Is open journalism commercially viable?

There are one important question that remains unanswered in our research: is open journalism commercially viable?

As readers, advertisers, and the revenue that they bring leave newspapers for the internet, many news outlets are cutting back on reporters. The reporters that remain are constantly being asked to do more with less. With less reporters on the ground, and less money flowing into news rooms, what can be done to ensure that quality reporting is being produced. This is one of the great problems facing journalism today and, along with the issues of trust and authority that I have already mentioned, is what leads us to discussing new models for journalism.

In conceptualising a new model for journalism, the new model needs to satisfactorily address these two problems: does the new model of journalism solve the fading public trust in journalism and is it financial viable?

Our research is concerned with open journalism; so is open journalism as we have identified it commercially viable?

In 2009 Media Watch discussed News Limited’s plan to build a “paywall” for their online content, which only now in 2012 is being implemented in Australia. Rupert Murdoch’s view was that quality journalism costs money to produces and that consumers who wanted access to quality journalism would need to pay. Murdoch also leaves little doubt about his views on bloggers and news aggregation services:

The Philistine phase of the digital age is almost over. The aggregators and the plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content.

In Murdoch’s view bloggers are not content creators on a equal footing as journalists, they are plagiarists who copy and comment on stories that “real” journalists uncover. This signifies a broader adversarial relationship between bloggers and journalists that, I believe, runs right though Murdoch’s newspapers. The relationship between bloggers and journalists warrants a post of its own, but Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC noted:

It strikes me as a classic play of old empire, of empire in decline. Believing that because you once controlled the world you can continue to do so, because you once set the rules, you can do so again.

I think Scott has identified one of the major problems that newspapers face in attempting to build a paywall around their content; news organisation (or journalists) no longer have control over the dissemination of information, and they are never getting it back. I don’t think there was any way that they would have been able to hold on to control in this environment. In a follow up interview with Jonathan Holmes, Scott goes on to say:

the reality of the circumstance that we all find ourselves in as media organisations: the audience has the power now. And in a sense you have to engage with those audiences on the audiences’ terms. Now for 15 years people have got their content online free of charge. You have younger people who have never paid for anything online. And you can’t just say snap your fingers and expect that they will pay – particularly if there’s going to be so much content out there that is available free of charge.

If news is free elsewhere, what would motivate a user to pay for it from a news organisation, especially when the research tells us that they don’t trust news organisations? If news and information is being provided for free is there any model for news that can be commercially viable? James Murdoch argues that the biggest threat for comercial news is state sponsored news from organisations such as the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK. Public broadcasters are increasingly operating in the same space as comercial outlets, but I think James Murdoch is underselling the complexity of the online environment and placing undue blame for his company’s commercial worries at the feet of publicly funded news.

If news and information can be shared for free on the internet, do we even need professional journalists? Can citizen journalism adequately inform the public without professional journalism on the scale that we have come to expect? This may seem a silly question, but unless an model that makes news profitable can be found, the answers to that question may be more than a mere hypothetical. If we are going to look at a new model of journalism, I believe that we need to first aim for self sufficiency: that is, it can pay for itself and survive in the current marketplace. Public broadcasters have an obligation to be open with their audience and transparent in the way that they produce their news. In Australia the ABC is making great strides to leading the way in audience engagement with projects such as The Drum, ABC Open and Pool. (As an aside here, it is worth nothing that since the real innovation in this space is coming from public broadcasters, we should challenge the generally accepted economic orthodoxy that competition leads to greater innovation and efficiency, but I digress). It is generally accepted that more diversity in the media space will lead to greater outcomes in terms of democratic representation and public discourse; but what constitutes diversity of media voices? Is it multiple commercial news organisations, or would one publicly funded news organisation that facilitates a platform open to many individual voices fulfil the requirement for a diversity of voices? Can comercial open platforms be profitable?

