Journalism is still letting revenue models slip away: my greatest fear for the future of news
Revenue models for local journalism are still quickly being siphoned off from prospective journalism creators of the future.
We’ve had no shortage of hand-wringing around the future of news in recent years. As I see it, simple access to news and information won’t be the problem of the future, since publishing keeps getting easier which adds to the number of sources (though creating the infrastructure to have a broad set of common facts locally might be. Still that’s another issue for another post).
Instead, I am far more concerned about the future of local journalism. (I am not talking about international war reporting or national politics, as those audiences can be relatively so large that I trust in niche players, like Propublica and the New York Times finding a foothold). Instead, I’m talking about state houses, city halls, niche communities and neighborhoods.
The loss (or failure to recreate) journalism in those places is my greatest fear for the future of asking tough questions and what professionally keeps me awake at night more than almost anything else.
First, a definition: by local journalism, I mean asking hard questions. Sure, that means overseeing the city budget, but I also think it means neighborhood blogs and community newspapers making people think about where they live or niches being pushed on their perceptions. I believe this is journalism and this and this, even if they didn’t include secret leaks or hidden documents.
In short, news is the transference of information and people will always do that. Journalism is the act of asking tough questions and offering coverage that might piss somebody off because it comes down on a point. I believe there is a less inherent expectation that that should exist — though I think it offers invaluable importance and, unlike, say, dinosaurs, could adapt and survive.
So, though we at Technically Philly do plenty of soft coverage of technology businesses and groups, I’d argue we have journalism DNA because, though our business model doesn’t require it, we feel like a major part of our brand, our value, and, yes, our responsibility is to, from time to time, take the long view: cover the trend, point out the problem, ask a question and be told we shouldn’t.
In even our short business profiles, if something looks off, we’ll say that. My bias — coming from a world that thinks pushing is valuable — suggests, then, that I think we’re doing it right. I think we’re the good guys. Of course I do.
We’ve hurt chances to make money — sell sponsorships, gain advertisers — and I take that as a source of pride and sign of right-walking. But, of course, not everyone does that. And why would they?
Because publishing keeps getting easier, more and more people who do not share that worldview — or who have been removed from it — are doing acts of reporting without the journalism. Or they otherwise play the traditional role of community middle man without paying mind to the responsibility to call out transgressions, misdeeds or even simple shortcomings.
Think of it this way: the history books will likely read that newspapers (or more precisely the journalism-infused organizations that happened to print newspapers) died because they failed to recognize what business they were in (ultimate community information middle man) and so paid no mind as craigslist and Monster.com ate classifieds revenue, couponing went viral, an explosion of web properties bottomed out web advertising and more.
As we continue the development of an online news ecosystem that will rely heavily (for the near-term future) on independent, niche news communities, it occurs to me that this is happening all over again.
Every day, new revenue opportunities that fit the mission of potential local journalism creators are being filled by organizations without journalism DNA. In the wide open world of online publishing, there has been a great gold rush, and I fear we’re closer to another tightening of that market than its beginning, so journalism outfits that could be independently sustainable are losing the game without knowing they could be playing.
Indulge me in using a personal experience as an example.
To succeed as a valuable news resource, Technically Philly should be at the center of Philadelphia’s technology and entrepreneurship community. So we organize (and make revenue from) Philly Tech Week, a wide-ranging, event-driven annual celebration of innovation here. We have a little jobs board that does halfway well. We sell sponsored posts and underwriting to organizations that want to reach our audience, which we feel we’ve cultivated by mixing our brand of early reporting and, yes, we hope, by asking questions others don’t.
But our ‘competition’ is everywhere and is not just in media.
Instead, our competition is anyone who is trying to cultivate a similar community at as broad a scale as we are, particularly those who are doing so without the weight of pissing people off or writing about subjects that others might avoid.
Let me offer some examples, after I make clear that these examples are all groups I like and respect (and with whom I collaborate and will continue to do so) but that worry me for taking a profitable slice of an otherwise meaningfully-balanced pie (think newspaper classifieds being lost so its City Hall coverage isn’t as robust).
