An interesting post on Antony’s blog has drawn me into a thread about the commercials behind journalism. In essence, Roy Greenslade has challenged Philip M Stone’s “heretical thought” that papers return to print-first publishing, but he doesn’t suggest an alternative revenue model. Antony notes iCrossing’s experiments with new models of journalism. Meanwhile, Paul Bradshaw (in an unrelated post) believes that ad sales can save newspapers.
So, how will we pay for journalism?
There’s little doubt in my mind that it must be paid for; that is, that there’s always going to be a need for professional journalists with the freedom and security to investigate, uncover and report.
If ad revenue is declining publishers must, as Antony rightly points out, “look beyond advertising for revenue”, but where is this revenue? Can we charge for content? That’s been tried with limited success: there’s so much content around that you have to have something special or unique before people will pay to see it.
What alternative models does that leave? Nobody seems to know.
Cut out the middleman?
I used to wonder, based on our experimentation at iCrossing, whether the publisher was becoming redundant, and what the ramifications of this would be.
Rather than write for a publisher – who maintains the healthy distance between editorial process and the commercial interests of the advertiser – we’re writing directly for the advertiser. Some would argue – as Dave Lee has – that this inherently makes all of our content advertising, but I’d strongly disagree. With a proper editorial process, and management that is prepared to defend it when there’s a potential conflict of interests, it is possible to produce objective and useful, reader-first news.
Is this enough, though? The scope of what we can do is limited, at least indirectly, by the commercial concerns of the companies funding our work.
Where’s the commercial interest, say, for any of iCrossing’s clients to fund an investigation into possible corruption within the police force, or government? What kind of company would have that remit, and how seriously would anyone take the results? As how important would journalism’s role in Watergate be remembered if, for example, Woodward and Bernstein’s Washington Post investigation had been a Wash ‘n’ Go investigation?
And there’s another vital concern: good journalism needs protection. What everyday company is ever going to offer a journalist the resources and support afforded by a publisher, with its experience, influence and – let’s face it – media lawyers? In my recent experience, few firms understand the role, purpose, needs or constraints of journalism. They aren’t going to stick their neck out for it.
Is what the journalists at iCrossing do a viable model for journalism’s future, then?
Yes and no. I’m realising that despite our idealism and ambitions, journalism directly-funded by commercial concerns is perhaps among the future profession’s lowest rungs, and there need to be many more above it. And it’s funding the higher rungs that presents the real challenge.