Friday, October 30, 2009

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

xxxIt’s time for editors, publishers, academics and foundations to pony up for serious, in depth and disciplined study of what consumers
Please, Alan, not another consumer survey. There are already enough consumer surveys to build a pathway across San Francisco Bay to replace the collapsing bridge. They are expensive, meaningless, and a waste of time. People with any sort of education know they are expected to read newspapers, and so respond accordingly whether they do or not. Obviously from the circulation figures, it is clear they are not.
My conclusion is what people want is like the Supreme Court pornography decision: they know it when they see it. I think they want real old-fashioned news that affects their lives, not features. And they want to read it in their newspaper first, not know about it already because they have read it online.

7:29 AM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

The usual suspects, eh? Who'da thought?

So, as is typically the case in large decision-making bodies (legislatures, etc.) the call goes out to conduct a study:

"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."

Not sure I'd place much faith in studies conducted by those who don't know the correct questions to ask. The solution(s) will come from outside that circle -- from "people we (you) don't know." That's for certain....

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While you were in your Harvard meeting, Robert Allbritton, owner of a Washington TV station announced he's hiring 50 people to run a Washington news site that aims at displacing the Washington Post. (He also runs Politico, a Web-based product that circulates a printed edition of 32,000 in the city that didn't exist a decade ago.) This goes to prove that if the old media doesn't want to change, entrepreneurs will come along to create the new media that will clean their clock.
I don't see all this as a "crisis" in journalism. Obviously, with Allbritton's efforts, there will be more journalism in Washington, not less. This alleged crisis is just that old, fuddy-duddy newspaper owners will not realize they must modernize. Technology has overtaken the one-time wealthy monopolies, and their days are now clearly numbered as their profits dwindle.

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gannett: Third quarter revenues of 1.3 billion, expenses of $1.2 billion. Profit: $100 million.

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the subject of "hearing from new people" I had a Knight News Challenge application that reached the penultimate round one year. A few weeks after the winners were announced I had the chance to talk to someone who judged that year's contest. This person told me I wasn't selected in part because "no one had heard of you."

If you have to be well-known in the news industry to win its big innovation prize, then they're screwed.

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

T Heller is right. There is no time for studies. They should have been done at least five years ago. And it's damning that they were not.

The industry is moving at a break-neck speed. Somebody, or lots of people, will hit on successful formulas.

And it's not going to be us.

Maybe we can pull a Hyundai, though, and copy the best answers and roll them out in time while we still have a reputation worth something in our local communities.

But do we have the management and resources to pull it off? We have resources, of course, but they are pointed in the wrong direction - toward maintaining current staffing and physical plant requirements.

We need wholesale change. I'm not counting on management to do it.

So my suggestion: study our newest competitors and steal from them as they roll out features. And hope our reputation serves us well.

11:07 AM  
Blogger DigiDave said...

Thank you for bringing up the age/race thing.

I am on the younger side and all too often I am the only young person at these discussions.

It isn't because young people aren't engaged or don't read the news.

It's because they are having their OWN conversation.

The two need to meet face to face to chat.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Mike Donatello said...

Wow, blog entries like this send me over the edge.

So the room is full of senior journalists, j-school types and assorted interested academics. Is it any wonder nothing was accomplished? And, BTW, who cares what participants' age, race or gender was? Last time I checked, individuals' quality of thought was not dictated by their physical characteristics.

Your first commenter displays his/her ignorance by assuming that the shoddy research with which he/she seems to be familiar is indicative of the full range of information that well done research can provide. Consumer and B2B research have yielded plenty of answers to our questions of survival. The industry's just been too myopic, greedy, etc. to pursue those answers to fruition.

I admit that I chuckled at this quote: "No competently managed business would think of taking such a haphazard approach to a challenge as potentially devastating as the press is facing today." I think you just answered your own question about how we got here, and from the nostalgic tone displayed in the post, the first commenter rode the train all the way into the station.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When your product is flagging in the market, time to examine what you are marketing ... Simple.

Truth and impartial real journalism will likely sell, just another left-wing parrot operation, probably not. What's that about being a real reporter -- who, what, when, why and how ... Just the facts, everybody has an opinion.