Here are five examples of Technically Philly competitors that are likely (in some ways) advantaged by avoiding the journalism ethos:
Wait, I’m going to do another preface first (because I know Eric Smith is going to give me a hard time): when we broaden the idea of competition (and just about anyone becomes ‘competition’) it is easier to also see everyone as collaborators. In the spirit of community reporting, we a Technically Philly collaborate with all those listed below (and many others) and will continue to do so. I list these simply to convey how broad journalism creators need to see competition.
- Published by Issue Media Group, which has a dozen similar sites in other markets, Flying Kite is a nice, weekly email magazine about the region’s creative economy and has since added a dedicated technology reporter to its cadre of contributors. It is funded largely by underwriting from economic development organizations that appreciate Flying Kite’s exclusively positive portrayal of the region. It’s valuable boosterism that actually does good work (I like the product and am friendly with its staff), but it is completely void, I’d argue, of journalism. It will never push anyone to think differently or uncover anything other than a press release faster than someone else. It sells positive news to positive thinkers. Though I assume its audience is smaller than ours and presumably less passionate, in the shadowy world of web metrics, I’m not always sure funders recognize that (in which case it’s a failure of mine).
- Launched more than a year before Technically Philly began by a pack of Phila-phile entrepreneurial types, Philly Startup Leaders is a self-identifying, listserv-driven community of local entrepreneurs. They organize well-attended, clear-cut events that help people do business together, with lots of sensible sponsors that get involved for a spirit of camaraderie and mutual, local awareness. We cover them and their members a lot at Technically Philly because it’s full of really smart, engaged, cool people. I have very close source relationships with much of its leadership and top members. It’s almost always one of the first stops of new entrants to the local startup scene, and its membership is made up of some of our most loyal readers: civic-minded, entrepreneurial technologists. It’s also seen as the logical hub of entrepreneurial thought, though its mission assures it will be inclusive/un-discerning, positive/promotional and collaborative/meandering. They’re a big part of jump-starting the community in Philadelphia.
- Run by some of my favorite Philadelphians, Geekadelphia is a fun, funny, wildly popular local geek culture blog. It has a real following and maybe better traffic than TP. Local gadgets, quirky events, video game and movie reviews and anything that interests its deep and committed contributors (all of whom do so for love and not salary) make up the content of one of the best liked online communities in Philadelphia. Its co-founder (and one of my better friends) Eric Smith has only recently even thought about its revenue capabilities (after years of me pushing him on it). Yet, for years, sponsors have thrown cash, swag and more their way. And of course they have: if you had a product to push, wouldn’t you prefer the perennially positive pack of non-threatening, Philly-loving geeks over someone who might piss someone off? After an aborted attempt at partnership a couple years ago, Smith and crew are behind the delightful Philly Geek Awards, an annual, wildly fun romp that will happen for the second time in August and I am actually already awaiting. They’re selling tickets, and I bet they sell out.
- Organized locally for the first time last week by an NYC company, UNCUBED is, PR and beer aside, a straightforward and well-organized tech startup jobs fair. It’s dead simple and absolutely necessary, and an idea we at Technically Philly briefly rushed to organize for last Philly Tech Week but failed to execute, a logical extension to our quietly useful niche jobs board. It charges startups to get access to a big crowd of potential applicants, and so connects a community in a different, narrow but vitally valuable way.
- Started by a bright Wharton student, Philly Tech Meetup is a well-attended monthly event series that has a few new tech startups (mostly, though not all local) demo their products, in the model of popular D.C. and NYC versions. Driven by a 2,000-person strong Meetup.com group, the effort purports to be broadly representative of the region’s technology community, and surely it is genuinely a valuable asset for a growing entrepreneurship set. Like its similar groups in other markets, it has brought on sponsorship from patent and IP law firms, which conveys how its slice of the technology conversation is the most profitable — there’s money there in a way that just doesn’t exist in covering digital access or government reform conversations, which we consider vital to the urban revitalization picture. It’s a monthly cheerfest, but one that its attendees almost universally adore and clearly offers genuine value as an in-person platform for unveiling products to early adopters and interested parties.
With all of my biases and self-indulgences clearly on display, I believe that our technology community and, yes, maybe even Philadelphia would be (slightly) worse off if a combination of these groups above would ‘win’ and Technically Philly would lose.
I want to be clear here: again, I actually really appreciate the aforementioned organizations, and, to date, we’re doing rather well at TP, but I say this to make a point: Every other local news site in the country that combines journalism with reporting is also facing the same challenges, yet I fear too few recognize it.
