What crisis?

At the Aspen Institute FOCAS event, where we presented our CUNY New Business Models for News, there came to be an unspoken debate – that is, an idea thrown out but never really engaged – about whether there is a crisis in news and journalism.

I now say that there isn’t a crisis. That’s not what I used to say. Indeed, one of my mistakes in this debate has been accepting the assumption that there was one and allowing the debate to start there: “How are you going to save journalism from the scourge of your damned internet?”

Instead, the discussion should start here: “Look at all the new opportunities there are to gather and share news in new ways, to expand and improve it, to change journalism’s relationship with its public and make it collaborative, to find new efficiencies and lower costs and thus to return to profitability and sustainability.”

One’s view on the question determines one’s response and its level of desperation or optimism.

To generalize unfairly, those who say there is a crisis – most often, those whose legacy institutions are fading – are often known to react by:
* Looking for others to blame for the purported problem – Google, bloggers, aggregators, craigslist, et al (which is to say, not taking responsibility for their own role in it);
* Trying to preserve their past (expecting newsrooms to be supported, unchanged, by some manna from the market – paid content being only the latest prayer);
* Seeking protection from government (antitrust exemptions) or the law (copyright extensions);
* Demanding tribute (saying they are entitled to get paid because what they do is worth so much);
* Giving up (talking about abandoning growth by building walls or shifting to not-for-profit and begging for charitable support).

Those who say there is not a crisis (for- and not-for-profit entrepreneurs, inventors, and investors) instead tend to:
* Look to innovation (collaboration, algorithms, data, streams) to create new ways to make news;
* Look to entrepreneurship to sustain journalism (in blogs and networks);
* Be open to new ways to define journalism;
* Irritate the legacy people by not seeing the crisis they see.

So if we’re looking for an original sin in this saga, I’ll confess that mine has been viewing news from the perspective of the old controllers rather than from that of the community (the people formerly known as the audience), the inventors, and the entrepreneurs. At Aspen, it was Sue Gordon, head of the Wikimedia Foundation, who made me see this as she talked about the wonders that have been done with news on Wikipedia, which no one could have predicted. Being open to such new possibilities is key to building news’ new future.

There are so many reasons to be optimistic about the future of news:
* The audience for news is only growing online.
* The audience isn’t an audience anymore. News is becoming more and more collaborative as witnesses share what they see and communities join together to create news.
* Those who make news are more accountable to their publics.
* News is opening up to more diverse voices and perspectives.
* News is becoming far more specialized and targeted, which is to say that it can give deeper service to more communities.
* New technology – and freedom from the limits of the old means of production and distribution – allow the reinvention of the form of news, organized around streams, topics, ideas, and concepts still being imagined.
* News is more efficient thanks to the link – do what you do best and link to the rest – and specialization. That is what makes it more sustainable.

Some – but not nearly enough – of this optimism is inherent in the future we imagined in the New Business Models for News Project. We used the financial lingua franca and assumptions of the present world – CPM advertising, page views per user, even the concept of a page and a site – because that made it easier to describe what can follow and made our vision of sustainable news more credible. We were criticized for being too optimistic about audience penetration and ad rates.

But I think we were not nearly optimistic enough. We have to leap past the idea that news is a collection of pages worth 12 views per user per month (or, quoting Martin Langeveld, 0.5% of time spent online). News shouldn’t be a site we force people to come to but, as Google’s Marissa Mayer said at Aspen, we have to find ways to insinuate news and its value into anyone’s – her words – hyperpersonal news stream. We shouldn’t create sites but instead create platforms that enable communities to share what they know and need to know, with journalists contributing value – reporting, editing, aggregation, curation – to their ecosystem. We should build and assume much greater engagement and define engagement not as consumption but as creation. We must value that creation (and not consider it merely a reaction to what we do). We should forecast much greater relevance and thus value for both the market and the marketer.

We should set the bar way higher. And that is the real problem with letting the discussion start with the pessimism, depression, and desperation of the perceived crisis among the past’s players, who aren’t inventing the future. It limits the possibilities.

The real sin: not running businesses

Like priests looking for someone to sacrifice, Alan Mutter, Steve Buttry, Howard Owens, and Steve Yelvington have been on the lookout for the sin that led newspapers astray. For Mutter, it’s not charging; for Buttry, it’s not innovating; for Owens, it’s tying online dingies to print Titanics (my poetic license); for Yelvington, it’s inaction.

But I think Owens hit on it when he wrote this: “I realized I needed to flip the expense/revenue picture upside down. Instead of thinking about how to generate more cash, I needed to figure out how to create a news operation that could exist profitably based on a reasonable expectation for local online revenue.”

Right. In other words, the sin was not running a business. It was not creating a sustainable P&L.

Newspapers have been too busy trying to protect specific budget lines that protected specific interests – the size of the newsroom, the ego expressed in gross revenue that yields stock performance and salary bonuses, the size of unionized staffs (up or down), the rules that governed advertising relationships even as they disappeared. They made preservation their mission.

What they should have done instead is rethink the bottom line: How is journalism going to be sustainable in new business realities?

Said Owens: “In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million. So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?”

He built a realistic budget based on new business realities. Now picture news executives across the country hitting themselves on the head saying, “Damn, why didn’t we think of that?” They should have. But to do so would have required them to completely tear apart their businesses. Witness Detroit, banking, retail, advertising, insurance, and every other industry undergoing upheaval – nobody wants to do that.

Just as the bloggers linked above took their share of blame, so will I. Owens suggests that the problem with tying old and new operations together. At Advance, where I worked for a dozen years, we created separate online companies, which had some benefits: enabling the sites to build what was right for online (that is, interactivity), creating real value for advertising (rather than throwing in online as value-added), creating smaller and differently skilled staffs. But it also created problems: sites that were dependent on newspaper content, rivalries that killed collaboration and limited the responsibility anyone would take for the future. In the end, everyone needed to rethink what they were creating and what value it had, how they were creating it, how they related to their communities, and how the business could be run. But I didn’t see that happening anywhere in the industry. Everywhere, I saw people looking for someone to blame and somewhere to hide. I don’t put all the blame on the individuals because that’s how companies and industries operate.

Individuals who want to succeed in this upheaval become entrepreneurs. That’s what Owens – and many others – are doing. That, I’ve come to see, is the basis of the future of news.

In our New Business Models for News Project at CUNY, we threw out the old business assumptions with the old business. That’s why we tried to answer the tough question people were asking: What happens to journalism if the paper disappears? (their implied answer was that journalism does, too). What we came up with was one entity being replaced by well more than 100 entities – 1,000 entities, perhaps – each run according to new opportunities and needs, each smaller, each contributing real value, each sustainable (some very profitable; some choosing no profit). Everyone in this ecosystem has to think about running a business rather than preserving one.

Someone else looking for sinners is James Murdoch, whose MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival excoriated the BBC for bigfooting the news market in the UK and the government for enabling it and for regulating everybody else. I agree with him to an extent, this extent: that profit, in his words, will make journalism sustainable, independent, and innovative.

Except I doubt that this sustainable, independent, and innovative journalism will necessarily come from Mr. Murdoch’s father’s business and its cohorts because they are the ones that even today are trying to maintain the scale and models for their old businesses rather than inventing new ones. Look, instead, to the entrepreneurs who are starting over and rethinking the business from the bottom up, as Owens is.