The Guardian, who are moving towards adopting a form of open journalism, are facing commercial troubles of their own. Guardian Media Group (GMG) Chair, Dame Amelia Fawcett, wrote in the 2010/11 Annual Report that GMG relied on revenue that was coming from outside of the core news media assets. Fawcett is optimistic about The Guardian’s prospects, while realistic about the challenges that face them.

The Guardian – like other parts of GMG – has demonstrated great ingenuity and vision in adapting to the digital age and attracting a new, global readership. Its current initiative to develop its US operation, building on an already sizeable audience in the States, is a prime example of this. However, digital revenues, while growing steadily, do not fully offset declining print revenues. This is the challenge facing GNM and news organisations across the world.

CEO of operations, Andrew Miller, wrote in the anual report of the “aim of ensuring the Guardian’s long-term economic sustainability,” and that “During the year under review, GMG continued to provide GNM with a stable financial foundation, allowing the Guardian and Observer to focus on producing outstanding journalism” suggesting that the financial sustainability of GNM’s news media asests are still in doubt, even if there is much optimism and pride in the quality of the journalism that is being produced.

Chair of the Scott Trust, owners of GNM, Dame Liz Forgan, reiterates the problems facing The Guardian and their new open media model.

Along with every other media organisation we face enormous challenges in the coming years as advertising and readers move ever faster from print on paper to the web, resulting in the destabilisation of traditional business models. In the new war of the worlds between open and closed information systems, the Guardian has championed the former with passion. Open is in our DNA, in our liberalism, in our journalism and in our relationship with readers. Our model therefore conforms in a profound sense with our values and our culture. But the challenge to find new sources of revenue in new markets across the world is a tough one to which the whole Company is dedicated.

Of course, there is a large part of The Guardian’s operation that is based on traditional journalistic models; a large part of The Guardian’s income comes from print and subscriptions. How they will monetize open journalism in the online environment will be a huge litmus test for open journalism.

If open journalism is a method of organising, engaging and aggregating the knowledge and reporting that exists in online communities, the cost of producing content must be lower than it was before, and this will work in favour of open journalism. Identifying whether open journalism can be profitable is still difficult and will remain an open question for quite some time. We’re not even sure what open journalism is; our own definition is still quite ambiguous.

But I would love to hear you reaction to this question on the comments.

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Is Twitter ruining journalism or are journalists ruining Twitter?

Is Twitter ruining journalism or are journalists ruining Twitter?

A quick article that I found today about Twitter being used by journalists to disseminate information about Rupert Murdoch’s testimony to the Levinson inquiry in the UK.

If journalists stopped reporting via Twitter, would there be no reporting on Twitter? Of course not. Thousands of people were watching and tweeting Murdoch’s testimony live on the internet and TV. Witholding journalism on Twitter because it doesn’t generate income for the company is only going to further distance journalists from the broader news discussion that they need to be a part of. Further distancing themselves will only serve to alienate readers and exacerbate the issues of trust in news media.

I think that this criticism of Twitter is more enlightening:

It makes everything as important as everything else. For political reporting, the mega-tweet eternal motion stream devalues perspective, judgment and reflection, […] that favors the trivial over the substantive […] and events over ideas […]

The result: a second-by-second, self-contained and self-referential closed feedback loop.

What I think is enlightening about this comment (and the entire article) is that it blames Twitter (a tool) for journalists developing short attention spans. Twitter is just a tool that can be used in reporting like a range of others. Twitter is fast, it is chaotic and it can create a closed feedback loop. I think it a valuable tool for reporting and for news gathering, but Journalists need to understand that it is just a tool with its own set of opportunities and limitations. It is not the fault of the tool if journalism is being devalued.

What is the role of a journalist on Twitter? Should they be curators of content? Should they report to Twitter or report about Twitter? I think that for journalism to be open, journalists should be engaging with Twitter, which serves as a hub for political discussion, commentary and citizen reporting, in a conversation that runs in both directions. The role of the journalist in open journalism is a topic that we will spend more time on later, and how they engage with social media will be an important part of that discusion.

