Citizen Media Watch

november 18th, 2008

Will there be a dark period for journalism?

Posted by Lotta Holmstrom

Will we see the collapse of journalism as papers fail to take the step over from dead wood publishing? Or are we at a dawn of a smarter news industry? Opinions vary, and we take a look at what some are saying right now.

Joi Ito at SIME '08At SIME, Joi Ito expressed concerns that professional journalism journalism may perish.
– It would be very difficult for a blogger to get a military unit to fly them into Sudan to cover that in first-hand. It would also be very difficult when you write a scathing article about corruption in Singapore to fight the libel suit you get from Lee Kuan Yew and try to stay out of jail. Legal protection against libel suits and also heavily funded first-person war journalism, that’s going to be a while before amateurs will be able to deal with that, he said, and continued:
– I think that everywhere where we’re losing the revenues of physical distribution or transaction costs, whether that’s the financial markets affording analysts or whether it’s academic journalism affording peer review, all these professionals that used to be hired to deal with quality are being put out of business because the distribution can’t afford to pay those guys anymore, they’re all suffering from the same thing. I think bloggers and all the amateurs will pick up a bunch of that, but there’s still going to be this gap. I think it’s going to be a while before we get organized enough. And I’m afraid that professional journalism may collapse before we pick up, and there may be a kind of a ”dark period” when we can’t send people to Sudan or we don’t have the ability to fight against the biggotous people that we ought to be going after.

David Sifry at SIME '08David Sifry thinks the future of journalism lies within the blogosphere.
– I think we actually have a responsibility, given the fact that we are all disintermediating these big media companies, to make sure that we can find a way to help make sure that journalism survives.

Joi Ito and David Sifry in a panel debate about blogging and journalism during SIME 2008.

Joakim JardenbergYesterday, Joakim Jardenberg of Mindpark wrote a long blog post describing the steps necessary for a paper distribution-dependent local newspaper to make enough money online to be able to survive without the paper edition, should that be necessary. It’s in Swedish, so I’ll take you through his main points.

His solution has three parts: having enough visitors, knowing/keeping track of visitors and using advanced mechanisms to match them with advertisers. Like Jardenberg says, this is no rocket science and behavioural targeting is nothing new. But it hasn’t been evolved enough, and that’s why Jardenberg’s take is interesting. He gives an example with real figures from local paper Helsingborgs Dagblad, and he’s pretty convincing. They need a 40 percent share of the money spent on local advertising in their area to make it.
Though the solution can be explained in a few simple steps, those are not easy steps to take, and Jardenberg is aware of it. He lists these obstacles (my translation):

  • Technology isn’t quite mature enough. But with baby steps in the right directions we’ll make it in time.
  • Local sites might lose their relevance. Without an audience the revenue model collapses.
  • We might not have the stamina. This won’t pay off tomorrow. Count on 5-10 years to reach those 40% in a healthy way.
  • Our sales force is immature, we still sell paper ads online. Our main advantage, our local sales people, are also those who need to change the most.

Joakim Jardenberg's slide on HD's reach
A slide in a presentation by Joakim Jardenberg about the decline in Helsingborg Dagblad’s reach.

Jardenberg goes into more detail, and has interesting ideas about data collection and transparency, so if you’re interested, here’s a rough translation of the text through Google Translate. On the whole, he is optimistic about the future of journalism.

The death of local relevance, as mentioned by Jardenberg above, is one of two threats addressed by Jonathan Kay in a blog post at Canada’s National Post’s Comment section’s blog, Full Comment. Kay talks about saving the print media, but this could well be applied to local journalism on the whole.
Kay writes:

The breakdown of Canadians’ sense of community has also contributed to newspapers’ challenges. Slogging through stories about the people who share your city, your province or your country makes sense only if you feel a sense of emotional investment in your neighbours. But in a globalized age, an increasing share of Canadians don’t feel that way. As office-bound yuppies, they commune with their distant college-era friends using Facebook or email, but don’t know the names of the people they pass on their street.

Kay’s other point is the death of spare time. If people don’t have time to read, journalism is in trouble. Print even more so. The three types of print media that will survive are, according to Kay:

(1) Business-oriented media that cater to older, more affluent readers of the type who can justify the expense of long-form news consumption (in both time and money) as a work activity.

(2) Premium publications that cater to the ideologically involved and intellectually upscale

(3) The hyperlocal.

As Kay is talking about the survival of print, I am a bit surprised about his third point. I think hyperlocal is one of the areas where the web can bring so much more than a print product, as it’s all about communication and round the clock updates.
But then, hyperlocal sites are struggling. When Gitta and I talked to Joi Ito a few days ago, he said hyperlocal is failing because local businesses aren’t mature enough online. I think that’s a valid point, and I believe that once they mature and more and more people expect to find hyperlocal news online, this is a very interesting area.

My own take is that journalism will survive and come out stronger and better through this media shift, though it will take a few years of struggle. And it may not look exactly like it does today at the end of it. Which is probably a good thing.

Update: There’s a Swedish version of this text availble at Mindpark where we were invited to guest blog.


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