Toward a new ecology of journalism

I managed to irk pretty much everybody with my post Citizen journal breaks a heroic story. Shelley Powers and David Kearns both took issue with the “citizen journalism” concept. Shelley said it doesn’t work, and David pleaded “for the demise of that horrible ‘citizen journalist’ meme”. Liz Straus, who pointed me to the story in the first place, said “Aw Doc, why the focus on citizen journalism and not the focus — as David point’s out — on the oral history that’s been happening since time began?” More than one comment gave David Armano a hard time for apparently preferring to report via Twitter and blog, rather than through mainstream news media. David himself weighed in with good answers to his critics, and added, “This isn’t real journalism and I don’t think anyone would claim it to be (I wouldn’t). It just demonstrates that the average person can tell a story from there perspective. I was there, I saw what I saw and told that story. That’s all.”

But is it?

“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”, Linus’s Law says. But we have to do better than just de-bugging posts like David Armano’s and mine. The mainstream media never had enough eyeballs, or time, to do a job that was even close to ideal. And now, as advertising money and eyeballs both flood over the banks of mainstream media and out through the surrounding jungle of blogs, twitters, cell calls, text messages and countless other outlets for information, we clearly need to think afresh about re-institutionalizing the means by which we get trustworthy news to each other, and how we then debug and interpret it along the way.

We’ve not only hardly started to build the new (or renewed) institutions we require; we barely have a common understanding for what we’re doing in the meantime. “Citizen journalism” sounds right to some, “horrible” to others. Blogs are journals in the literal sense, but few carry the same breed of responsibility long ferried by major newspapers and magazines. (Although fate may put bloggers in that position from time to time.) While we debate whether or not new media authors practice “real journalism”, the need to report What’s Going On not only persists, but has more means than ever.

This is why I’ve lamented the dying not only of local newspapers, but of full-service local radio in most smaller U.S. cities, and the failure thus far of everybody (bloggers, public radio, you name it) to fill the void. Old acts are failing and new acts are not fully together.

Earlier this year Dan Gillmor and JD Lasica put together five basic Principles of Citizen Journalism (accuracy, thoroughness, transparency, fairness, independence) that should refresh veteran journalists while educating rookie ones. We also need new institutions where these kinds of principles can be practiced. And new practices where these principles can be institutionalized.

If you’re looking for a good cross-section of possibilities here, check out JLab and the Knight-Batten awards, which are given to worthy efforts in constructive journalistic directions.

While all these are good, the larger trend to watch over time is the inevitable decline in advertising support for journalistic work, and the growing need to find means for replacing that funding — or to face the fact that journalism will become largely an amateur calling, and to make the most of it.

This trend is hard to see. While rivers of advertising money flow away from old media and toward new ones, both the old and the new media crowds continue to assume that advertising money will flow forever. This is a mistake. Advertising remains an extremely inefficient and wasteful way for sellers to find buyers. I’m not saying advertising isn’t effective, by the way; just that massive inefficiency and waste have always been involved, and that this fact constitutes a problem we’ve long been waiting to solve, whether we know it or not.

Google has radically improved the advertising process, first by making advertising accountable (you pay only for click-throughs) and second by shifting advertising waste from ink and air time to pixels and server cycles. Yet even this success does not diminish the fact that advertising itself remains inefficient, wasteful and speculative. Even with advanced targeting and pay-per-click accountability, the ratio of “impressions” to click-throughs still runs at lottery-odds levels.

The holy grail for advertisers isn’t advertising at all, because it’s not about sellers hunting down buyers. In fact it’s the reverse: buyers hunting for sellers. It’s also for customers who remain customers because they enjoy meaningful and productive relationships with sellers — on customers’ terms and not just on vendors’ alone. This is VRM: Vendor Relationship Management. It not only relieves many sellers of the need to advertise — or to advertise heavily — but also allows CRM (Customer Relatinship Management) to actually relate, and not just to capture and control.

As VRM grows, advertising will shrink to the the perimeters defined by “no other way”. It’s hard to say how large those perimeters will be, or how much journalism will continue to thrive inside of them; but the sum will likely be less than advertising supports today.

The result will be a combination of two things: 1) a new business model for much of journalism; or 2) no business model at all, because much of it will be done gratis, as its creators look for because effects — building reputations and making money because of one’s work, rather than with one’s work. Some bloggers, for example, have already experienced this. Today I have fellowships at two major universities, plus consulting and speaking work, all of which I enjoy because of blogging. The money involved far exceeds what I might have made from advertising on my blogs. (For what it’s worth, I have never made a dime of advertising money by blogging, nor have I sought any.)

