by Margaret Wright
For reasons my colleagues and I will talk about more in forthcoming blogs, the business side of providing news has been taking up even more space than usual in our minds and conversations these past few weeks. The questions we’re grappling with aren’t new (we’ve been asking variations of them since the Compass‘ hungry infancy), and we share them with countless other journalists and media enterprises. But I’ve been finding it helpful to sift through and revisit some of the literature that’s formed from shifting sands of the news industry.
Tracing back to semi-ancient history (c. 2002) yields this report from the Carnegie Foundation, which includes an (almost quaint) rundown of the ownership structures overarching major newspaper and broadcasting conglomerates of that day. I’ve read this report before, but armed with new insights, new points surfaced. Like this from Jay Rosen (with my emphasis added):
Observers interested in improving…service to the public might want to start at the local level-perhaps by working up a widely publicized awards program for the fifty worst TV news operations in the country. “One of them might be Los Angeles,” he said. “Some of the most sophisticated markets have the worst news, because of the dynamics of competition.“
Then there’s this bit that cuts to the core of many layers of hazard built into any news operation that marries itself to the profit motive underlying big money investment:
“If a public company underperforms for a sustained period of time, it gets taken over. And in the news business, if a company gets taken over, the quality of the journalism inevitably declines.”
By 2010, some of the panic and contentiousness among prominent news-thinkers seems to have subsided. A little. And it’s important to note that the current of optimism running through Carnegie’s report from that year includes a new sense of acceptance that
“It’s too early to know how the audience is going to define high-quality journalism.”
(Note: The Carnegie Foundation has its own complex history of contributing to the dynamics of both market competition and definitions of what constitutes a “public interest.” U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich told the New Yorker, “as in the late nineteenth century, when Carnegie, Rockefeller, and others did so, these [contemporary]philanthropic actions are small potatoes relative to the large and growing problems faced by the poor and lower middle class.”)
An intense focus on audience for business reasons has implications that are also exciting when it comes to re-creating local news in the more honest image of our communities. To me, it represents a long-overdue opportunity to meaningfully place the needs and interests of local people where they belong from both a moral and economic standpoint—that is, above the needs and interests of traditional pursestringers (advertisers and philanthropists). This realignment of priorities also has exciting implications for a new and more perfect union between old-school journalism and new-school business startupism:
“Let’s be clear: All you are selling is access to an audience that trusts us. And if they don’t trust us, you’ve got nothing to sell.”
More Money Matters
- Is your internet connectivity slow, expensive (and if you’re like about half of New Mexicans, non-existent)? Yesterday’s piece at The Upshot, a newish public policy blog at the New York Times, follows the internet-access monopoly money.
- Your most intimate, personal details are worth big money and a complicated maze of government regulation. It may feel like you’re getting content for free when you click through one of those quick “No/Yes/Maybe/Sometimes” surveys on a news site, but you’re actually feeding information to curious companies. Tech giants are finding increasingly clever ways to mine that info; this opinion piece calls for more transparency surrounding those methods. It also harkens back to the ideological shift I mentioned above:
If it’s inevitable that we’ll share in the money generated by our identities and actions, the savviest organizations are the ones who will clarify this new economy for users. Rather than shift privacy policies to cater to advertisers’ needs, it’s time to go straight to the people generating the data that drives the digital economy.