One of the themes I was struck by at the Berkman at Ten conference was the idea that the net is now mature enough that we should be studying what’s actually happening, not just what we think should happen. While that doesn’t sound like that much of a breakthrough, it’s useful to me, at least, in thinking about how the center takes on projects and research topics. A good bit of the early work at the Center – especially our work on ICANN – was far more prescriptive than descriptive. A project like the Open Net Initiative, on the other hand, is careful to focus on documenting what’s happening around the Internet, leaving change of those realities to related projects like Psiphon and Global Voices Advocacy.
The focus on journalism at the Berkman Center over the past couple of years has been a focus on what’s really happening, not on what we thought might happen. I suspect that had you asked Professors Zittrain, Nesson and Lessig in 1998 whether the survival of high-quality journalism in a digital age was part of the Center’s mission, your question would have been met with a curious look. Now you’re likely to get a curious look because it’s so apparent that the question is central to our research.
I’ve spent a lot of time with Berkman colleagues – and colleagues throughout the Boston/Cambridge community, including friends at the Business School, the Nieman Center and local newspapers – talking about business models for journalism in a digital age. A conversation we had on Wednesday makes me wonder whether there’s an opportunity here to move from the prescriptive to the descriptive. In other words, while I’ve spent a lot of time lately agonizing about how Global Voices might find a revenue model to sustain our work, the answer may be to look closely at revenue models people are already using to support substantive journalism in the era of blogs, Craigslist and media consolidation.
One of the groundrules for these conversations has been a focus on journalism that’s difficult to finance: investigative journalism and international journalism. This isn’t meant to imply that other types of journalistic writing – political opinion or entertainment journalism, for instance – are somehow inferior… just easier to finance. Investigative and international journalism is expensive, requiring travel, research and time. Many of the stories that result are “long-tail” stories – they’re not going to be interesting to the entire news audience as, for instance, Iraq war stories were in 2003. The people who’ve been participating in these conversations believe firmly that there’s a public interest in reporting these stories, and that this work is essential for partipatory societies even if it’s not easily supported by pure for-profit models.
A conversation about supporting this sort of journalism tends to start with a good deal of despair about the state of American newspapers and the dismal future young journalists face. Newspaper layoffs are so common that graphic designer Erica Smith is maintaining an interactive layoffs map, called “Paper Cuts“. Jill Carroll, in a paper for Harvard Shorenstein Center, documents a 30% reduction in the number of foreign correspondents employed by US newspapers. Media critic David Shaw bemoaned a shrinking “newshole” for international news, reduced 70-80% between the mid-1980 and 2001.
If we’re interested not in preserving newspapers, or the ability to make a living as a professional journalist, it’s possible that the picture changes somewhat. Accepting Dan Gillmor’s observation that people will “commit acts of journalism” – and observing that some people appear to commit these acts serially – it’s possible that there are a number of business models that might support “difficult” journalism on an ongoing basis.
Some models that have come up in conversation:
The 5% Model – One of the problems American newspapers suffer from is the difficulty of delivering a 20% return on investment year to year to investors, a level of return that’s evidently demanded by financial markets. Perhaps traditional newspaper models are sustainable if the goal was to return a much more modest – say 5% – return on capital investment.
Cross Subsidy – Related to the 5% model is the idea that newspapers support “difficult” journalism with more lucrative content – entertainment, sports and local news. If other parts of a newsgathering operation are sufficiently profitable, it’s possible to finance in-depth reporting.
The Membership Model – Newspapers outsourced much of their reporting to the Associated Press, using a shared news bureau to provide a breadth of coverage difficult for any one paper to provide. While AP is now large, powerful, and sometimes critiqued by newspapers for high fees, there’s still room for membership-based bureaus. Eight Ohio newspapers are sharing resources on state-wide political coverage in a new collaboration called OHNO, an interesting swipe at AP.
