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.