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.

ABC Open

In my previous post, I talked about the News Limited’s Courier Mail and Fairfax’s brisbanetimes.com.au, and how publishing on the web didn’t necessarily mean that they were following a more ‘open’ model of journalism. Today, I’d like to briefly examine a site that is taking a different approach to journalism,and is possibly a blueprint for other journalistic sites to follow in the future.

ABC Open is part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (a government funded, public service news agency), and it specifically invites users in Australian regional communities to share, produce, publish stories of interest to them and of relevance to their communities, with emphasis on use of social media.

The site employs two ‘Open Directors’, five state editors, and producers for individual regions within the states, but the stories themselves are created by anyone who wishes to be involved. The site itself is still classified as a work in progress, but the variety of projects uploaded is interesting.

In a way, the site feels similar to ABC Pool (which is less about stories and more about media artefacts) – a ‘project’ is begun and people are asked to contribute. One such project currently on Open, is called ‘Aftermath‘. It is following the aftermath of the recent Queensland, Kimberley and Victoria flooding, inviting people to blog about their experiences of rebuilding their communities and their lives. Instead of journalists simply interviewing the flood victims, or reporting on rebuilding efforts, the people effected are telling their own stories, and in many cases in a much more personal, intimate fashion.

Open is, like traditional newspapers/sites, regionally and geographically specific – it is very focused on the formation and sustainment of communities. It recognises that more and more people are sharing and contributing stories, photo’s and videos using social media. Right at this moment though, and this may not even be it’s eventual direction at all, it is not focused on hard-hitting, political stories. Rather, it focuses on stories that may be of interest to those local communities (or, forms communities around a particular interest).

Another aspect that perhaps distances Open from a more ‘journalistic’ participation is that people aren’t interacting with journalists per se – as said above, there are editors for the different states, and producers for the separate regions, but people are mostly contributing their own stories, without commenting or participating with anything a journalist is doing.

The flipside of that again, is that this is just one participatory aspect that the ABC has created: on the Open site, there is a sidebar listing all the other ways it is possible for users to participate with the ABC, including POOL, QandA and The Drum (which allows the user to ‘comment on the issues and stories of the day’).

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that a government funded organisation has more aspects of ‘open-ness’ than the privately owned sector. Returning once again to Terry Flew,

In many respects, public service broadcasters have taken to the digital media environment in a more effective way than their commercial counterparts. (2009)

Flew lists the ABC as a specific example. It would seem that in the digital age, and with the rise of convergent media, sites such as the ABC are adapting better than most.

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.

Social Media and Open Journalism

Social media is embedded into the everyday life, influencing the way people communicate around the world. Not only is social media an important communication tool, but a production tool in open journalism. It is a two way communication tool that is making it much easier for people to share their ideas, give feedback and interact about an issue. Open journalism is a system that seeks to organize the ideas of many contributors as a mode of production, there is no way that this would be possible without social media. Social media offers a means of collaboration, as well as publication.

The video below shows how connected people have become within their own lives and how this has created a desire to share their personal discoveries with the world wide web at the click of a button. People want to participate, they want to share their ideas, contribute their findings and give their opinions. Open journalism welcomes all of these contributions and seeks to organize them in a comprehensive way.

Often when people engage as citizen journalists they don’t see what they do as “journalism” they simply believe they are “sharing”, which is the fundamental function of social networking.

Defining Open Journalism

Rather than considering open journalism a mode of journalism or as a type of journalism, we consider open journalism a system, or a form of organization including different forms of journalism that are often produced by a third party. Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-cheif of the Guardian, describes open journalism as:

journalism which is fully knitted into the web of information that exists in the world today. It links to it; sifts and filters it; collaborates with it and generally uses the ability of anyone to publish and share material to give a better account of the world.

The Guardian, as one of the leading examples of how open journalism can function successfully, developed these ten principles of what open journalism is:

  • It encourages participation. It invites and/or allows a response
  • It is not an inert, “us” or “them”, form of publishing
  • It encourages others to initiate debate, publish material or make suggestions. We can follow, as well as lead. We can involve others in the pre-publication processes
  • It helps form communities of joint interest around subjects, issues or individuals
  • It is open to the web and is part of it. It links to, and collaborates with, other material (including services) on the web
  • It aggregates and/or curates the work of others
  • It recognizes that journalists are not the only voices of authority, expertise and interest
  • It aspires to achieve, and reflect, diversity as well as promoting shared values
  • It recognizes that publishing can be the beginning of the journalistic process rather than the end
  • It is transparent and open to challenge – including correction, clarification and addition

From the above points it is clear what The Guardian sets out to achieve with open journalism. It is important to recognise that without those third parties participating in open journalism, the system would seize to exist. In the article Anyone Can Know by Sue Robinson and Cathy DeShano, there is extensive discussion about citizen journalism and its contribution to mainstream press.

Since the early 2000s there has been a dramatic increase in trust that the public has for ‘qualified’ bloggers, sending the message that journalists need to move over and make room. This trust increase has been good for society as the it encourages citizens to participate in their democracy now that they have a say in the news production. And for those that are doing it well, there is no shortage of recognition from the public. In 2005 it was shown that over half of American’s who read blogs believed that bloggers should have the same rights as traditional journalists. This information shows a clear shift from traditional consumption of news into the digital age.

The case study that was observed and reviewed in this article concludes the necessity for citizen journalists to work together with traditional journalists. This is where open journalism comes into play and recognizes the traditional journalist as the curator of information. There seems to be a competition between the objectivity, credibility and accuracy of the traditional journalist and the connections, freshness, volume and transparency of citizen bloggers. Open journalism is an opportunity for the competition to turn into a collaboration. Both journalists can use their set skills in order to work together and create journalism that encompasses all of the aforementioned skills.

Open journalism is an ecosystem where in all the parts must function together to work effectively. Open journalism is the tool that manages, filters, links to, and collaborates with all parts to create a platform for anyone to share or publish material.

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”?