News is a product, people read what they want now, from those they trust. Journalist proved themselves untrustworthy ...

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had to laugh when I read anonymous #5 when he/she said, "So my suggestion: study our newest competitors and steal from them as they roll out features."

That's what got the newspaper industry into this mess in the first place. Most everyone copied the "industry leaders" and followed them into the worldwide web - just like lemmings off a cliff.

Bruce Wood

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The basic problem is no one has reframed what news is and really looked at what people want, which is information to help them make both small and big decisions in their life in a simpler and better fashion than currently. And beyond just providing information, helping people connect with each other and their institutions.

There are so many opportunities out there, it just amazes me how much whining and crying goes on while the low-hanging fruit continues to go unpicked. For example, how do people advertise and find out about garage sales today? Telephone Poles!! And occassionally with classifieds - yet to date no one has come up with a better solution, like providing people printable maps of all the garage sales in their areas.

For example, I'm in the early stages of developing a new approach that combines traditional editorial oversight with Web 2.0 tools to go after a growing $2 billion ad market, of which newspapers have less than a 10% share. Opportunities abound, they just require leveraging new technologies and approaches to achieve them
Kevin J Mireles

8:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

After 20 years as a full-time academic (Columbia GSJ), 19 books, numerous consulting gigs, etc. I find that the real data I carry into such meetings is simply unwelcome. Everybody KNOWS the Internet is stealing readers and revenue and that NONE or VERY LITTLE will come back to newspapers, should the recession ever end. everyone KNOWS that Craigslist is a key player in the demise of daily classified. It happened to me at Columbia -- where I pioneered the whole field of "analytic journalism" -- at an event just last week.

I have the data. They have (often ill-founded) opinions -- and opinions only. I think this management mindset is what got the industry into trouble in the first place.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Bradley J. Fikes said...

Gannett: Third quarter revenues of 1.3 billion, expenses of $1.2 billion. Profit: $100 million.

The operating profit from Gannett's publishing arm (the pertinent part for newspapers) is down 44 percent from a year ago.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Newspapers clearly have to invest in place- and time-specific ad vehicles -- think about what restaurants and movie houses would pay to fill empty seats with business from the newspaper's web operation, pushed to mobile phones that can compare where the advertiser is to where the consumer is at that moment.

And even if Kevin (or Chris Feola, among others) do the R&D, newspapers have to retrain ad salespeople and recalibrate compensation schedules.

Seems easier than to come up with entirely new business models. But so far, I've only run into brick walls.

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Katherine Warman Kern said...

"..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."

Here's an appetizer that may peak enough interest to get them to pony up . . . if someone with more gravitas than me would take this idea and run with it I'll help. There have been 115 hits on this page in a wk, but no one knows who I am so I don't have the trust to get people to share info. @stevebuttry, @howardowens, & @ginamchen have responded encouragingly.

Media is approaching this challenge with the same old "Throw it up there and see if it sticks" marketing school they've always used. It's going to take a little tantalizing peak to get them to invest in deeper study.

Katherine Warman Kern

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Dhyana said...

It is an interesting question - where would newspapers be if they never put their stuff online for free. The problem is, we can't go back to a place that no longer is.

So while it is true that newspapers might have made a mistake and damaged mid-term profits, it's fairly irrelevant now.

So is the answer to pull back from the Web all of the free content? Good luck trying! And that's just opening the doors to all the upstart competitors out there. It truly sounds like a very lousy long-term strategy to me.

The better answer is for newspapers to - hold your breath here - start hiring enough Web-savvy programmers to get new ad vehicles off the ground. Geography-based mobile ad vehicles. And to do it in a timely manner.

If you don't have the funds, then cut off a few limbs of your vast production operation somewhere that isn't making very much money to find the funds.

Newspapers have got to think long-term here. Technology should be our friend - not the enemy.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Dhyana is right of course -- I taught the first graduate-level new media courses in the country (1993-4) at Columbia. When the kids came out, they were snapped up by new media firms paying top dollar, with stock options. Newspapers? They isolated their web operations in non-union shops (thereby giving up the only natural advantage they had over the kid living above the drug store downtown) and paid peanuts.

