Ecosystems and Networks
After the invention of the high-speed press, news became a vertically organized industry. Single corporations controlled every step: the entire process of defining, reporting, and producing news, its manufacture, its distribution, its sale, and its support through advertising sales. In the last half of the last century, especially in America, news companies operated in oligopolies or often as monopolies. They maintained pricing power over the cost of content to consumers and advertising to sponsors. They wielded buying power over suppliers. The arrangement was great — for publishers, at least — while it lasted. It’s no wonder those news companies mourn its passing. The single force that powered their empires was scarcity: control over the precious resources of production and distribution.
Now, of course, we all hold the means of production and distribution for news, information, and content in our hands with our keyboards or phones (or whatever devices follow). Anyone can gather and distribute information; anyone can find or join an appropriate public; everyone can be connected to anyone without need of gatekeepers or mediators — that is, media. Abundance rules in digital. As publishers shrink, they may claim that news is becoming scarcer because they make less of it. But in truth news is growing — albeit unevenly and in many ways unreliably — via no end of new sources contributing to a larger information ecosystem.
Let’s examine my home state, New Jersey, as an example of a news ecosystem. We’ve never really had a television station to call our own; instead New York and Philadelphia beam over the border to us. Our little-watched public TV station was handed over by the state to New York’s PBS station, WNET. Our little-heard public radio stations were also taken over by stations in New York and Philadelphia, WNYC and WHYY respectively. Our one notable statewide radio station, NJ101.5, is — how shall I put this with academic rigor and grace? — dreck. We have one once-dominant newspaper, The Star-Ledger, owned by Advance Publications (where I used to work and still advise), and its affiliated news service, NJ.com. There are a few more dailies owned by Gannett and local families, and a slew of weeklies. They all are shrinking. The New York Times used to cover New Jersey but has all but given up to pursue international ambitions. The Philadelphia Inquirer is holding on for dear life. Such is the state of legacy media in New Jersey.
But we do have a growing cadre of local bloggers such as Baristanet in Montclair, Red Bank Green, My Verona NJ, Cliffview Pilot, Elizabeth Inside Out (published by a former CUNY entrepreneurial student, serving a town poorer than the rest), Brick City Live (from another CUNY student, serving Newark), Morristown Green (another CUNYite), Rahway Rising (writing just about redevelopment), The Alternative Press (which covers a handful of towns), and a few dozen more. But I wish for many more than that. We have local communities such as Jersey Shore Hurricane News connecting through Facebook (from yet another CUNY veteran), where thousands of people gathered to share information during two big storms and continue to connect. Neighbors in Maplewood and South Orange still get together in a bulletin board at Maplewood Online. Cranford Radio covers its town in audio. We have what’s left of Aol’s Patch. Nextdoor is growing. Former newspaper people are managing to eke out a living and continue their beat reporting at NJ Spotlight and New Jersey Newsroom. The New York Observer runs the web site PolitickerNJ, a mini Politico for Trenton; its core business is selling a premium newsletter with gavel-to-gavel statehouse coverage called State Street Wire. There are sites serving special interests: Glocally Newark covers culture in the city; Barista Kids serves moms in Montclair; Pharmalot covers the state’s international pharmaceutical industry (it was started inside the Star-Ledger, then run independently by its author, then absorbed into the Wall Street Journal); Jersey Bites reviews restaurants, as do a few other blogs; Clever Commute offers services to long-suffering commuters, including a $35-a-year premium app. Not-for-profit investigative news organization ProPublica does much work in the state. Independent public radio station WBGO is a worldwide jazz brand and WFMU is so independent it’s impossible to describe; each has convened international audiences online. There’s robust but isolated ethnic media in the state. And there’s the appropriately named WeirdNJ, which compiles our many oddities. Finally, let’s not forget the thousands upon thousands of New Jerseyans who share information with each other on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, forums on NJ.com and other media sites, and via their own blogs. When I use the words “news organization,” I could mean any of them, not just the big, old newspaper.
