What The Future Will Look Like For Journalists

Jim Spanfeller is president and CEO of Forbes.com. He is also treasurer of the Online Publishers Association and chairman emeritus of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

It is a tough time to be a professional journalist. Newspapers are downsizing or disappearing completely, magazines are failing every day and the ones surviving are getting thinner. Online, the rage is all about aggregation and consumer-generated content. But I firmly believe that in the future we will need more professional journalists than we have today and they will be as valued—or perhaps even more highly valued—than they were 10 years ago.

Will these professionals work for the same institutions that they work for now? More likely no then yes. Certainly some of our current journalistic enterprises will survive and thrive but only the ones that make the transition to a “now economy” that demands “entwined content,” or stories told in prose, video and data all at the same time. The majority of the current kings of content don’t understand these changes or perhaps they do but feel helpless to respond to them. Today consumers wants to know what is happening right now (not 20 hours ago), and they want personal insight into the events. And by personal I do not mean from the point of the view of the writer (although clearly that is part of the puzzle) but rather personal to them. What do these events mean to me? How will they affect my world?

News for news sake will continue to be commoditized, but news that is specific to the end user and filled with real-time education will be hard to come by and highly valued. This will require smart, diligent reporters who do most of their work before the event happens. In other words, they know the topic inside and out, they know who the movers and shakers around that topic are, and, more importantly, they can get those movers and shakers to respond quickly at almost anytime of day.

Stories will still develop over time and across many specific installments of reporting. But the idea of a “scoop” having great value is gone. In an internet-enabled world, a scoop lasts for only a very fleeting period of time. The real value is the insight about that scoop. And because the web is multimedia, video will be extremely important too. We want to see the event; we want to feel like we are there with the reporter. So a reporter will also have to be good with a camera.

It will also be important to present raw data well. “Give me your thoughts,” say the readers, but let me see the data as well. Give me a chance to disagree with your theories and commentary. For this to happen, the institution supporting and paying the journalist will have to collect or buy the appropriate data and present it in a way that is both easy to understand and work with.

The world has changed, yes, but at the end of the day, people are still, well, people. They still have a need to know what is going on around them and how it may affect them. We have the tools to meet these needs, but unfortunately most of the legacy distributors of news have not been able to use them. Either they are too overwhelmed by the destruction of their current models or they are too leveraged with debt—or, in some cases, both— to see the opportunities within all the change.

This is not to say that consumer-generated content will go away. There will be blogs, or blog-like entities forever. And, clearly, the blogs will be read, but for the most part, not by many people. They more often than not will be highly targeted and not highly trusted. The exceptions will quickly be gobbled up by professional organizations and displayed as commentary, or morph into professional organizations of their own. This site is a great example of that. It launched as a blog but now holds very little in common with what most people would define as a blog. For the most part, the folks who create the content on this site (myself being a very obvious exception) are professional journalists. They make their living doing this and they will keep making their living doing it because readers like you and me find value in it. Because we trust it.

This last thought holds great hope for the legacy journalistic endeavors out there. Trust is a rare and highly valuable thing in media. It was one of the key reasons that Forbes.com was as successful as it was in the early days. We had instant credibility. But trust in and of itself will not win the day. Sites that don’t use the assets of the new form factor (as discussed above) will not be up to the competition, and online, the competition is more fierce than in any medium that has come before, because it is so easy for end-users to click away.

Which, of course, brings us back to why journalists will be the key factor in the success of any content site that deals with news. It is also the reason that barriers to entry online have now gotten as high as anything offline—and therein lies the silver lining for the legacy companies. Perhaps when the web was an infant, a site would be given leeway to find its legs, its voice and gain traction with readers. Now that the web is in its adolescence, there is little room for “finding one’s way.” You get just one shot with readers to show them what you can do, and you better do well enough with it to get them to come back another time.

Rory O’Connor: Your Message Here: Salons, Sponsors, Pay-to-Play & Journalism

When the Washington Post recently unveiled its plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record “salons,” the move was widely pilloried in the press and elsewhere. Even the Post’s own Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, described the move as “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions.”

Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli have now fallen on their swords and taken full responsibility for what rapidly turned into a public relations debacle. Their idea of taking a fee of as much as $25,000 in exchange for a seat at the table with lawmakers, Obama Administration officials, think tank experts, business leaders and Post personnel including the publisher, editors and reporters was deemed ethically flawed, since the sponsored events involving news personnel tread perilously near — or indeed crossed over — the traditional line of mainstream media ethical boundaries. Charges of hypocrisy soon followed “against a newspaper that owes much of its fame to exposing influence peddlers and Washington’s pay-to-play culture,” as Alexander put it, adding, “The Post’s reputation now carries a lasting stain.”

Well, yes… but how large a stain is it, and how long-lasting will it actually prove to be?

