Tuesday, October 12, 2010

America's imperfect journalism: Still better than the rest

The newspaper business model that has served news consumers reasonably well for about a century is rapidly evolving into something new.

When that sort of disruption takes place, a lot of people from both inside and outside want to find a single solution. It’s more likely that America’s journalism landscape will be populated by a variety of business models that will include both traditional and new revenue sources.

In the early years of our country most newspapers were sponsored by political parties instead of relying on advertising and subscriptions for their income. The resulting crossfire infuriated the leaders of the time, from Washington to Lincoln and beyond.

As the number of political parties diminished, many newspapers disappeared and the survivors turned to other means for revenue, eventually settling on the basic formula in use today -- advertising and subscriptions. In the United States the mix is about 70 percent advertising, 20 percent subscriptions and 10 percent “other” (events, printing, etc.). In Europe it’s more of a 50-50 split and in many Asian countries it’s precisely the opposite of the U.S. : 80 percent subscriptions, 20 percent advertising.

Why the history lesson? First, while relying on advertising isn’t a perfect solution, it’s a lot better than relying on a political party, with its obvious issues. All media must have sustainable business models to operate, and where there’s money there’s the concern that journalism can be influenced. In many countries outside the U.S., taxes pay for a lot of the journalism. The imperfect American model is better than that.

As media of every sort attempt to find their way on the Internet, some are toying with the idea of relying on donations to operate -- the National Public Radio model. While it might work for a handful of organizations, it’s not the panacea some are hoping for.

Last fall, Ellen Weiss, NPR’s vice president for news, spoke to the Media Technology Summit at the Google world headquarters in Mountain View, California. I was privileged to attend the conference. Weiss made it clear that non-profit journalism has its limitations. Here are some of my notes from her presentation:
The NPR non-profit model has taken 35 years to build up. Essentially, she's saying, it's not as easy at is looks. Contributors are "members," not just contributors of cash. "It's an inconceivable degree of loyalty," she adds.
Good journalism is expensive, requiring skilled and experienced people spending the necessary time to gather and verify information and put it into the appropriate context. There’s a major disruption in the system that has paid for that journalism over the past hundred-plus years, and it’s likely that there will ultimately be multiple solutions.

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