Shifting journalism online

That journalism is inevitably moving online and increasingly detaching itself from the classic substrates of paper and broadcasting is by now a more or less universally accepted fact – despite the obstinate resistance that many legacy media organisations keep putting up. But what does this change process entail for journalism? And, more specifically, are there any specific ramifications for the coverage of European affairs?

To discuss these questions, I was kindly invited to join a panel at the Personal Democracy Forum Brussels on 31 May 2012. Next to moderator and conference organiser Alia Papageorgiou, I had the privilege to be joined by Alexandros Koronakis, director of the newspaper New Europe, who blogged about the event as well. Here is some background for what I tried to convey on stage.

Separating advertising from the media

I am completely with Clay Shirky, who wrote:

“A newspaper used to be both a profitable business and a public service, but this was just an accident of the competitive (or rather uncompetitive) media landscape.”

By historical concurrence, it just so happened that the demand for advertising was met by a limited number of mainstream media, such as newspapers, print magazines, and radio and television broadcasters. Markets, many of them local or regional, could only support one or two or sometimes a handful of newspapers, and the prohibitive cost of setting up a broadcast operation, combined with physical restrictions imposed by the airwave spectrum, made sure that natural oligopolies emerged. Advertising money, not to mention classified ads, had not much choice but to flock to these outlets.

With the advent and maturation of digital networks, this situation has thoroughly changed. In a widely noted, trenchant article, business journalist Michael Wolff put it like this:

“At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media.”

Doc Searls made a related point in a much earlier earlier post:

“Among all the revenue diets a company might have, advertising equates best with candy. Its nutritive value is easily-burned carbohydrates. A nice energy boost, but not the protein-rich stuff comprised of products and services that provide direct benefits or persistent assets.”

There simply is no limit to advertising space online, and anything that is in infinite supply is cheap. Indeed, prices for online advertising, measured in CPM (cost per mille, i.e., per thousand contacts) are declining constantly ever since the Web had its big break in the late 1990s. As a consequence, the operator of a website can make substantial ad money only by way of a disproportionately high audience reach. Look, for instance, at Facebook: With some 900 million active users, the company does not even generate €1 of revenue per user and quarter (ARPU). For comparison, consider that one of the leading nation-wide newspapers in Germany manages to rake in roughly €1,900 quarterly ARPU with as little as 360,000 paper copies sold per day.

Facebook also exemplifies yet another new predicament for advertising-supported journalism. It used to be that advertising could almost only appear in media – or, more precisely, arranged around packaged editorial content such as news or entertainment. Now, however, ads appear just anywhere: on the pages of an online store, dedicated classified ads websites, personal homepages, search engines – or Facebook, for that matter. As a result, journalism must contend with exponential fragmentation: The number of news outlets is increasing, and at a global level at that, while websites of all stripes compete for advertising budgets previously reserved for media in the narrower sense.

Separating journalism from the media

So where does that leave journalism? Media economist Robert G. Picard points out:

“The key to making emergent digital news providers sustainable may lie in the 18th and 19th century approaches to journalism, in which journalism was an avocation and not a profession (or at least only a part-time profession).”

If he is right – and I believe he is –, we might better redefine journalists and journalism. First, let us do away with the bloggers vs. journalists divide, as I have argued several times before. The good bloggers are now just as good as the good journalists (and indeed quite frequently identical with them). The remaining difference does not lie in the quality of their work, but in the way they typically earn their living. Many bloggers are experts in, and passionate about, their topics, but do not financially depend on their writing, while for journalists writing remains the primary source of income.

An argument that often comes up in this discussion is that professional journalists are bound by a code of ethics that requires them to be impartial, to publish only well-researched and dependable facts, and strictly to separate news and comment, whereas bloggers are just on the loose. (Never mind, for instance, the professional ethics of the journalists involved in the News International phone hacking scandal.)

But the real point is much more universal. Journalistic impartiality is indeed utterly necessary in a situation of mono- or oligopoly. Where you have only one or two broadcasters to choose from, or where you can buy only up to a handful of different newspapers, being able to rely on the neutrality and fairness of their reporting is certainly essential. The Internet has fundamentally changed that. One person may publish a biased or inaccurate article, but many others will take it upon themselves to comment, correct, or argue against it from their own point of view.

Correctness and dependability of information in the realms of news and current affairs are now, or have at least the potential to become, functions of the sheer plurality of available sources. That for such online pluralism carefully crafted political, technical, regulatory, and educational framework conditions are vital is another topic.

Commoditising robonews

Coincidentally, in the very near future we will no longer depend on actual human reporters to deliver factual news. Already today, computer algorithms are capable of drafting sports or business news that make sense and are perfectly readable. Automatic news summarisers have been around for quite a while as well. It is only a question of time until the machines take over all the tedious and essentially boring day-to-day drafting of news. They will deliver in real time articles on anything that is based on structured information and data – from a European Council press release to the casualties in a disaster, from traffic statistics to new scientific discoveries.

I agree that this is scary, and that we need to find a way to keep the algorithms in check and mitigate in current affairs coverage risks such as we are already experiencing today on the stock market. Nonetheless, the upside of robonews is that they may free up human journalists and bloggers, or bloggalists, to do what they do best: Make sense of the big picture, motivate people into action, and discuss the meaning and importance and consequences of things. Analysis sells at a premium anyway, and could thrive even more in a world of abundant, dirt-cheap, ubiquitous, and deep-digging news.

For love or lucre?

The Picard diagnosis quoted above suggests that a good part of future journalism will be based on volunteer work – or on employers tolerating that staff members devote a fraction of their time on the clock to journalism (in essence, that has been the approach of academia all the time anyway). I think this is very likely indeed, seeing that a substantial part of today’s quality blogging is created exactly in such a manner.

However, that might not be enough. For the time being, there will remain demand for a number of of agenda-setting mainstream media, functioning as generators and aggregators of relevant journalistic content while lending credibility, visibility, and relevance to their featured stories. Such organisations can hardly be run by volunteers and part-timers. But what kind of funding sources remain once advertising fades out?

Three main pillars come to mind:

(1)  Paid subscriptions. Even though paywall experiments of newspapers so far were not overly successful, there still is a market for quality journalism. If the product is useful, easily usable, and convenient to come by, some users will be ready to pay for it. Of course, as Clay Shirky has pointed out, they will be few and far between, much scarcer than the mass of people who used to buy newspapers for a host of reasons other than political coverage (such as cartoons, celebrity gossip, crossword puzzles, coupons, and so on).

(2)  Third-party funding. Increasingly many philanthropic foundations are bankrolling journalism, as are governments, companies, and all kinds of interest groups. The resulting journalism culture is, of course, fraught with risks. In order to enable journalism in the public interest and avoid PR and propaganda, strong firewalls must be pulled up between journalists and their outlets on the one hand, and the donors on the other. But still, why shouldn’t someone with a stake in a particular topic actively encourage that it be covered?

(3)  Public service media. Despite many issues in detail, the Scandinavian, UK, and German models of public broadcasting broadly succeed in producing a relevant amount of independent quality journalism. Yet broadcasting is just as moribund as newspapers. Hence, based on tried and tested experience, the public service remit should be extended to journalism no matter what the medium. At the same time, public service media must retain an appropriate institutional set-up and mode of financing to safeguard journalistic independence and support fair salaries for reporters and editors.

I will follow up on the European angle in my next post.

Thanks Flickr user Filippo Minelli for the photography.

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