Ad Supported – The default internet business model – supporting coverage through a combination of banner and keyword ads – may be able to support “difficult” journalism, either through cross-subsidy or just attracting sufficient attention to key stories. The concern on the model is that there’s a constant temptation to fish for attention-grabbing stories. This can be a benefit in a cross-subsidy model, but it might be dangerous for a tightly subject-focused news outlet.
Niche Content – High-quality niche content can survive on subscription models. One example offered in our discussions is statehouse newsletters. Local newspapers find it expensive to provide deep statehouse coverage – subscribing to specialist newsletters may well be cheaper. And lobbyists find the content to be mission-critical and are willing to pay a premium for the information.
Foundations Pay – A great deal of high quality journalism is already foundation funded – listen to the credits at the end of an NPR show for a sense for some of the major players in the field. ProPublica, with backing from the Sandler Foundation, is promising a newsroom of 26 journalists, “all of them dedicated to investigative reporting on stories with significant potential for major impact”. This is, for better or worse, the model that Global Voices is currently using to find support.
One Rich Guy – A variant on the foundation model – which comes complete with program officers, oversight boards and all sorts of checks and balances – the one rich guy model has been responsible for some excellent journalism in the case of Al Jazeera. It’s known to be a weak model for investigative stories about the rich guy in question.
Public Funding – The BBC’s funding comes from television license fees, a form of public funding for public interest reporting. That said, it’s hard to imagine a future in which public broadcast funding is massively increased in the US – and even harder to imagine a future where independent reporters and bloggers could successfully compete for that funding. We raise this model so we can talk longingly about working as journalists in Europe.
Advocacy Journalism – Highly partisan political organizations have turned out some excellent investigative journalism – see the Polk Award Talking Points Memo won for coverage of the US Attorney’s controversy. A major concern is that while advocacy journalism on different sides of a political issue may serve to provide balance and fact-checking, it’s not hard to imagine situations in which a key issue might only be investigated by highly partisan journalists on a single side of an issue.
Sponsor a Beat – In one of our conversations, someone mentioned blogs raising money for reporters to cover specific stories. David Axe of War is Boring uses this model – I’d love other examples of international and investigative journalism sponsored this way.
Indirect Revenue – This is the model I end up advising most new bloggers to take: don’t expect your blog to make money directly, but look for the indirect ways it benefits your work. Blogs lead to freelance work, to books, to speaking invitations – it’s possible that serious journalism in whatever medium may have indirect benefits to the author that outweight direct benefits.
Our conversations have included some theoretical models as well. If you’ve got examples of people trying these models, I’d love your links.
Multimedia production – A small team might produce the same story in different media – text, video, audio – and sell to various news outlets. The ability to sell stories across platforms might make a model more fiscally sustainable. (Circle of Blue, a non-profit effort focused on covering the world’s water crisis, is pursuing this sort of model)
Translation as cross-subsidy – This is a model that’s come up a few times in talking about sustainability and Global Voices. We translate lots and lots of content to produce our site, and our translators are phenomenally talented. A service like Global Voices could serve as a showcase and legitimator for translators, a front-end to a web-based human translation marketplace, and profits from that marketplace might cross-subsidize our translated coverage. (I’m firmly convinced that someone will build a strong, multi-lingual, reputation-based online translation marketplace in the next couple of years. A major regret in life is that I don’t have the time to do it right now.)
TookTheBuyout.com – More a joke than an actual model – a site designed to give all the talented journalists who’ve taken buyouts from mainstream newspapers a place to publish independent investigative reporting. Given the name recognition of some of the people who’ve stepped down from papers recently, this might well be ad supportable.
I’d love your input on other models that people are pursuing or thinking about. This isn’t a theoretical issue for me – over the next few years, Global Voices needs to pursue one or more models to support our work, even if that model involves continuing to persuade foundations that our work is important and worth supporting. Examples focused on investigative and international journalism are the ones that are most helpful; models that are in use and supporting high-quality journalism are the most interesting ones. Please share what you know and help me get beyond a short dozen of models here.