Sur­vival of the rich­est

A new model for jour­nal­ism

Idealog - - CONTENTS -

THERE’S BEEN a lot of hokum talked in the last wee while about the demise of news.

The demise of news­pa­pers? Yes, although per­haps not ex­tinc­tion. Print re­mains a pow­er­ful medium.

The rise of click-bait over tra­di­tional is­sues cov­er­age in pop­u­lar media? Yes. The death of news? No. News-gath­er­ing will sur­vive, but it risks be­com­ing the pre­serve mainly of those who ei­ther need to or can af­ford to buy it.

If it weren’t for the fact that news con­sumers have al­ways had to fork out a cou­ple of bucks for a news­pa­pers, this could be de­scribed as a grow­ing pri­vati­sa­tion of news.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween this pri­va­tised news and the old kind is that the old kind tended to be very af­ford­able. When advertising rev­enue held news en­ter­prises to­gether, sub­scrip­tions and cover prices were low enough for news­pa­pers, at their best, to be a democratis­ing force in so­ci­ety.

Gov­ern­ment-funded broad­cast­ing has also long pro­vided a coun­ter­weight to pri­vately funded print and elec­tronic news media. Yet that is far less the case these days. There are pock­ets of se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism in public broad­cast­ing, but in­creas­ingly that role is fall­ing to Ra­dio New Zealand while free-to-air public broad­cast­ing strug­gles to find a prof­itable busi­ness model.

Mean­while, those who seek to know what is “re­ally go­ing on” are in­creas­ingly not only forced, but will­ing, to pay for high qual­ity news and in­tel­li­gence.

Per­haps the best ex­am­ple of this in New Zealand is the Energy News sub­scrip­tion-based news busi­ness, which charges play­ers in the energy sec­tor like a wounded bull for a ser­vice no­table not only for its ca­pac­ity to cap­ture the sec­tor’s minu­tiae, but for the qual­ity of its anal­y­sis.

Yet vir­tu­ally no one out­side the energy sec­tor is aware of Energy News or what it does.

Mean­while, New Zealand’s main­stream pub­lish­ers con­tinue to grap­ple with the tran­si­tion to a world in which news con­sumers have be­come ac­cus­tomed to re­ceiv­ing their news for free on the in­ter­net.

Some are com­mit­ting to a new type of dig­i­tal story-telling, bet­ting they will be able to drive traf­fic so­cial media-style, and sup­port their news-gath­er­ing with advertising.

Oth­ers will try to make pay­walls work, of­fer­ing a bare bones ser­vice out­side the pay­wall and a paid sub­scrip­tion ser­vice that will try to repli­cate the af­ford­able and there­fore democra­tised news of old.

Both will strug­gle. A clear win­ner may take years to emerge. Ex­e­cu­tion as much as strat­egy will de­ter­mine suc­cess. It’s pos­si­ble that both busi­ness mod­els will work.

How­ever, the like­li­hood is also that spe­cialised news, writ­ten by the kinds of ex­pe­ri­enced cor­re­spon­dents with a few years on the clock who used to be the bedrock of tra­di­tional news or­gans, will in­creas­ingly go be­hind pay­walls of their own mak­ing.

Spe­cialised sec­tor-spe­cific news has al­ways had an au­di­ence. How­ever it is the ca­pac­ity to pro­duce it at low cost while charg­ing for the ex­pe­ri­ence that un­der­pins the qual­ity of the con­tent, and this will be in­creas­ingly at­trac­tive both for in­di­vid­ual jour­nal­ists and groups of like-minded en­trepreneurs.

A lap­top, a cell­phone and a de­cent in­ter­net con­nec­tion are all a jour­nal­ist needs to­day to make a liv­ing. Thirty years ago, when my ca­reer started, you had to work for some­one who had enough money to own print­ing presses and a fleet of trucks to get the news to mar­ket.

These days own­ing – even un­der­stand­ing – the tech­nol­ogy is sec­ondary to the skill of un­der­stand­ing what news is, how to write it, and now, how to charge for it.

Jour­nal­ists need not fear that al­go­rithms can re­place the judg­ment re­quired to write a news story. Al­go­rithms will im­prove data col­lec­tion, but they don’t think for them­selves.

In other words, the ex­is­tence of a role for peo­ple who cre­ate news as a prod­uct is as­sured. What’s not clear is who will be able to af­ford to read the in­for­ma­tion they pro­duce.

How­ever, ev­ery in­dus­try thrives on in­tel­li­gence about com­peti­tors, col­leagues and the next big thing, and jour­nal­ists’ roles have al­ways been, at some level, to or­gan­ise that in­for­ma­tion in a com­pelling way.

Call it cu­ra­tion as much as the dis­cov­ery and broad­cast­ing of news­wor­thy facts. A vast mar­ket still ex­ists for peo­ple who need or want to know things about their ar­eas of in­ter­est and are will­ing to pay a trusted source to pro­duce that in­for­ma­tion. That takes skills and ex­pe­ri­ence to de­liver well. If news starts to take on the char­ac­ter of paid in­tel­li­gence, avail­able only to those who both need and are able to pay for it, where will that leave the per­son in the street who cares, can’t af­ford the ‘real oil’, and is left in a sea of free online pro­pa­ganda from any num­ber of in­ter­ested par­ties?

The best hope re­mains low- cost pay­walls for gen­eral news sites, which must suc­ceed if the prom­ise of jour­nal­ism as a vo­ca­tion, let alone a purely com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity, is to sur­vive.

Ev­ery in­dus­try thrives on in­tel­li­gence about com­peti­tors, col­leagues and the next big thing, and jour­nal­ists’ roles have al­ways been, at some level, to or­gan­ise that in­for­ma­tion way.” in a com­pelling

Pat­trick Smel­lie is a founder of the Busi­ness­Desk news ser­vice. He puts “hu­man cannonball” as his oc­cu­pa­tion on immigration forms. @pjs­mellie

Pat tr ick Smel­lie

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