Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Looking at the Economist series on the future of media

Aug. 3, 2011, 4:05 p.m., Posted by Eric Newton

When the fellow pictured here on the right, dean Gary Kebbel, emailed me about the Economist series on the news industry, I asked him what he thought of it. This is our usual sequence of doing things. Gary, now dean of the University of Nebraska college of journalism and mass communications, was the journalism program director at Knight Foundation as we started the media innovation initiative (now a regular part of our work). I was VP of Journalism, and got in the habit of hearing him out. True to form, he replied with more than a tweet. So below is what a new American journalism dean says in reaction to this major series. My comments follow, and I’ll my own review of the series in a future post. 

Writes Gary Kebbel:  For its readers who are asking what's going on with online media, the Economist articles are useful. I think the main benefit of the package is to point out that we've been here before - before 1833, that is. Media did well before and after the rise of mass media. Journalism used to be more local. It used to seek citizen contributions. (I still remember reading one of the newspapers hung in the National Press Club that asks readers to come to the riverboat as it pulls in to their city and tell their stories to the reporter on board.) 

The series raises the fascinating possibility that the very profitable American mass media business model that grew out of the advertising-funded, populist circulation, inexpensively priced New York Sun of 1833 has been an aberration. The old business model was a smaller organization with greater ties to the community distributing more local news. A smaller audience was willing to pay enough so the newspaper survived. The question is, is that the old model or the normal model?

That said, the topics covered in the series are not new and are becoming part of the lexicon: The people formerly known as the audience. Citizen journalism. Everyone can be a publisher. Searching for a business model. All this has been happening for the past 10 years, and there's nothing new there.

We've said it better: Everything we thought we knew about journalism has changed: What's a news organization; who's a reporter; how's it distributed, and who's the audience.

So I can't imagine that there's a lot in the series that would give new ideas to many people. New specifics, but not new ideas.

But a fact in the series smacked me across the head as it always does when I run across it: 64% of users of the top 25 news sites in the U.S. visit the site ONCE A MONTH. That's the part of the business model that we ought to be talking about every day. That's far more important than the fact that we learned about Osama's death first from Twitter.

Does that 64% only visit a news site once a month because it is getting news every day or several times a week from newspapers, radio, TV and people they talk to? Or is a good part of that group completely tuned out of actively seeking news, except once a month? If so, what can we do about that?

(And let's stop asking why are people tuning the news out. We know the answers: too busy, too long of a work day, too many family/work responsibilities, nothing interesting to them, little that's local, little that an individual can do anything about, therefore an increased feeling of helplessness. Witness the debt ceiling debate. And on top of that, cutbacks in news staffs so there's even less of a chance that there's enough local news to warrant buying the newspaper.)

Here’s what I want to know: What's the strategy to reach that 64% with news they want and news that's profitable? Daily newspaper circulation and network television news viewing have  been going down for decades. We've had plenty of chance to listen to readers voting with their feet. But we haven't, because news organizations have been enormously profitable. Now they're simply profitable. Until they become unprofitable we won't see the changes we need.

The series missed what probably is the hope on the horizon: mobile news and information. It allows what we want: immediacy, personalization, multi-way communication, user contribution, social connections -- news and info we want, when we want it, wherever we are.

To me, this package says that as a group, newspapers still have not changed enough to think of themselves as news organizations, not newspapers. That's the first key to survival. Then you open the door to mobile and to whatever comes next. That's how you get away from every new strategy being one ultimately designed to defend the way we were. That's how you connect with the audience that's tuning you out.

Thanks to Gary for the above contribution. I agree on some of his main points:

-- The series, though well-written, isn’t tremendously new to those of us who have followed this since the rise of the digital age. Still, some of the facts “smack me across the head” as well. The pie chart showing American newspapers depending upon advertising for 85 percent of their revenues reminded me of a seminar, years ago, when I heard USA TODAY founder Al Neuharth asking circulation department leaders why they couldn't bear more of the burden of bringing in newspaper revenue. We got too hooked on advertising during the time when American daily newspapers were local printed news monopolies, making tons of money on classified ads. In the Economist series I saw that other industrialized countries developed more hybrid systems, where half the revenue (or even more, in Japan) comes from subscribers paying for the content. Those nations will see easier transitions to the digital age than America.

-- The second “smacking” fact, the one Gary discusses, is how the very large audience numbers of traditional news web sites masks a big problem of engagement. Our new VP of Journalism and Media Innovation, Michael Maness, former innovation VP at the largest newspaper company in the country, Gannett, is quite interested in this. While the overall audience size is one kind of metric, there are other, more important “engagement” metrics, such as return visits, time on site, content contributed, content shared, following links to other sites or advertisers. Ideas that help people move from being occasionally informed to regularly engaged are in demand. Ideas that help engaged readers move from one platform to another also are in demand.

-- The reference to “we said it better” has to do with basic mass communication scholarship during the 20th century, which broke down the communication process thus: journalist, story, medium, audience. The digital age, we argued at Knight Foundation, changed every single one of those industrial-age, assembly-line elements: Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium is appropriate and how to manage the two-way relationship with the community.

Gary absolutely hit the nail on the head with his criticism that mobile was not a big enough part of the series. I'll talk more about the series soon.

(Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, writes and speaks on journalism and media issues.)