Per-inquiry ads? Those were for losers... like (eventually) Google. And how do we pay the sales staff for them anyway?

But because of the recession, newspapers no longer HAVE any spare cash. It would be a great opportunity for a myriad of programmers and entrepreneurs to come up with ideas... and they have... but most of the newspapers they would franchise the ideas to, still seem to be clueless -- and devoid of responsibility to their communities.

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have professed for a couple of years now, that the people who were running the business end of newspapers when the recession came along, and did nothing out of the ordinary to rescue their own bacon, are imminently NOT qualified to think their ways OUT of this mess. Newspapers NEED new blood and new ideas, to recover from this. Same old- same old will NOT work.
Start by booting out the present publishers, and hiring the younger best and brightest.
GIGO is what you are seeing now. Its a different world now, and you MUST adapt without dropping the ball on quality journalism.
Bob O'Lary

6:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am no editor or publisher, just a consumer who works in the industry and I like to think of myself as young at under 40.

The product is simple information distribution.

The industry desperately needs to define consumer - but not what the consumer wants, because I believe this is where the problem begins and ends. Every consumer is unique.

I don't use one media source - if I can't find what I want on one website I use another - I am a whore - I have no loyalty and I really am not that interested in opinions and editorials - I just want the information I want, when I want it, and for free. Oh did I mention I want it on my laptop, my iphone, my blackberry and in print.

I would only pay if you are going to give me exactly what I want. Take a look around - is this not how almost every other industry works.

The internet has changed the world - the newspaper was once like a car - you had several makes and models but had to pick the one that best fit you. The internet has destroyed the model as I now get exactly what I want.

The industry needs to wake up and understand that the customer is always right and start making money off the delivery of content and unique editorial or local news that is unique.

Time to figure out how to tell me what I should know and how to tell me I do not know it yet and convince me to pay you.

8:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seconding the thoughts and adding to the commenter who started out with

"I am no editor or publisher, just a consumer who works in the industry and I like to think of myself as young at under 40."

Quote "saving" Unquote journalism really isn't the rocket science so many seem to be making it out to be. As someone who is in the middle of surgically changing a newsroom to operate as online first, print second -- and leading a project to take the news behind a pay wall -- I think the trouble is that:

A.) newsroom managers are so deeply rooted in legacy processes that they can't see how to make a transition. It's like writer's block for them. They want to make it happen, but they're staring at a blank screen, frozen.

B.) neither newsroom managers nor (I would argue) their counterparts on the dark side of the building have really had to think about the newspaper in a true business sense. For decades, consumers bought whatever the business put in front of them -- regardless of the quality. Advertisers walked in the door without prompting to place their orders -- regardless of the quality.

Asking a roomful of people who grew up in the industry working in this manner to change their mindset -- particularly on their own without guidance -- is asking for too much. Hence the getting old: "wistful thinking, seat-of-the-pants supposition and wild-ass guessing."

So solutions:

A.) Get some fresh blood involved in your discussions. There are people in your newsroom itching to become a news entrepreneur. They are probably young. They've spent half their career realizing that the news IS a business and thinking about how to make it work well. If they've spent time working in another industry -- i.e., a real business setting -- all the better. Pull them into the glass offices.

HINT: They aren't standing up in the newsroom raising their hands to do this. If there is one thing they've learned, it's that you don't really want their input. That will be your challenge.

B.) Be prepared for change and be willing to change. Your whole world is going to go upside down. It should go upside down. It needs to go upside down. Trying to ride the job out until you can safely retire and reminisce about newspapers as you knew them is not fair to your employees.

Need smaller steps? Here a few ideas:

If you're a newsroom manager:

A.) Look at how you utilize your staff's time. Should you send one of your better reporters to cover a canned "announcement" by the chamber of commerce -- or let them finish their examination of the local government's budget?

Better yet: Should you send anyone to cover that canned "announcement" or to follow up on that "breaking" press release?

