Journalism as a business is failing, not a particularly new message but one that was driven home by last night's SuperMondays "Local and Hyperlocal" event.
Speakers from Addiply, Keep Your Eyes Open and JesmondLocal all lined up to deliver the same story of falling readership figures for traditional print media and the subsequent reduction in advertising revenues that have led to many newspapers running at a loss or closing their doors entirely. The resulting shift to online distribution channels has gotten off to a shaky start and doesn't seem to be profitable for most people either, so what is the answer?
Addiply was introduced by the CEO, Rick Waghorn, who has developed a site to connect local advertisers with local web based content producers. This allows locally focussed websites to carry better targetted advertising and retain a good portion (90%) of the revenue generated. However, this just feels like "more of the same", an ad supported business model that only works for a small number of businesses with very high page views. Whilst this could be the basis of a successful business for Addiply it didn't sound like it was providing a large enough revenue for sites like JesmondLocal to make them sustainable businesses.
Stephen Noble talked about his site Keep Your Eyes Open which is "The North East’s Arts and Culture Dispatch". KYEO is producing some great content and making clever use of the tools at it's disposal to create good quality video articles. However, as Stephen disucussed, the KYEO side of the business does not turn a profit and relies on repurposing the skills of the company to offer corporate video production services to remain viable. Maybe this is it, maybe the future of journalism is as a loss leader for other services. KYEO have been able to successfully showcase their video production skills and develop a business selling them to corporates but based on his talk Stephen's passion is journalism rather than making coroporate videos.
JesmondLocal was started by ex-Guardian journalist Ian Wylie to provide a "‘hyperlocal’ news service for the people who live and work in Jesmond". The site does a great job of reporting on local issues and carrying out the 4th estate role of journalism by keeping local democracy in check. The production of JesmondLocal is achieved using a small army of student and local volunteers which is a great accolade for local collaboration and community building but it doesn't offer a sustainable business model for the future of journalism. It sounds like this year Ian is going to be getting the latest crop of student intake to look more closely at ways to make journalism pay which will hopefully lead to some radically new business models.
The facts that traditional media is struggling to survive and that very few people are making online journalism pay are nothing new but I was surprised at the lack of radically new ideas coming from journalists who are trying to come up with new models. There seemed to be a general consensus that this is just how things are and that they will get much worse before they get better. There was some support for public funding for journalism but little agreement on what form that would take or who should receive it and in any case a business based on politically vulnerable public funding is always going to be built on shaky foundations.
One of the core themes that came through during the event was that society needs organisations that we can trust to provide news and that this needs to be paid for, somehow. In reality I am not sure that people really do trust organisations though. Instead people tend to trust people (not faceless organisations), who behave consistently and with integrity and maybe building this trust could be one route to a sustainable business for some journalists. I know that most of the content I consume on a daily basis comes from individuals that I trust and that produce content I am interested in. For example, people like Seth Godin consistently produce free content and have built decent size audiences and huge amounts of trust. I would be interested to know if anyone is already trying this approach in journalism, ie. building an audience by giving content away and behaving in a consistently trust worthy way and then occasionally releasing a more substantial piece of paid for content.
It feels like we need to spend some more time thinking about how people really want to consume content and how they are already consuming it. With the rise of sites like Instapaper and the use of RSS feed readers and eBook readers people are not consuming content on the original publishing site anymore. Instead people are choosing to access content without branding or advertising in increasingly innovative ways as demonstrated by this post from Scott Hanselman. The challenge then, is how to engage with those readers and turn them into loyal fans - *hint* the answer isn't more advertising.
I don't think the issue is a lack of quality content as one commenter suggested during the Q&A session. The quality of content is better than ever if you know where to look and how to curate. I also don't think that the answer is content being displayed in increasingly novel ways like this Pictchfork/Bat For Lashes example as the novelty soon wears off and becomes a distraction from the actual content.
It is clear that nobody has the answers yet but what is also clear is that far more radical thought is required to come up with sustainable business models for journalism. Any ideas anyone?