Alexander rightly pointed out that, “Historically at quality newspapers such as the Post, a firewall exists between the business and news departments to ensure editorial integrity and independence.” Thus, as a “quality newspaper,” (sic) The Post’s own “Standards and Ethics” guidelines stress the importance of newsroom neutrality.

The first guideline is as follows: “This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible.” Thus the newspaper “is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent.” As Alexander further noted, “the salon dinners ran counter to the spirit of both. By having outside underwriters, The Post was effectively charging for access to its newsroom personnel. Reporters or editors could easily be perceived as being in the debt of the sponsors. And by promising participants that their conversations would be private, those attending would be assured a measure of confidentiality that the news department typically opposes.”

So the Post does appear to have erred in violating its own stated ethical guidelines, at the very least. But beyond that particular issue, how great was Weymouth and Brauchli’s sin? After all, we now inhabit a media landscape rife with layoffs and cutbacks, buyouts and furloughs, shuttered bureaus and shrinking news holes, citizen journalism and user-generated content, ads masquerading as articles, one-paper towns, no-paper towns… meanwhile that same world is all a-Twitter, if you will, with new norms and rapidly shifting values — from a reliance for breaking celebrity news on “news” sites such as TMZ.com to a shift from double-source to no-source reporting, and from the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and “That’s the way it is” to nightly broadcasts of unverified video and repeated images of photoshopped “reality” — while at the same time, social networks like Facebook and YouTube are rapidly replacing news websites as primary publishing platforms. http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2009/07/08/end-of-news-website/

Moreover, it turns out that special interest and ‘pay-for-play’ salons are pretty much business as usual these days in most media circles. Atlantic Media publisher David Bradley — owner of the Atlantic and the National Journaldefended his company’s six-year old practice of sponsored salons, noting 2,000 guests, including “journalists from virtually all major networks, national magazines and newspapers,” have attended them.

In fact the Post was late to the sponsored salon party. In addition to Atlantic Media, a number of other leading entities — including The Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker and The Economist — have long seen such corporation-sponsored salons and conference as a lucrative source of income, one that David Bradley calls necessary and justified at a time when “the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away.”

Even Politico, which broke the story of the Post salons, is sneaking revenue-enhancers into its editorial coverage. What “reader benefit” was there for me when I clicked on a link to the word ‘business’ in their post about the Post’s business — only to learn, after the fact, that it was a paid link to a Blackberry ad embedded in the piece castigating the Post?

As Politico‘s Michael Calderone recently noted, most news organizations have been forced to look for alternative streams of revenue such as conferences and events that attendees have to pay to take part in. “It’s understandable that the Post or other news organizations would want to do this,” Calderone said. “The key difference, at least according to some media watchers and professors that I spoke to in the last couple days, is whether there is any benefit to the news organization and then in turn any benefit to readers. And the issue with the Washington Post salons, at least according to this flyer, was that they were going to be off the record. So there really is no ostensible benefit to readers.”

A fair point — but it implies the sin was one of omission rather than commission, does it not? If there is some sort of reader benefit, are such salons really so bad? Even if they are, is there any way to turn back the clock to a Twentieth Century Media Dream that may never really have been all that real in the first place?

As Zachary Roth noted recently on the Talking Points Memo web site:

“Clearly, there are degrees of egregiousness here. A corporate-sponsored event that’s off the record and closed to the media and the public seems more objectionable than one that’s open and on the record. Equally, an event that’s focused on a public-policy issue that’s of particular interest to the event’s corporate sponsor seems more objectionable than, say, having a clothing company or an airline put up money for a festival that treats everything from the global economy to indie rock, as in the case of The New Yorker. An event whose advertising seeks to lure corporate lobbyists by promising the ability to directly influence elected officials or journalists seems, perhaps, more objectionable than one where the potential for influence-peddling is at least less explicit. It’s also worth noting that when a daily newspaper risks compromising its coverage of a key policy issue, it probably does more damage than when a monthly ideas magazine appears to do the same.

So it’s fair to say that the Post’s plans, as described, seem to rank highest on the egregiousness scale than any arrangement that’s yet surfaced — with the Atlantic’s own long string of corporate-sponsored “salons” perhaps coming in second. But the key point is that, even before this latest occasion for outrage, there was hardly the kind of clear and distinct line between the news and business sections of many major media outlets that the reaction to last week’s news would suggest.”

Let’s face it — in the fight for media survival, none of us is immune from temptation, and few revenue sources are beyond consideration, if not actual adoption. Things in Media Land are changing at the speed of light — and nowhere faster than online, where product placements have come to Facebook status updates and “Sponsored Tweets” to Twitter. And if you think bloggers are somehow pure, unsullied and unsponsored, think again. ‘Sploggers‘ and pay-per-post bloggers are everywhere these days – the latter pulling down both money and freebies in exchange for product recommendations and favorable reviews. Marketing companies pay to get their products to these so-called “influencers” with an online audience, so their paid-for opinions can help sway consumers.