On the with effects side — money made with journalism, rather than because of it — perhaps the new institutions of journalism will become more accountable as journalism’s consumers pay its producers directly. I don’t know how we’ll get to that, but it will necessarily involve VRM, and I would love to help build it.

One sure thing: a primary building material for the future institutions of journalism will be the work of amateurs sort, the best of which will honor that adjective’s original meaning: one who loves a subject, but does not require payment for obsessing constructively about it. Again, the old system does not go away, but grows to include both the old and the new.

Just don’t expect advertising to fund the new institutions in the way it funded the old.

This entry was posted in Art, Berkman, Blogging, Future, Ideas, Journalism, News, Past, Photography, problems. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Toward a new ecology of journalism

  1. Doc Searls says:

    As of this morning (Thursday), I’ve revised and expanded the second half of this post. There were technical and editorial reasons for doing that, not that they matter. The former had to do with terrible connectivity at my hotel, and the apparent loss of much text in the middle of editing it online (and the inability to look at it from some other angle and recover it). The latter had to do with thinking more clearly this morning than I was thinking yesterday afternoon when i wrote the original text.

  2. Darren says:

    You’re point is totally sound, but I’m a pedant:

    “Even with advanced targeting and pay-per-click accountability, the ratio of ‘impressions’ to click-throughs still runs at lottery-odds levels.”

    ‘Lottery-odd levels’ is something of an exaggeration. A well-run Google Adwords campaign might achieve a click-through rate of 3%–that’s 1-in-33. Far from ideal, of course, but a far sight better than the average lottery.

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  4. Pingback: Advertisers? Who needs them? | Window on the Media

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  6. Pingback: Artikel 5 - Expert Harvard: journalistiek wordt beroep van amateurs. « trends nieuwsconsumptie

  7. robert ivan says:

    Fantastic article. I quoted this piece in my article entitled, “The Krugman Paradox”

    Robert Ivan

  8. Winston says:

    Having a blog does not make one a journalist… but neither does having a printing press. Until recently, the people with printing presses have been getting a free pass.

    Just like people now buy songs instead of albums, soon we’re going to be reading writers instead of newspapers/magazines/etc. A writer is going to be judged and understood in terms of by their own past body of work, not by the masthead they write under.

  9. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Is ad-supported journalism viable in a pay-for-performance age?

  10. Kaleberg says:

    Actually, it all makes more sense if you think of the New York Times as a real estate company that runs a newspaper to support their investments. I’m not 100% sure of the dates and numbers, but the change started in the 1980s, which judging from the restructuring of the paper (M sports, T science/tech, W food, R home, F entertainment/arts) should have been the golden age of advertising. This was probably also the last golden age of department stores in NYC as well, so they should have been dripping with advertising money. Despite this, they recognized that real estate, based on the New York City brand, was their source of the big bucks. Consider the Times Square cleanup and their move to a new headquarters, and you can imagine the back room strategy.

    Your personal strategy is not all that much different, except in precise choice of money source and scale.

  11. Pingback: Is Ad-Supported Journalism Viable in a Pay-for-Performance Age? | EcoSilly

  12. Pingback: Doc Searls Weblog · After the advertising bubble bursts

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  14. Thanks, some ways the picture may be worse than Carr portrays it, or at least more disruptive. In the view of Doc Searls—a student of the web—it’s not only that the advertising market is shifting…

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  16. Fascinating article…

    From a marketing perspective I found your insight into “the holy grail for advertisers” as being more about “buyers hunting for sellers” quite interesting. Keeping that in mind when beginning any marketing project would make it much more realistic in the current economic environment.

  17. Wallpapers says:

    You’re point is totally sound, but I’m a pedant:

    “Even with advanced targeting and pay-per-click accountability, the ratio of ‘impressions’ to click-throughs still runs at lottery-odds levels.”

    ‘Lottery-odd levels’ is something of an exaggeration. A well-run Google Adwords campaign might achieve a click-through rate of 3%–that’s 1-in-33. Far from ideal, of course, but a far sight better than the average lottery.

  18. Andy Morgan says:

    @Kaleberg your point is an interesting one. I look at the MSM as more of a distribution organization. They have monopolized a distribution mechanism (transport – paper or waves) for a given geography and then used that control to distribute content and advertising. People get the content “for free” while advertisers pay for access to the people.

    It isn’t that the people don’t want news and stories. To the contrary, we are consuming more than ever. To Doc’s point on efficiency and dollars – the advertisers are moving the money to more efficient and measurable methods. Pulling their money out of MSM. The indirect funding of journalism by advertising means the business model collapses even as the people continue to consume.

    We do need to find a new economic model. Perhaps something closer to public radio where the consumer funds the journalism.

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