Look Forward, Not Back

There are two distinct tracks of thoughts out there in the journalism world these days.  Simply put, one is looking back, longing for the past while the other looks with hope to the future.

The New York Times, a media institution definitely struggling with the future, ran an op-ed offering an idea that I’ve and heard now several times.  David Swensen and Michael Schmidt suggest abandoning the old business model and making newspapers into “ nonprofit, endowed institutions — like colleges and universities.”

“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, like that of America’s colleges and universities. Endowments would transform newspapers into unshakable fixtures of American life, with greater stability and enhanced independence that would allow them to serve the public good more effectively,” write the authors.

What an utterly fascinating idea.  One filled with possibilities for the future.

Contrast that with Gerry Storch’s blog posting on OJR entitled “Papers Must Charge for Websites to survive.

As another Web journalist just commented to me, Storch’s blog post would be a radical proposal —  if it was 1997.

Every now and then a blog/article/column pops up with the “we just have to make people pay for content and everything will be just fine.”  Then we get one isolated example and “all we have to do is do this.”  It’s an argument that is rooted in the past — past business models, past business practice, and, well, just the past.

Pandora aka “paying for content” is out of the box.  And, it’s not coming back.

In the summer of 1996, many major Web sites rushed onto the Web, fighting for the right to be ‘first.’  It was then that the decision (sometimes conscious, sometimes not so much) was made to provide content for free (with the exception of some, like the WSJ.)

Thirteen years later, that decision is coming to bear, but blog posts like Storch’s and others make it appear as if this business crisis with newspapers has just happened overnight. That’s just not the case. Newspaper publishers and business managers are paying for a lack of foresight, innovation and anticipation for more than a decade of sitting still and trying to maintain their large profit margins based on old models.

How news is consumed and delivered has changed radically over the past decade?  The business side of the operations have, unfortunately, not kept pace with the revolution.  The minute Craig’s List came on the scene, newspaper publishers should have seen the writing on the wall and been moved to action.

But, it’s not a time to live in the past. Coming up with new models is the way go. Be innovative. Be creative. Get outside the box. To paraphrase David Cohn, the found of Spot.Us, now is the time to experiment with different models. Only a handful these experiments may get traction but that is part of the new model as well.  We’re hoping to continue fostering such innovation here at UMass with such vehicles as Amherst Wire and an Entrepreneurial Journalism class.

Churning your wheels for ways to get people to pay for content? Well, we all long for the “good old days,” but they’re past.

Steve

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About journalismprof

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum. Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed three courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages -- using video, audio and photos to tell stories. He is also working with students on developing amherstwire.com, a news Web site staffed completely by students. Steve has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at washingtonpost.com. He also edits part-time for espn.com with the NFL and college football network.
This entry was posted in Amherst Wire, Business of Journalism, Convergence, Future of Journalism, Multimedia, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Look Forward, Not Back

  1. Dan Taylor says:

    Agreed. In today’s new media world, the old media is in freefall with no hope in sight. We’ve even heard the microtransactions argument batted around a bit in the online version of print media sites, but even if this could function, there’ll always be an upper tier that will pay for the content, and then immediately turn it around and publish it on their ‘free’ site, and garner the traffic for it.

    With that said – if the NYT (for example) could offer me exclusive content on my iPhone that I couldn’t get anywhere else, and could not forward or cut/paste to another publishing format…well, that might be something that I could get into.

  2. Dennis Vandal says:

    Here’s a little retro video from KRON-TV in San Francisco. Enjoy it as well as you can!! THEN….look forward!! http://tinyurl.com/dbdz2b

  3. Gerry Storch says:

    Well, here we are, nearly seven months later, and I discover myself on your blog.

    What do you think has happened during that time?

    Have newspapers become nonprofit, endowed institutions as you so fervently hoped for, calling it “looking forward?”

    Or are they … sweeping along via Messrs. Murdoch, Sulzberger and Brill … turning to the pay web site concept you so scoffingly derided me for supporting, calling it “looking back?”

    I hope that a journalism prof would know the answer.

    Am I gloating that I “beat” Steve in the prediction game? Of course I am.

    But … maybe if one huge foundation had decided to subsidize a failing paper, it might have started a trend, and Steve would be the one gloating right now.

    So I don’t have the faintest idea of whether the probable move toward pay sites will be enough to save newspapers. But I think they’ve got to try.

    As for your jibe that I thought the business crisis happened overnight, please. I and a bunch of colleagues at Gannett News Service received buyouts at the end of 2001 … a sign to me back then that our industry was starting to have trouble.

    Thanks for the advice to “be innovative, be creative.” I’m trying. My web site http://www.ourblook.com is working with … hold tight now … please don’t get the vapors when you read this … one of your colleagues … a journalism prof at the University of Iowa … whose students will be sending articles for us to post.

    I hope that’s enough to satisfy the Amherst trendies at least for a moment.

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