A New Model For Digital Journalism?

Posted February 04, 2019
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An article in today's NY Times sums it all up.

Entitled "Digital Media Hits A Rut.  What's Next?", it clearly lays out the very fundamental problem with digital media in general and journalism in particular - no one can make any money at it.

This was driven home in a forceful way last week when Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, and Vice collectively laid off 1,000 employees.

This was coupled with layoffs at MIC, Gannett, and others.

The problem: no money.

If there's no money, there's no journalism. It's a simple as that.

Chris Hayes, the MSNBC anchor summed it all up: "What if there is literally no profitable model for digital news?'

Maybe there is a model, but maybe, as with all things digital, it's not the model that everyone thinks it is. After all, all that these media companies have done, big or small, legacy or startup, is to plug the digital universe into the old linear business model. That is, we make content, you read it or watch it and we charge advertisers for your eyeballs.

That was great when there was one daily newspaper a day and one nightly news at night. It even worked when cable came along and began cannibalizing news viewers. But in a world in which anyone can make and post content and in which there, without hyperbole, millions of websites fragmenting an already fragmented viewership... AND, when Google and Facebook vacuum up 90% of the ad dollars - well, maybe the old model just does not work.

If that's the case, then what does?

Let's start from scratch.

To pay for journalism you need revenue.

Advertising clearly does not work, no matter what iteration - banner ads, pop-ups, pre-rolls. Doesn't' matter. Doesn't work.

So maybe advertising is no longer the way to pay for journalism.

Let me propose a radical, but I think rather interesting alternative:

Let's start with a quote from one of my heroes, Edward R. Murrow:

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference.” 
― Edward R. Murrow

Listen to what Murrow said:  This instrument (he was referring to television, long before digital), can teach.

Let's stop there.

The instrument can teach.

Is this not the very foundation of The Washington Post's ad in the Super Bowl on Sunday? Democracy dies in darkness. What is more fundamental to democracy than a well educated public?

If ever there was an industry ripe for digital disruption, it is education.

Private universities charge an eye-gouging $65,000 a year and more, and for the most part, do a pretty crap job at educating. They have great climbing walls and dorms like hotels, but education?  Feh!  

There's an opening here for a multi-billion dollar business. The business of education.

I know because we went down this route briefly with Alan Rusbridger when he was the Managing Editor of The Guardian. He did not want to put up a paywall, did not believe in them. So instead he decided to put The Guardian in the education business.

We partnered with him to form The Guardian Media Academy, and it worked, at least until he was removed from The Guardian and the new management closed it down. Too bad. It was a very good idea.

But why limit it to media? A good newspaper will cover food, fashion, sports, science, business, lifestyles, books - you name it. Media companies are magnets for very smart people with a passion to teach. They do it through their journalism. So let them teach. Tap into that enormous resource and charge people for it.

Give the private universities (and the public ones) a real competitor.  And give journalism an entirely new source of revenue - one that it is, in fact, best suited for.

The purpose of journalism is to teach. So start teaching.

When you do that you will find you no longer have to pander to advertisers or sell out for eyeballs.  

It could work.

It's worth a try.

Clearly selling ads and eyeballs doesn't.


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