Wild guesses won’t solve journalism crisis
The Harvard conference tasked with finding new business models for journalism had the impossible mission yesterday of trying to solve a problem no one had the language to describe, the tools to measure or the skills to fix.
In other words, the conference resembled the primitive study of physics before Isaac Newton invented modern calculus at the tender age of 23. Absent anything approaching Newton-esque insight, the gathering in Boston essentially came up empty handed despite the earnest efforts of the four-dozen invited participants.
Instead of systematically exploring invigorating new ideas or ground-breaking paradigms, the group gravitated to the predictable yadda-yadda: foundation funding, federal subsidies, subscription schemes and a smattering of random ruminations about revenue. (My tweets are here; extensive notes from Bill Densmore are here.)
The effort fell comfortably into the middle ground of the many similar efforts undertaken lately as the crisis in journalism grows. That means the gathering, like so many others, made scant progress toward solving the problem of finding future ways to fund anything approaching the generous number of dedicated and reasonably well-compensated journalists formerly fielded by the tottering mainstream media.
Maybe that’s because there is no way to do so and the system we know is destined to succumb, for better or worse, to some new order. But maybe the gathering couldn’t make much progress because it consisted for the most part of the usual suspects rehashing the usual positions on the usual topics.
With all due respect to my dedicated and talented colleagues, we need to try something different. Next time, we need to hear from people we don’t know, exploring things we don’t know about and examining potentially useful solutions we have yet to consider.
I was neither the first nor the only one in the room to note that the overwhelming number of conferees were white men well past the age of 45. This description most definitely applies to yours truly.
Apart from the obvious demographic skew in the room, the worldview among the participants appeared to be strikingly homogeneous, too.
When a speaker tried to make the point that young people today don’t read newspapers but might do so as they mature, someone asked how many in the crowd read newspapers when they were in college. Almost everyone in the room raised his hand and the group chuckled at the realization that we were hardly a random sample of even our own graying generation.
Given the absence of even a shred of research into modern consumer attitudes and the almost absolute lack of young people in the room, the best conferees could do was to discuss the behavior they observed in their children (or grandchildren).
Even those anecdotal observations were unreliable. An editor said she fussed so often at her daughter about the unread stack of papers at her college dorm that the young woman started grabbing one for her room any time she expected her mother to visit.
Wistful thinking, seat-of-the-pants supposition and wild-ass guessing are hardly the ways to address the multibillion-dollar business problem underlying the journalism crisis that threatens the health of our democracy.
No competently managed business would think of taking such a haphazard approach to a challenge as potentially devastating as the press is facing today.
It’s time for editors, publishers, academics and foundations to pony up for serious, in depth and disciplined study of what consumers want, what they need and how journalists and media companies can provide it.
The good news is that this sort of thing is done every day in universities and businesses. And the better news for us journalism majors is that you don’t even have to know calculus to do it.