Although such paid online sponsorships are still controversial, the horse has long since left the barn: Izea, an online marketing company that created PayPerPost, serves 25,000 advertisers and 265,000 bloggers in its network, paying them an average of $34 a post. As Richard Cleland, an assistant director at the Federal Trade Commission, assured the New York Times, “Consumers have a right to know when they’re being pitched a product,” — so much so that the FTC is now considering mandatory disclosure of such blogger activities under truth-in-advertising guidelines.

One final thought: if, like so many others, you are currently “consuming” most of your media diet at low-or-no cost, while operating under the notorious Internet dictum that “Information wants to be free,” should you really be quick to criticize the beleaguered poor publisher of The Washington Post for sponsoring salons in hopes of keeping the doors open and the news flowing? Where do we — and where should we — now draw the line? What do you think? Write in and tell me your thoughts on the ethics of pay-to-play journalism in a time of collapsing capitalism, fierce technological change and a “lost revenue model.”

Sanford’s Media Emails: News Orgs Offered Friendly Spin [UPDATE]

Remember, not too long ago, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford just disappeared off the face of the earth to gently strum Spandau Ballet ballads on his guitar and walk the “sex line” with his Argentinean ladylove, leaving his staff to spin wild lies about his whereabouts, the agreed-to story being that he was out wandering the Appalachian Trail, like a hobo? Well, during that time, all sorts of people were trying to get in touch with Mark Sanford — something about him having “duties” as the “Governor” of “South Carolina” — and the records of those calls and emails were released on Monday. The State has collected the best of these, and they include many inquiries from the media, some of which were essentially mash notes.

By June 22, four days after Sanford had left for his trip, dozens of media outlets were working to determine where he was.

Some outlets, hoping to outdo their competition, were volunteering to coordinate with the governor’s office to spin the story to Sanford’s advantage.

You’ll never guess who was hoping to coordinate with Sanford!

A staffer with The Washington Times wrote in an e-mail that “if you all want to speak on this publicly, you’re welcome to Washington Times Radio. You know that you will be on friendly ground here!”

Translation: “Dear Mark Sanford, Feel free to “cross the sex line” on the “friendly ground” that is our second floor breakroom!

OpinionJournal.com (a sister publication of the Wall Street Journal) associate editor Brendan Miniter, in an e-mail to Sawyer, called the WSJ’s first-day coverage bunk. “Someone at WSJ should be fired for today’s story. Ridiculous,” Miniter wrote.

I’m sure that the folks that staff Journal‘s newsroom have plenty of interesting things to say about Brendan Miniter’s idiotic opinions on the company’s human resources decisions!

On June 23, a Fox News Channel correspondent wrote to Sawyer, “Having known the Governor for years and even worked with him when he would host radio shows for me — I find this story and the media frenzy surrounding it to be absolutely ridiculous! Please give him my best.”

I know! What a meaningless frenzy! Naturally, there turned out to be no news there at all, right?

Anyway, other highlights include a personal call from Larry King, an invitation from Stephen Colbert for Sanford to clear the air on his show, and an email from the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza to Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer that reads, “Dude, is everything okay?”

UPDATE: Rachel Sklar emails with an update, Mediaite’s Steve Krakauer identifies the unnamed Fox News correspondent as the often be-costumed Griff Jenkins. Krakauer reminds that “Jenkins is a features reporter (and a producer), rather than a hard news correspondent.” Perhaps The State means “correspondent” as “person who corresponds.”

Sanford’s office couldn’t locate missing governor [Sun News]

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not? Also, please send tips to tv@huffingtonpost.com — learn more about our media monitoring project here.]

CBS’ Smith: OnDemand Online Will Bring More Ads

quincysmithWhen CBS jumped onto Comcast’s OnDemand Online trial this morning, we took note because it was the first traditional broadcaster to sign onto the authentication program. The press announcement wasn’t exactly jam-packed with details, so we contacted CBS Interactive President Quincy Smith, who gave us a little more insight.

First, Smith stressed, “This is a trial, not a deal.” He said OnDemand Online needs to overcome several hurdles before it can get more permanent access to CBS content:

  • It has to be easy for users to adopt. “They’re not going to spend more than a second futzing with it,” said Smith.
  • It has to be wrapped in some third-party referee metrics like Nielsen so that those viewer numbers count.
  • There has to be an ability to get this done with more multichannel partners, not just Comcast.
  • Advertisers need to sign on, and users need to be comfortable with the thought of more ads.

