In Post-Mass-Media-Times we must reconceive of journalism as a service, not a product, says Jeff Jarvis. A conversation with the CUNY Professor about journalism as service for communities and how that service can result in revenue
Astrid: In a blogpost earlier this year you wrote about journalism as conversation. When reading it, I thought: This is exactly what we did at ‘Who owns Lüneburg’. We started a crowdsourcing project for our local newspaper Landeszeitung and wanted to investigate the real estate market. Soon it turned into a city-wide conversation about one of the most urgent topics in our society nowadays — affordable homes. The debate took place in the park, on the streets, in schools, on bike tours. Do you know similar examples of journalism as conversation in the US?
Jeff: I know a lot of examples where publications are holding events, but that is more an old lecture-kind of model, where they sit on stage and talk on stage. It is not really conversation. The two examples in the US that I love are Spaceship Media and We are Hearken. Spaceship Media does dialogue-driven journalism across divides. They enable conversations between people of contrary opinions, offline and online. Especially in Facebook groups. They help to make strangers less strange.
That sounds a little bit like Deutschland spricht from Die Zeit.
That’s correct. And I very much liked Deutschland spricht. Hearken works a bit differently. It changes the relationship of journalists with the public. The platform allows the public to assign journalists for certain issues, raise questions and vote on topics. Hearken’s process involves the public from pitch to publication. They call their model ‘public-powered journalism’. They focus on better listening, that’s what Hearken means. And it’s something we all need to do.
Do you think journalists have forgotten how to listen?
I do. Normally reporters come up with a story idea that they think matters, they set the agenda and then they go out and get quotes to fill their narrative. They talk to people and report this back. And that’s all they had to do to some defense. That’s what Guttenberg required. But the internet shows us that anyone can speak now. But no one wants to listen. That is why I am excited about Spaceship and Hearken and what you were doing at Who owns Lüneburg. You are teaching us how to listen again. Because the conversation requires both, speaking and listening.
True. During ‘Who owns Lüneburg?’ many people showed up at our events, talked to us. And we listened.
As far as I understand you were not trying to establish a conversation for the sake of having a conversation but to establish a productive conversation that accomplishes something, right? And that is exactly how I redefine journalism. My new definition of journalism is to convene communities into respectful, informed and productive conversations. Productive is the outcome: Why are we having this conversation? What are we trying to accomplish together? How are we trying to improve our communities?
Critics argue that this ‘productive conversation’ is exaggerated. If it does not bring new subscribers, why should a newspaper start a conversation in the first place?
Tell those critics that the current business model of publications is all wrong. The old mass media model is built on getting people’s attention. That’s why newspapers proprietors are focused on their old product. That product is called content. But instead they should be focused on relationships. Because content is not going to last as a product, publishers should start to build new revenue streams around relationships with their local communities.
The future of journalism requires a post-content, relationship-based strategy.
How can a relationship-based strategy result in revenue?
I will give you two examples. Look at the Online Publication Texas Tribune. It is a non for profit investigative platform for the State of Texas. It has built its revenue from sponsorships, companies, foundations and from membership with the public. They also do events. Some are free of charge, for others they charge people. Texas Tribune shows that there are multiple revenue streams possible.
And you can look at the Guardian in the UK. I worked with them on their membership program. They broke even last year with 655.000 regular paying supporters and additional 300.000 one-off contributions over the past year. People contribute to the Guardian, a for profit institution, because they want the Guardian’s journalism to be great.
If people pay to support great content, they pay for content, not for relationships. Or am I wrong?
Genau. Members support content, but they also get discussions, meetings with journalists and editors, workshops, classes, other events if they want. So the Guardian’s example is a start. It shows us how we can step away from a content-driven business model to a relation-centered model. I have tried to convince other editors to do the same, but I have failed so far. As I wrote earlier this year, if you compared digitization to housing you could say that, as an editor, your old house is on fire while you need to build a new one. Even the editors’ hair is on fire, but they don’t know what to do about it. The new house isn’t built yet. No one has a clear plan for what will work. In my book Geeks Bearing Gifts, I pinned too much hope on the growing local ecosystem of news, on hyperlocal blogs. I was wrong. I shift attention back to the legacy newspapers that are desperate for innovation and change. I am convinced the future lies in building relationships.
