Saving Journalism, One Idea at a Time

True/Slant’s hybrid model (some* reporters find their own advertising sponsors) will save journalism! Or not.

The Huffington Post is creating tomorrow’s business model for journalism! Or not…

Northwestern University’s “computer nerds” will save journalism! Really?

Ultra-cheap netbooks could save the media industry! Umm…

Journalism Online LLC will save newspapers (!) by helping them charge for what they’ve been essentially giving away for 50 years. Could be.

The iPhone will revolutionize mobile journalism! Or not.

The recent panic over the demise of newspapers has led to a predictable flurry of omigod, now-what speculation. We’re being treated to one hype-filled piece after another about this or that startup or project that has the potential to save, revolutionize or do something really, really special to move us into the future of news and information.

Let’s take a deep breath, calm down and understand what’s going on here. There’s no way of knowing which of these worthy enterprises, products and projects — and hundreds or thousands more like them that already exist or will soon — will be around in a decade. The fact of their existence is what’s exciting, not their individual prospects.

We’ve become accustomed to a media world dominated by monopolies and oligopolies. So we — and especially the paid journalists who remain in the craft — tend to imagine that just a few big institutions will rise from the sad rubble of the journalism business.

That’s not where it’s going, at least not anytime soon. We’re heading into an incredibly messy but also wonderful period of innovation and experimentation that combines technology and people and pushes great and outlandish ideas into the real world. The result will a huge number of failures but also a large number of successes.

This is why I’ve grown more and more certain that we will not lack for a supply of quality news and information. This comes with two caveats. First, we need a solid supply of people who are willing to take some responsibility for getting quality news and information. Second, we can’t let government and/or big media take away the freedoms we now have to experiment.

Meanwhile, the next time you see or hear a story about this or that magic wand that someone is waving to save journalism, appreciate the entrepreneurial or technical or journalistic imagination that its founders have shown. But consider it just one small step along a long, long road to our future.

12 thoughts on “Saving Journalism, One Idea at a Time”

  1. There’s no one magic bullet that will save journalism. Each news outlet needs to figure out what works best for them. It’s unfortunate that, due to large corporate ownership and shortsighted management, that folks are searching for the Holy Grail and not the sustainable future right in front of them.

  2. Hey Dan, 
    A quick clarification: True/Slant contributors are not required or asked to find their own advertising sponsors. 
    At T/S, we’ve seen first-hand how every new initiative takes a turn under the will-this-save-journalism microscope. Newspapers are in trouble, but journalism will certainly survive. It will appear in new shapes on new platforms that we are only beginning to visualize.  I agree, it’s this experimentation that’s most exciting.
    As our CEO says, change isn’t the roll of the dice; standing still is.

  3. Great post Dan.
    As one of many startups – I agree x 10.

    I often get the “so you are going to save journalism with Spot.Us” question and my answer is always “no.” I am trying to be part of a much larger solution.

    In the end – journalism will survive by combining lots of different things. Spot.Us is just one log floating in the water. We are going to need a bunch of logs and some rope if we are going to make a raft.

    Here’s to figuring out who can make some rope.

  4. Yes, Dan, *we* know that all these experiments are just pieces of the puzzle, but how do you get that across to publishers who are still in the old midset, desperately grasping at the latest, greatest idea in hopes of salvaging what left of their newspapers?

  5. Nice to see some perspective on the “messy” state we are in.  The Newseum is working on a series of programs that will explore and explain some of these experiments ( including and True/Slant) to create a kind of users guide to the future of news.  IF you have suggestions pass them on.

  6. Perri, give up on the old-line publishers. They don’t want to get it.

    Paul, the user’s guide is exactly what my new book (and this site) is going to be. I suspect my direction will differ substantially from yours, however, but it’ll be interesting to compare notes as the projects proceed.

  7. Dan
    Agreed, that we need to focus on the whole ecosystem not the individual “big ideas.” However, we may need help to cull and support the best ideas in this new news ecosystem. I think the government can have a role here.
    (DigiDave – great metaphor by the way)
    It is not just that we have become “accustomed to a media world dominated by monopolies,” instead we have a set of media policies that have been developed for the most part without public input or engagement, that have privilege the corporate, conglomerate media model. While we need to change our mindset about the media world, we also need to change the policies to foster innovation, diversity of voices, quality reporting and the other elements of a media system that will provide communities with the news and info they need.
    We need to do this just for the two caveats you mention. “We need a solid supply of people who are willing to take some responsibility for getting quality news and information” and right now way more journalists are losing their jobs then are launching new ventures, leaving big holes in beat reporting and investigative journalism. And “we can’t let government and/or big media take away the freedoms we now have to experiment.” But we must look at ways that government can expand those freedoms and support new kinds experimentation. We have sketched some rough outlines of a journalist jobs program and a federal R&D fund for journalistic innovation in our new report located here
    (Also Paul and Dan – you might also be interested in this analysis and overview of many of the models and solutions being discussed – some mentioned in this post. While our focus was on the policies and political viability behind these models, there may be some use there for your projects.)

    1. Josh, I’m pretty much against government direct subsidies of journalism, though I recognize its long history of at least strong indirect support.

      We especially don’t need some federal R&D or journalism-jobs program. The research and development are racing ahead without it. That’s the key point point of the posting, in fact — the recognition that 100,000 media experiments are the R&D program, spread widely and made possible due to the low cost of trying. (Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is central to my thinking on this; everyone should read it.) These folks are in the process of creating the employment base for journalism’s future.

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