Here are some examples of what comes to mind for other journalism-like organizations missing out on better funding its work:
- PlanPhilly and Hidden City are real estate news sites that mix ‘development porn’ with important conversations about the state of how Philadelphia gets built. (PlanPhilly, for which, full disclosure, my company is doing revenue consulting, has deeper pockets and so does larger investigations but both have this journalism DNA). Real estate agencies are offering shallower (but certainly interesting) offerings and trade groups are rethinking how they can connect with membership. They’re making money but rarely, if ever, taking the hard look that the others do. I want that in the future, and so I’d rather them absorb the easier, softer, more profitable utilities relevant to their communities.
- The Inquirer City Hall bureau and investigative reporting team have never been supported with technologists and app developers, so stand-alone projects that offer intrinsic reporting value, in addition to consumer interest (and would be easy opportunities for sponsored content for relevant players), are being developed at hackathons, in basements and at startups. There appears to be absolutely no unique local experimentation with how to fund important question-asking outside of philanthropic support.
- Public media organization WHYY is rethinking its web strategy with NewsWorks and deserves credit for it (full disclosure, I have close relationships with members of the WHYY staff and was recently asked to join its community advisory board), but its at-times conservative leadership, in-the-box focus on traditional content types and radio-focused inverted-pyramid news style has meant that edgy new community-based programming has exploded online (see: DowntheShow, Scrapple TV, POPPYN, Project Open Voice) without them, ignoring the chance to attract a fresh, different kind of audience or to leverage its TV station or opportunity to create and sell nationally new radio programming (or to rethink its relationship to groups like Philly CAM, MiND TV, etc.). It’s notably trying the hyperlocal gamut though I wonder how the revenue building compares to “competitors,” and, gosh, its Old City event space has always seemed like an opportunity to take a lesson from the Science Center about the value of more regularly creating and profiting from its own events, which also results in showcasing the space for potential renters.
- Every little hyperlocal blog or neighborhood news site that sits back and watches (admittedly civic minded and volunteer-based) community groups and associations organize annual festivals and meetups are missing out on opportunities to better fund important questions and information. Yes, you can serve the community good and also find opportunities to support your work, which should be seen as its own form of community good too.
In journalism, we are all still moving too slowly — myself included — and not fully recognizing how wide-ranging the competition is. To be blunt, all the above examples filled a valuable hole (that’s why they’re succeeding), and so we all could have embraced them sooner than others — just like how craigslist was a phenomenon before most newspaper executives pulled the alarm.
So what do we need to do about it?
- Infuse journalism DNA in the organizations taking a more profitable tack — Mission-minded nonprofits and shallower news reporting sites strike me as low-hanging fruit for media critics and journalism junkies to push. But why shouldn’t the ethos of asking tough questions be encouraged in any community convener?
- Press the gas on profit-minded entrepreneurial journalists — We need to be hungrily competing in the online-based world of revenue with not just other media but with all the other groups that are more likely the direct competition. We should think about how our role is the community middle man and sell more popcorn. Be lean.
- Know what journalism does and doesn’t do — Too often journalists get too high on their own value, which results in communities ignoring the value altogether. Journalism doesn’t make civilization go around and at its worse, it can be destructive, catty and self-indulgent, but at its best, it makes our communities smarter, adapt more quickly and embrace more fully. It’s not the answer (no one needs us, so we shouldn’t act like they do), but it’s a contributing factor to success, so let’s act like it.
- Accept failure and go harder — For the TP competition examples shown above, I want to reiterate that it is no one’s fault but my own that others had success in our similar market. They found a way to better attract the market — by ditching the negativity — so it’s a failure of mine to have not beaten them there in our way. Regardless, the value of the market is that we have to continue to adapt or fail. That’s the best of capitalism, so long as journalism organizations know the rules.
- Remember the value that journalism offers our organizations — I write extensively above of how journalism holds us back, by pissing off potential funders or by encouraging us to offer angles that might make others less supportive. It’s wildly important that we remember, embrace and, yes, broadcast the value journalism organizations provide: not just by selling it as a charity case, but by also noting that it often results in a savvier, more passionate audience and that, well, journalism tends to offer a level of soul that PR engines don’t. That’s why journalism organizations can offer value above our peers that are perhaps seen as easier profit sells.