To survive in this new world -- which doesn't have xxx amount of inches that HAVE to be filled -- we have to do real journalism: engage your readers, tell good stories that are relevant. This isn't reinventing the wheel. It's going back to the basics of good news judgment and good news writing.

B.) Look for efficiencies. Trust me. They're there. Do you have someone re-typing obituaries? Find out how much time that takes and how much it's costing you in their hourly wage and lost opportunity to be spending their time on, for instance, writing feature obits. Set up a system so you receive those electronically.

If you're on the business side:

A.) You aren't an order taker any more. You have to sell your product. What is it your advertiser is trying to accomplish? Now, how can you help him accomplish that.

B.) Think more like an advertising agency. We are in a highly competitive market for those ad dollars and we need to respond to that: Our creatives need to be more creative.

My two cents, anyway.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Amanda Kelly Crater said...

I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful post. I heard Jane Buckingham, founder of, speaking about new models of revenue for bloggers at the Green Bloggers convention hosted by EcoStiletto in LA last week. She was brainstorming about blog collectives where bloggers unite and a person can subscribe to say 5 and choose which ones (like magazine subscriptions). It was an interesting concept spurred by the same issue you are discussing here. I think it's fascinating what is happening with the press and with music and think of it more as an opportunity and shift rather than crisis. Great read, thanks again!

5:24 PM  
Blogger rotten apples said...

Forgive me for not taking the time to read each comment just to be sure I'm not repeating what has already been typed.

What *I* want in *MY* news, be it newspaper or through the media (television, Internet, etc.) is concise and all-sided INFO. I'm tired of the dramatic one-sided, heavily opinionated comments from every single on-air, online, and newspaper journalist giving their own label to a crime, a person, or anything and everything else. You know that old saying, "opinions are like a-holes"... with 'old' being the key.

When newspapers dig a little deeper and get all sides, when they leave personal speculation out of it and actually gather info--not just a journalist's personal opinion (my local newspaper is horrendous at this), then I will thoroughly enjoy reading a newspaper once again. I'm not putting forth a penny towards print when there's over 100 channels of the same crap on television.

11:42 PM  
Anonymous Steve Woodward said...

I'm late to comment on your excellent post, Alan, but I'm counting on the long tail to keep the discussion alive. I have two points to make:

First, young people have to be part of the solution. I'm a 30-year newspaper veteran who took a buyout to get into new media. I regularly seek out people in their 20s and 30s who are passionate about news and new technology, because they have insights I couldn't have imagined. The latest mind-blowing insight from one: "Blogging was before my time." That's how fast the world is changing.

Second, I've been to enough hand-wringing conferences on how to save newspapers to know that we spend too much time as journalists talking with one another. How can we ever achieve new insights with that self-defeating approach? The newspaper industry has lots of innovative approaches left to try. All it has to do is model itself on the technology world. I just wrote about this in a post, "10 more things newspapers can learn from the tech world."

Steve Woodward
CEO, Nozzl Media

11:41 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Follow Steve Woodward's link. Actionable advice. I disagree (sort of) on peaking of display advertising -- It seems to have peaked in 2006 but the pre-recession decline seemed to be in NATIONAL display, not local, and THAT line is blurred -- national coop money coming to local advertisers, "display classified," and so forth.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Steve Woodward said...

Thanks, Steve. I should have cited my source for saying local display ads have peaked. That comes from Gordon Borrell of Borrell Associates, who forecast earlier this year that local online display would peak north of $6 billion this year, then decline both in percentage and in dollar terms. I'm not sure what he bases his conclusion on, but you may have a point about local display.

David Sparks, a social media consultant, had an entertaining rant yesterday, "Putting Banner Ads Out to Pasture," in which he cited a ComScore study:

-- Number of people who click on display ads in a month has fallen from 32% of Internet users in July 2007 to only 16% in March 2009.

-- 8% of Internet users account for 85% of all ad clicks.

Of course, there's more to display than banners, and perhaps newspapers will find enough life in the old display horse to keep riding it. But I'm thinking a Plan B might not be a bad idea -- just in case.

4:05 PM  

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