Journalists have always been a little too ready to write the story behind the story, which is to say, we devote a disproportionate number of column inches to covering our own industry. Stories devoted to the rise and fall of the short-lived Talk magazine alone could fill a small town library. This all seemed like so much self-obsessed froth until last fall, when the news of our own demise seemed, suddenly, not so premature. As ad revenues plunged and venerable papers began declaring bankruptcy or shuttering their print operations, the navel gazing took on considerable gravitas: How do we save ourselves?
Over the last several weeks a number of possible answers to that question have been put forth. I moderated a roundtable in Boulder that will touch on the future of media, among other questions, and I thought it might be useful to try to organize some of the most prominent voices in this conversation into some sort of order. It's worth noting that the mere fact this debate is taking place is a positive sign. I spent much of my time at Wired chronicling the decline of the recording industry, which seemed intent on marching silently into its own dark, digital night. So we in journalism at least have our very public self-regard going for us. Below pls find an incomplete reading list on the future of journalism:
Start with "End Times," Michael Hirschorn's piece from the January issue of The Atlantic Monthly. He set off a firestorm by pondering—persuasively—whether The New York Times could go out of business as early as this May, and what form a world without the Grey Lady might take. "Ultimately the death of The New York Times—or at least its print edition—would be a sentimental moment, and a severe blow to American journalism. But a disaster? In the long run, maybe not."
With this dystopian vision in your head, you'll want some reassurance. Pick up historian Jill Lepore's New Yorker essay, "Back Issues: The Day the Newspaper Died," to be reminded, as Twain said, that while history doesn't repeat itself, it does rhyme. "The last time the American newspaper business got this gothic was 1765, just after the first gothic novel."
The "Micropayments" Argument:
On January 12 the New York Times media columnist David Carr proposed a novel solution to the newspapers' dilemma: Create an iTunes for news content. In summing up the music label's complaint about Apple, Carr writes: "Those of us in the newspaper business could not be blamed for hoping that someone like [Jobs] comes along and ruins our business as well by pulling the same trick: Convincing the millions of interested readers who get their news every day free on newspapers sites that it's time to pay up."
And then a few weeks later no less a luminary than Walter Isaacson endorsed the broad strokes of such an effort in a Time Magazine cover article. "Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day's full edition or $2 for a month's worth of Web access. Some surfers would balk, but I suspect most would merrily click through if it were cheap and easy enough."
Sounds reasonable, right? Well, no, reasons Clay Shirky, it doesn't. First, he points out that the term micropyaments doesn't even apply, as it refers to payments measured in cents or even fractions thereof. More importantly, it just wouldn't work: "Such systems solve no problem the user has, and offer no service we want. As a result, conversations about small payments take place entirely among content providers, never involving us, the people who will ostensibly be funding these transactions."
And then there was a simultaneous debate occuring over another proposal altogether: Having newspapers mimic non-profit institutions like universities.
The Endowment Argument:
Yale Chief Investment Officer David Swensen and financial analyst Michael Schmidt got the ball rolling on January 28th in a New York Times op-ed entitled, "News You Can Endow." The authors argued that "by endowing our most valued sources of news we would free them from the strictures of an obsolete business model and offer them a permanent place in society." It lent the imprimatur of two respected financial minds to a topic that's been discussed in newsrooms for several years.
Later that day New Yorker writer and former Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll weighed in with some compelling math: "If the Washington Post had a $2 billion endoment, it would be able to fund a very healthy newsroom. And this is before revenue from continuing operations—advertising, circulation, etc. ..."
But this prospect comes with its own considerable problems. Coll returned to the subject a few days later to address some of the concerns brought up in the wake of his original post. For one, there's a limit to the amount of philanthropy dollars available to news organizations—and some of that is already going to support innovative newsrooms like the nonprofit Voice of San Diego. Slate's respected media critic Jack Shaefer poured some cold water on the endowment idea on February 3, pondering why, if these news-gathering institutions are so vital to 'our democratic constitutional system' (Coll) ... not enough paying customers can be found to support them. "There's something disconcerting about wanting to divorce the newspaper from market pressures." This argument received a lot of traction in the blogosphere, whose members would like to see newspapers innovate their way out of their struggles. Easier said then done.
As for me, I have my own, somewhat half-baked idea: Collective licensing. These are generally mentioned in the context of the music industry, the general outlines of the proposal being that ISPs would collect some small monthly sum from its subscribers that would then be doled out to the labels based on complicated formulas relating to usage. The smart money is on collective licensing as the only route to sustaining a label in a world that shows no decline in illegal file-sharing. Which isn't to say it's gained much traction—outside the Isle of Man anyway. I wonder if such a program might be the way to support Internet content broadly.