefers staying out of the headlines, said that her life is not complete with the Rocky Mountain News no longer available to read each day. But it is, she said, forcing this middle-aged woman to adapt to keeping up with the news by using the Internet. Paula, an attorney for a utility company, explained her presence as simply being concerned by the decline in the amount and quality of in-depth news that the Rocky’s failure represents. She worried that the loss of newspapers, which traditionally have shouldered the heaviest burden for public-interest reporting, might also mean a decline in continued availability of quality, balanced, free news on the Internet, and the resulting impact on our democracy.
But, as you might expect given the table’s media-geeky topic of news business models, it was the current, laid-off, and retired journalists and publishers who had the strongest opinions about how to save journalism. I’d say that most of them recognized that resurrecting printed newspapers to their former glory was a lost cause, and that adapting to the digital environment and an audience increasingly comfortable with digital media consumption was the difficult task at hand.
I don’t want to over-generalize with a small group, but I did pick up a split among preferred solutions for funding journalism by age group. Jake, an experienced, middle-age journalist, suggested that there’s already a working model for supporting paid content online: iTunes. He meant that millions of people have demonstrated willingness to purchase digital content in the form of songs, and Apple (a computer company) has grabbed a large chunk of the music business. So, Jake reasoned, news consumers paying, say, a dime for a story they liked, or ponying up for a $5-a-month subscription for access to everything on a news site, might work. He liked the analogy of McDonald’s, the burger chain, offering a la carte items as well as package meals.
Representing the younger demographic was Betsy, a writer in her 20s just starting out in journalism, who worries about there being business models for news that can support paying for her efforts. She found the idea of forcing online users to pay for news content “troubling,” because for so many years Internet users have come to accept that free is the price of most content online, and changing their minds to accept paying for news on the web is likely to fail. She would prefer to see non-profit models and possibly endowments come to the rescue, filling the void of in-depth reporting left by newspapers’ decline.
Also trashing the pay-for-online content model, especially micropayments, was Michael, also in his 20s. His observation: It’s foolish to charge online per article, because it cuts off sharing of content with friends. He envisioned a father admonishing his daughter for reading too much news, because the monthly content bill was getting too high. That’s a powerful argument not heard enough: Paid online general news could lead to a younger generation being largely news illiterate.
(If I may interject my own opinion, I’m more inclined to listen to the Betsy and Michaels of the world, because they better understand their peers’ media behavior and spending habits — or lack thereof. For every 50-year-old who pines for the feel and experience of the printed newspaper over digital consumption of news bits, I say: But you don’t matter nearly as much as the 25-year-old who will be a news consumer for a much longer time and support the news entities of the future. … And by the way, I’m 52, though with media habits more typical of someone 25.)
More of a middle ground was taken by other members of the table. Watt, a retired newspaperman who started reporting in 1948, suggested that sending him just what he wants is a more suitable model in today’s world for publishers who want readers to pay. With the printed Rocky Mountain News, Watt got the whole package, including the columnists he disliked. A personalized digital delivery of news, which included topics of his choosing but allowed him to make that pesky columnist invisible, might be more palatable as a paid service.
Others around the table pointed to aggregating news from many sources and packaging it in a way that’s most convenient and useful to consumers also is a way to provide value that online users will pay for.
Bob, an experienced journalist and consultant in his 50s, currently starting up an experimental online local-news service covering Boulder, attended the event hoping to discover a business model for his small news enterprise operating with minimal staff (one person) and a network of contributors. He’s pondering whether his fledgling media business should go the for- or non-profit route. A possibility often mentioned for the new wave of tiny news organizations building up to fill the holes left by declining newspapers is user donations, a la public radio and television stations (and/or utilizing network donation systems that allow online users to voluntarily support multiple favorite websites). Yet Bob admitted that though he regularly listens to Denver public radio station KCFR and BBC News, he does not give them money.
Bob is leaning toward a for-profit model.
Don, a former Denver Post editor who made a career move to a trade-press company, was among those looking to think further outside the box. Perhaps one way to get more and better news coverage is to get other types of companies to hire journalists. Examples might be Comcast or Qwest, communications providers that feed news (and every other kind of data) to their customers over their networks. Beyond the obvious conflict-of-interest issue with, say, Comcast-employed journalists perhaps not being free to report objectively on the company that pays them, such enterprises could develop news side businesses that complement the core business while opening up new revenue opportunities, and serving their customers who are receiving lesser-quality news via their digital pipes due to newspapers’ meltdown.
Don pointed to the success of the Poynter Institute, a non-profit teaching and research facility for journalists, in hiring popular media blogger Jim Romenesko, who brought the Poynter website significant growth that in turn brought attention to Poynter’s other services and content. The Institute’s mission is to train journalism’s new leaders and bring news people up to speed on the latest technology and techniques. But hiring a popular star journalist served the mission, even if it strayed outside the core “business” of Poynter. Perhaps that model can be perpetuated, Don suggested.
While the ideas and conversation around our table were diverse and there was not agreement on a “solution” to the news crisis, I did pick up a couple common themes:
1. We should all be concerned about news consumption by young people, and not develop a new media landscape that will leave them with limited access to news about the important issues of the day. Recognizing that their generation has different media-usage habits and beliefs that are different than their parents’ generation, for the sake of a well-informed citizenry and the democratic process, however we solve the news problem must include a game plan to give access to public-interest news and information to the largest number of people possible.
2. There is no one “silver-bullet” solution to paying for quality, in-depth public-interest journalism to be conducted when the old media business models are broken. It will take experimentation, the deployment of multiple revenue models, and cooperation among many parties to provide tools and business assistance to all who will make up the local news ecosystem of the future — whether new news entities or old-media enterprises reinvented to succeed in the digital age.
(Related: Denver public radio station KCFR produced a report on the SaveTheNews.org event, by reporter Megan Verlee. Click here for the audio file download.)
(Also, here’s a PDF handout I gave to attendees discussing various revenue opportunities and strategies for news enterprises.)