Moving online – not necessarily ‘open’….

Katie recently wrote a post, looking at defining open journalism based on the principles developed by The Guardian – which includes the encouragement of participation, being transparent and open to challenge, and facilitating the formation of communities around joint interests. Whether Fairfax and News Limited, Australia’s two major news providers, are moving to follow this model of journalism is another matter.

In Fairfax’s 2011 Annual Report, Fairfax outlines their position on a number of issues facing news journalism in Australia in the current climate. On working with communities, the company has to say:

The Company operates in partnership with a diverse range of charities and not-for-profit organisations to create shared value. These relationships exist both nationally and within the hundreds of local communities in which the Company operates. The satisfaction of simultaneously delivering corporate and social value through hard work is important to the company’s employees.

This is only a small excerpt, but in the report, available on the Fairfax website, there is no mention of the kind of community formation encouraged and facilitated by the Guardian. Working in partnership with charities and non-profit organisations will always be an admirable goal; one that Fairfax has accomplished (sponsoring the City2Surf fun run, raising millions for charities took pride of place in the report). In terms of forming communities of joint interest however, it seems that it only goes so far as that newspapers, and news websites, publish news in relation to a specific geographical locale. For instance, The Age is specific to Melbourne, and The Sydney Morning Herald is specific to Sydney. Fairfax also retains a strong regional presence, publishing several weekly papers for regions across Australia.

Fairfax do make mention of a model that does address much of what we would consider to be open journalism:

It is open to the web and is part of it. It links to, and collaborates with, other material (including services) on the web

Fairfax and News Limited of course, publish their news online, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a more open model of journalism. Indeed, it seems that rather than adopting a new model, these media companies are simply shifting all their content from one platform to another. Indeed, some online newspapers, such as The Australian are asking the user to pay for a subscription online (though the Australian currently offers a 28 day free trial and it is still possible to access some articles for free). These online papers, like their print counterparts, are also specific to a certain locale. In his article, ‘ Democracy, participation and convergent media; Case studies in contemporary online news journalism in Australia’, Terry Flew examines the case of News Limited’s Courier Mail vs. Fairfax’s online only newspaperbrisbanetimes.com.auFairfax launched the online only site in order to compete with the Courier, as both were aiming to cover the south-east Queensland market.

In both the of the sites ‘About Us’ sections, they claim to be dedicated to local news, affecting and of interest to Queenslanders of the region. They both claim to be intent on supplying quality journalism. The Courier even claims to include ‘controversial bloggers’ when reporting the latest breaking news around the nation (although they are not specific about what constitutes a ‘controversial’ blogger).

While at first successful, the brisbanetimes.com.au has lost market share to the Courier Mail over time. Flew identifies the reason for this as one of the problems facing online only newspapers in the current climate – extra resources must be invested into news production in order to build up a long term relationship with potential readers, in order to compete with counterparts that are both print and online. Despite the fact that the nearly all newspapers are moving into an online environment, print circulation still continues, and there seems to be greater opportunity for that relationship to be established. However, Flew also identifies an interesting alternative:

An alternative path would be for sites such as brisbanetimes.com.au to make more use of user-created content and citizen journalism to enable it to develop a lower-cost strategy for embedding ‘hyperlocal’ content into its news site than is the case for a more established competitor, which has a considerably larger staff of paid journalists.

This would seem to be talking about the same kind of journalistic model purported by The Guardian – a model that works with the community, with bloggers and citizen journalists. A model that curates and collects rather than simply uses their own journalists. The problem seems to be, in the Australian journalism landscape, is finding a model that is financially viable, or perhaps, an inability to let go of the old business models.

Interestingly, and as a final note, the Courier Mail has a link down the bottom of their homepage that simply says ‘Send Stories’. Once a user follows the link however, they are taken to this page, asking for story tips rather than pre-written articles.

I’m there, you’re not.

I’m there, you’re not.

