The State of the News Media report drives home what we in the communications industry, whether we like it or not, already know: new media provides countless channels for people — who traditionally turned to newspapers, television, and radio for news — to consume information. The resulting impact on the industry has been seismic. But, all should not appear so dismal, as seems to be the case when so many conversations with former colleagues in journalism turn into how the Internet is “ruining the business.”
Yes, there are glimmers of hope in this report.
First, while revenue is down, audiences are not totally abandoning traditional media outlets. As these audiences increasingly turn to the Internet for news, traditional media sites are actually the most popular. In fact, even sources for blogs studied in the report were tied to mainstream media; three outlets alone provided 65 percent of the stories bloggers linked to, according to the report.
Relationship between blandness of content and resistance to paywalls
The problem is that traditional media companies still have not figured out how to monetize this online audience. After analyzing the data in the report, I can’t help but recognize a possible correlation between the blandness of content and the resistance to paywalls. Only 35 percent of those surveyed have a favorite site, and they are very faithful, checking in once a day. Yet, only 19 percent of that group would be willing to pay. “All these findings speak to the natural disadvantage of news content. Most news is covered by more than one organization and most people do not place enough value on the difference between various reports,” according to the 2010 report.
In other words, the product of a single media outlet is not compelling enough to motivate folks to pay. Instead, they realize that they can get much of the same information about a story at a non-pay site. For me, this is a clear indication that outlets need to create something — more than just content, more like an experience — that will engage and sustain an audience. Only then will the idea of paywalls have a chance at succeeding.
Potential to revive journalism – don’t lament old way of doing things
My second takeaway from the report is that there is great potential to revive journalism by collaborating with the audience — and in the process traditional journalists will have to redefine their roles. Many news sites are becoming hybrids of information from traditional and citizen journalists. As outlets reduce reporting staffs, the study described how newsrooms have already started to integrate citizen journalists into the mix. This not only provides a way to beef up hyper-local coverage of events that outlets don’t have the resources to cover, but also allows for engagement with the audience. “You have to integrate community conversation with traditional journalism…focusing content on how to solve problems and improve the community,” writes CEO of World Company.
The collaborative nature, the idea of bringing an audience into a process that has been dominated by a top-down approach, may not be so obvious to journalists who are trying to make sense of what’s unfolding. Reporters are often caught up in the notion of news that lectures – news staffers decide what they think is important to the public. As has been duly noted, particularly in the PEJ-PIP study, that approach doesn’t fly anymore. The former audience has plenty of other options to get the information they want. The audience can become integral part of the process, and it’s clear that they must. With that the partnership also is an opportunity to strengthen journalism because, as social media expert Dan Gillmor notes in his book We the Media, an audience that participates in the journalistic process is more demanding that passive consumers of news.
Journalists as curators of information
The notion of how new media is altering the traditional idea of an audience as well as the role of reporters makes me realize how now more than ever the “audience” needs journalists to navigate through all the “noise.” While the web provides a desperately needed vehicle to revive civic journalism, this open system will still need the guidance of professional journalist to sift through and make sense of all the clutter. Emerging journalism does not render journalists obsolete. It creates a new role. Journalists will be more like curators of news, and at this juncture must do a better job of letting the public know they are desperately needed.
So, why not use this as an opportunity to take the lead on this momentous journey we are on. While many view the changing media landscape with dismay, I’ve learned to stop complaining; the changes are here to stay. Unless we embrace it, we’ll be left in the dust. Journalism’s task shouldn’t be to lament the dying of the old way.