Maybe the future of American news publishing is…Europe? (and other bleak ad-related scenarios)

“It feels to me as though America is becoming more European,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “It’s saying the not-for-profit sector has a real place in publishing, not just a sort of patch to get from here to the next profitable model. And then it’s asking, please, Europe, help us with the regulation.” This was in the middle of a free-wheeling discussion at Harvard Business School Friday, “The Future of Advertising and Publishing: Finding New Revenue Models for Journalism in the Digital Age.” The afternoon’s first panel was moderated by Bell and brought together Kinsey Wilson, digital strategist at The New York Times; David Carroll, associate professor of media design at The New School’s Parsons School of Design; and Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, for #realadvertisingtalk. “How do we produce business models which will support durable, robust journalism? Or do we just give up on the idea that advertising is the right model?” Bell wondered. “I don’t believe that advertising offers any real future for funding journalism,” Mele said. The New York Times, however, is “certainly not ready to write off the ad market at this point” despite the “degradation of the ad system we’ve witnessed over time,” Wilson said. About 30 percent of the Times’ revenue still comes from advertising. “We buy audience on Facebook to acquire subscribers,” he said. “Why? Because it’s the most efficient place we can spend money.” Wilson noted that so far, subscription is the only revenue stream (besides advertising) “that has shown it can be acquired in volume.” Other things — affiliate revenue, events — “contribute around the edges,” but “at the end of the day, people aren’t going to buy it unless it serves their needs. In a situation where we’re getting 60 percent of our revenues from our readers, we are going to make sure that we are, first and foremost, reader-focused. In a way, it removes some of the conflicts, historically, between advertiser interest and reader interest.”

“I think almost every day about that novel Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtyengart, because you can buy a war-free edition of The New York Times in it,” Mele said. “I’m not sure there’s ‘a public’ any more and right now I think it has pretty bad implications, broadly, for human rights.” “Do we just have to live with where we’re going?” Bell wondered. “Because some of this sounds, almost, too pessimistic, and I’m really pessimistic. I’ve been in a really good mood lately because this is a great time for pessimists.” You can watch full video of the panel here.
Photo of the apocalypse (actually Gdansk Old Town on a cloudy day) by Pe_Wu used under a Creative Commons license.

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