Following on from my previous post realting to a journalists authority, this piece by Jay Rosen is an interesting exploration of the origins of authority in journalism. When it is possible for anyone who is “there” to publish or transmit their own experiences to a wide audience, how can a journalist lay claim on “authority”?

Authority?

Over on The Drum yesterday, Tim Dunlop has nailed one of the biggest problems facing journalism in the digital age:

The collapse of the funding model on which media relied is one thing, but even more worrying is the self-aggrandisement of the audience that has accompanied it.

This development raises the most vital question confronting the media today: just how did the audience for news, the famed ‘punters’ of newsroom banter and contempt, ever get it into their heads that they were entitled to question the way journalists went about their jobs rather than continue, ad infinitum, to passively consume whatever editors in a fiscally prudent limited number of outlets fed them?

How did these same punters ever think that their role in society was anything more than to allow themselves to be aggregated into homogenous demographic categories that were sold by media organisations to advertisers for unchallenged profit?

And what ungodly devil’s spawn of misinformation found its way into the water supply and convinced ‘the audience’ that they should be allowed to bypass the righteous gatekeeping of the mainstream media (peace be upon it) and fooled them into thinking that they, too, could have a role in contributing to public discourse?

This insidious invention, the Frankenstein monster of tenured academics alive during the discredited 1960s, has completely overturned the natural order of tenured news gatherers.

Armed with this new tool of mass dissemination, an unlikely number of ‘readers’ have convinced themselves that they are also actually ‘writers’ and they fill up their ‘blogs’ (an abbreviation for blah-blah-blah catalogue), their Twitter feeds, their Facebook pages, and, heaven-forfend, the ‘comments boxes’ on the websites of the mainstream media with their thoughts on subjects.

This is the attitude that seems to be common among many news organizations and among journalists themselves. “How dare the audience think it can do what we do?”. Journalists can no longer rely on the authority that is granted to them by access to the means of distribution; self publishing is free and easy, knowledge flows openly, and there is a community of peer to peer reporting and commentary that is threatening the traditional role of the journalist.

What Tim Dunlop has identified is the resistance from journalists to the changing dynamics of the news industry. How are journalists going to retain their authority in an age when anyone can self publish? I don’t think it’s going to come from shutting themselves off from the wider knowledge community through paywalls. They will not earn the respect of their readers by belittling bloggers; anyone who has looked at the NBN coverage in Australia will know that a blog can cover news as well as, and often better than any newspaper.

I think we are entering an age where journalists will gain their respect and voice by engaging with the citizen reporters, bloggers and journalists and becoming a part of the conversation that already exists around news.

What is the role of the journalist in open journalism? Does the journalist have a role at all? Is it one of curator as author? How does citizen journalism fit in to this?

Print circulation is still dropping…

…and this isn’t all that surprising. With internet access cheaper and easier than ever before, and the public can access the same articles that they would read in the newspaper, online. As Crikey reported, in 2011:

The improvement for some titles (The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, Sunday to Saturday) will provide little other than temporary relief as restructuring costs and falling advertising revenues continue. News Corp revealed this week in its second quarter results that it took a $US36 million restructuring charge against its Australian papers (and some in Britain).

There are a lot of statistics and percentages to report, but what it boils down to is simply this – newspapers are losing money (Fairfax and News Limited alike). Less comes in from advertisers, and less people are buying newspapers, with just over a ten percent fall between 2007 and 2011.

Another Crikey article reported in November of last year that two daily newspapers, the Tweed Daily News and The Coffs Coast Advocate were to have their paid editions closed (the free editions, free on Saturday for the Tweed and Wednesday and Saturday for Coffs Coast, were to be continued). Further evidence to the fact that newspapers are fast losing their cost-effectiveness.

While it remains unclear as to whether the printed newspaper will survive (and if so, for how long?) it seems clear that the trend is, and has been for a very long time, towards accessing our news online.