And therefore we must reconceive of media and journalism as a service, not a product.
The key to new revenue streams is serving communities.
How can journalists serve communities?
First we have to push people to believe that they belong to a community and that they want to help support that community. If there happens to be a publisher involved — fine. But what people really want to support is their neighbors trying to do something that’s valuable to their community. And as a journalist that serves a community you start by listening. That is service. You give respect. You try to help them meet their goals. You convene them to conversation, that is service. You can give them information, that is journalism as we know it and it is service. You can also represent them to the larger world. That is service as well. All this is not that far a field from what we think is journalism. It just puts it on its head and says that it has to come from the community first, not the newsroom. And therefore you need to establish a conversation. And relationships.
And how does this relationship-based service become a profitable business model?
If a local newspaper starts a membership program, companies could financially support it. It is a new form of advertisement. If the newspaper can say ‘I have a more valuable relationship with the public than you have’, they can make local companies investors because businesses want to profit from good relationships. It‘s tough, it’s sales, but it can work. And the public itself will be willing to pay if they see the benefit of a newspaper for their community. If they pay they do not invest in the newspaper, they invest in their community.
Even if you as newspaper proprietor are in it for profit, your supporters motifs may be charitable. They might want to brag about their support within their community and gain social capital, they might be activists and want to gain access to journalists or other members of the community. Or they might be in it for the coupons and discounts your membership might offer.
Your definition of serving a community includes information, conversation and representation. The last one sounds more like a NGO press person’s job. Representation is close to activism, is it not?
Ha, I am not afraid of that question. I think we have always been activists. When we choose what stories we do, we are representing someone against someone else. The little guy against the man. So I think we have always been activists. I once asked the Guardian’s former editor Alan Rusbridger about the Guardian’s mission to be the world’s voice and how they purport their journalistic mission. He said: ‘intellectual honesty.’ People should count on us for intellectual honesty and that includes that we are open about our own Weltanschauung. We have a perspective. So, one level or the other, we have always been activists. With a different sword, but still.
If I ran a newspaper and wanted to follow your advice, which community should I serve?
First of all communities already exist, you cannot build them. And communities know what they want. That is why your question should be: ‘How do I help a community to better do what they want to do?’ Mark Zuckerberg’s advice on this was ‘You should try to bring them elegant organization.’ If you look for a community to serve, look for real ones, not for bullshit ones like Millennials. Age is not a community. A town can be a community, especially a small town like Lüneburg. And within that community there can be other, smaller communities. Like families, sports people, people with diabetes. And you can serve those smaller communities as well.
Publishers might argue that serving a town as community is what local journalism has always done — by gathering information. So: the idea is not new, you just give it a new name.
Well, I sympathize with the publishers. Their old business model is dying. Fact. Internet killed mass media. Fact. The business model of the future can no longer be volume-based. It needs to be value-based. Content is not a good product any more. Dialogue is, a functioning community is. And if we help communities to function well we do democracy a favor.
Can the internet help to build such value-based business models?
I still haven’t figured out what the internet is, really. For sure it is a connection machine. We are not yet at the fully connected world but getting there. And this will fundamentally change how society operates. But one thing will not change: You cannot learn anything new without listening. What is missing in the internet is better listening. Respectful listening. If you can create technical solutions for that, that would be great!
Jeff Jarvis is one of the most distinguished thought leaders for journalism in the digital age. He teaches Social Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY), where he conveys the idea of community service in theory and practice. Follow him here on Medium and check his blog buzzmachine.com.
Jeff and I started our conversation on Twitter. Later on we moved to Skype, which was more difficult due to the poor internet connection in Germany’s lowlands. Next time we want to talk face-to-face when Jeff visits Germany. If he really follows my invitation to Lüneburg (which definitely is one of the most beautiful places in Germany), I’ll keep you posted.
A shorter German version of this interview was published in Medium Magazin’s current September 2019 issue.