That bit about more ads caught our attention. Smith said that the OnDemand Online trial would let CBS “borrow some of the TV economics” to be able to better pay for the production of premium content. As we’ve written, video online can charge higher CPMs than broadcast, but the frequency cap limits how much can be made, and digital revenues are still dwarfed by traditional TV. “In the near term that means greater ad frequency,” said Smith, so you can expect more ads with the CBS shows you watch in this authenticated scenario than what you are used to experiencing online.

Increased ad viewing on top of a subscription fee will most likely raise the ire of online TV watchers who have grown accustomed to the minimalist, Hulu-like approach to advertising. But Smith was quick to say that his network is committed to “non-exclusive and open relationships” for its content, and he’s looking to establish relationships with “bandwidth providers” that can authenticate.

In terms of content that will be made available OnDemand Online, “Right now we’re exploring contributing content that includes entertainment and news, current and library, exclusive and non-exclusive,” said Smith. He added that the trial may incentivize some content owners under CBS’ umbrella to unlock content and put it online.

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Breaking News Online: How One 19-Year Old Is Shaking Up Online Media

Michael van Poppel used to be like a lot of young people, trawling the internet for interesting news about the world. Just like many others have considered doing, he created a place where he could post the most interesting news he finds, as fast as he can. Today he’s one of the most-watched movers and shakers in online news media – and he’s not yet twenty years old.

In September 2007, when seventeen years old and living in the Netherlands, van Poppel decided to launch a news aggregation business called Breaking News Online. Months later, somehow, he came into possession of a full video of an Osama Bin Laden statement before any of the major news outlets had it, and sold it to Reuters.

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Timothy Karr: The Other Obama Nominee

Co-authored with Ben Scott

Mignon Clyburn, Barack Obama’s choice to fill a vacant Democratic seat at the Federal Communications Commission, will face a confirmation hearing Wednesday in the Senate Commerce Committee.

As the third Democrat on the five-member commission, Clyburn would cast a deciding vote for President Obama’s bold technology agenda. And yet, Clyburn’s nomination has met with a mixed reaction from FCC-watchers. Some fear she may already have pitched her tent with the entrenched special interests that have controlled media policy for decades.

It’s been asked: What do we know about her position on key issues such as Net Neutrality? Can she be counted on to break open wireless markets for more innovation and consumer choice? Will she stand with Obama’s reform agenda and help overhaul an agency that’s long been in the thrall of corporate lobbyists?

Getting to Know Mignon Clyburn

Here’s what we do know: Clyburn is the daughter of powerful South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), the House Majority Whip. Clyburn’s nomination for the FCC post was met with apprehension about her family ties and her history as chair of South Carolina’s Public Service Commission, which is reputed to be close to the phone and cable industries.

The big fear among open Internet activists is that a president who has said he will “take a back seat to no one on Network Neutrality” may have just nominated an FCC commissioner who’s not even riding in the same car.

As veterans of the Net Neutrality wars and backers of many of the most progressive ideas in the Obama platform on technology and media, we encourage the Clyburn critics to take a step back. We don’t know for certain how Clyburn will think, act and vote as an FCC commissioner. But there are reasons for optimism.

The Reform Opportunity

The path before her is pretty clear, and the opportunity for reform is profound. The FCC is now crafting a national broadband plan to deliver Internet access to every American, weighing reforms to free up valuable wireless spectrum, and undertaking crucial efforts to diversify media ownership.

Obama’s technology agenda — the blueprint for the new FCC — strongly supports an open Internet, universal Internet access and more voices in the media. In Congress, the leadership within the Senate and House commerce committees has aligned itself with the president’s agenda. Others in Congress have already asked for an investigation of anti-competitive communications markets long under the control of powerful media conglomerates.

Clyburn could follow the well-worn path toward upholding the status quo, but she has the opportunity to become a strong leader for change, a voice for new stakeholders that have long been out of the picture at the FCC. With a broader frame in mind, let’s take a look at what her nomination represents.

The Luxury of High Expectations

As the first African-American woman commissioner, she represents progressive change that is deeply in sync with the transformation of D.C. politics that Obama is trying to realize.

Working alongside new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski as well as Commissioner Michael Copps, a longtime public champion, Clyburn has the opportunity to diversify media ownership to include women and people of color long absent from corporate media boardrooms.

Communities of color, the urban poor and rural residents are those most often stranded on the wrong side of America’s digital divide. Clyburn has a historic opportunity to help close the gap.

The open Internet has been under assault from the same Internet access companies that routinely pass over these communities. Clyburn can stand alongside Obama, Genachowski and Copps in support of an affordable, free-flowing Web that discriminates against no one.

Naturally, if the commitment to these ideals falters, we’ll be among the first to cry foul. But for now, we have the luxury of high expectations.

She could be an agent of change at the FCC like none before her. She deserves that chance.

— Timothy Karr is the campaign director and Ben Scott is the policy director of Free Press, the national, not-for-profit media reform group.

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