I certainly can’t remember the last time I held a printed newspaper.

While Fairfax and News. Limited publications all have their articles available online, they have yet to solve the problem of how to provide an alternative revenue stream that won’t alienate customers. People don’t want to pay to access news online.

All this talk of ‘restructuring costs’ makes me ask another question – are these news corporations simply trying to renew interest in the more traditional models of journalism, instead of trying to evolve and work with some alternative ones? The digital age has opened up a wide range of possibilities, and simply moving the content from one platform, to another, isn’t a viable solution.

Why are we here?

This year, when The Finkelstein Report into journalism in Australia was released, it confirmed what many of us already knew: people no longer trusted journalists.

A basic criterion of media performance is accuracy. Public perceptions of the performance of Australia’s media on this criterion are not flattering. These are the findings of several surveys.

  • Only 35 per cent of respondents to a 2011 survey by Essential Media agreed that ‘the media usually report the news accurately’. As with trust, however, perceptions varied for different media.
  • A 1976 survey by Saulwick found 66 per cent of respondents believed ABC television presented political news accurately; 51 per cent believed commercial television did so. Only 39 per cent believed newspapers presented political news accurately. In a subsequent survey in 1990 by Saulwick 76 per cent of respondents said television (undifferentiated between ABC and commercial) presented news accurately, but only 50 per cent said the same of newspapers.

In fact the Finkelstein Report confirmed a lot of what we already knew but is worth repeating.

New technology, particularly the internet, has revolutionised access to the news. The result has been a reduction in the circulation of newspapers and a reduction in revenue from classified advertising. The advertising expenditure is now spread across platforms. Main news organisations are recovering only a small proportion of these revenues by moving to online publishing

Much has already been written about the role of the internet in the declining readership and profitability of Newspapers and journalism. Research in the US from Pew Research Centre tells us that newspapers are losing $7 of print revenue for every $1 of digital revenue they gain. There is nothing to suggest that a similar trend is not occurring in Australia. It is easy to see why newspapers have been slow to adapt to online when a majority of their income is still coming from print. But the trend shows that print revenues are fading and show no sign of slowing down, while online revenue is rising but not fast enough to replace income lost in print.

Journalism is Australia is suffering two seemingly unrelated crises. One of trust and credibility among audiences and one of financial viability. Exasperating this situation is the growth of “Web 2.0” and the growth of participatory culture. The barrier of entry for publishing is lower than ever and “the people formally known as the audience” are interacting with their news like never before. Blogging platforms are allowing people to self publish, and even newspapers are integrating blogging into their newspaper websites with many prominent columnists also blogging on a daily basis.

Journalists have long viewed bloggers and the internet with suspicion and have news organisations have been dragging their feet when it comes to adopting true participatory conversations with their audience. While suspicion between old media journalists and the new media are easing, it is still mostly an uncomfortable relationship.

But while the internet age threatens the dominance of previously dominant news organisations, it also presents a great opportunity for journalism to explore new models of participation, news gathering and publication. What forms these new models might take are the subject of much discussion, research and experimentation. Open Journalism is one model that is being explored by The Guardian in the UK.

Open Journalism is a model of journalism that places journalism at the centre of an open eco-system of information and news gathering. Rather than treat bloggers and readers with suspicion it seeks to engage them in the process of news gathering. Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has this to say about the Guardian’s Open Journalism project:

We are developing an idea of a newspaper that is very different, Our approach recognises the importance of putting a newspaper at the heart of the open eco-structure of information so that you can then harness different voices and link to an array of other sources.

“We are reaping the rewards for breaking out of the old mindset of journalism and understanding that we can harness, aggregate, curate and report, which is a distributive model of journalism that has a richness and diversity of content.

Over the course of our research we will build a workable definition of Open Journalism and how it relates to other related concepts such as “citizen journalsim” while exploring the forms that Open Journalism currently take and how they might be improved. is it financially viable and will it address the issues of trust that currently exist in Australian journalism?