There are many nonmedia contributors to the New Jersey ecosystem. State agencies and local governments are slowly getting better at sharing their information, adding to the ecosystem. The Town Stats Project is a humble effort to begin to collate local data. Companies such as utilities share information in spurts. Google obviously offers much information, from traffic to weather to restaurants to news aggregation. Google also delivers audience and, in some cases, revenue (though not much) to sites in the state. Facebook provides audience and in one case — the Jersey Shore Hurricane News — a platform for publishing and for finding collaborators to contribute news. Twitter provides promotion as well as tips and content — ditto Instagram and YouTube. WordPress is the most commonly used publishing system. Apple and Android enable some services to make and sell apps. And I hope someone — an existing participant or someone new — will build an advertising network that can aggregate the audience of many of these sites to reach the critical mass needed to sell to larger, state-wide marketers. (I’m working on that.)
You get the idea. New Jersey — like many markets — now has a growing and disorganized hodgepodge of sites, services, communities, and individuals operating on various platforms with different motives, with more or fewer resources, and with business models from none to not-for-profit to hoping-for-profit to profitable. They all contribute to a larger ecosystem of information in the state and its communities.
This notion of an ecosystem can be confusing as we leave an era dominated by monolithic media — large, vertically integrated companies with tangible products, obvious control over scarce resources, and clear brands. Now we have this untidy hydra we call an ecosystem. No one is in charge. It has huge blank spots — there are 565 towns in New Jersey, each an opportunity for corruption needing a watchdog, and only a few dozen of them covered. There is no longer a single, simple business model: circulation + advertising. Quality and credibility are sometimes question marks. Surely, you say, this is not an improvement. Perhaps not yet, but it can be. My state is a blank slate where innovation and collaboration can bloom, where more voices than ever can be heard, where citizens can end up better informed and more engaged than they were. But to get there, the ecosystem needs help and its members need to help each other. Members of an ecosystem can share content, audience, and best practices. They can share effort on collaborative projects, accomplishing more together than they could alone. They can share revenue through joint advertising sales and other activities, like events. They can also save on expenses by pooling their purchasing power for space, technology, or services. Later, when I explore new efficiencies for news, I will examine the impact of the link on a news ecosystem: how it forces each member to specialize and concentrate on what it does best and how it enables every member of an ecosystem to link to its complementary colleagues. Members of an ecosystem eventually learn a Golden Rule of linking: Linking to others is a service to readers and a courtesy to the site that receives the link. Linking can and should be a virtuous circle.
None of this will happen on its own. Lone-wolf journalists and monopolistic publishers are among the least likely professionals to think collaboratively. In the early days of the commercial web, more than a dozen large American newspaper publishers banded together to create the New Century Network, which was supposed to help them share content, audience, and advertising sales and build market power against the growing, frightening power of Prodigy and Yahoo. The Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins thought the network was such a good idea that it wanted to invest. But the newspapers could not agree even to take the money. Instead, the newspapers wasted their own money. In the end, which came quickly, the network died. News organizations must learn that it is in their enlightened self-interest to reach out and cooperate within the ecosystems that now surround them. Collaboration is an imperative for survival.
To lead horses to water in New Jersey and create a structure to foster and support collaboration in the state’s news ecosystem, I have had the privilege of working with Chris Daggett and Molly de Aguiar at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and other philanthropies to help develop a New Jersey model for a collaborative news ecosystem. A first building block of the project was to open the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University. It was started by the cofounder of Baristanet, Debbie Galant, whom I’d crowned the queen of hyperlocal. The Commons was assigned four tasks:
- To train members of the ecosystem in the skills of journalism, media, and business.
- To curate, distribute, and thus encourage the best work from the ecosystem across its members. The Commons set up a network that allows members to embed each others’ articles and posts on any of their sites; later I’ll explain that in greater depth.
- To foster collaboration among members of the ecosystem.
- To provide services members of the ecosystem need. We hope that could include libel and health insurance, though they are difficult to come by.
These sites also need business support — to improve advertising sales and develop other revenue streams, such as events — which is coming from the Local News Lab at the Dodge Foundation, run by de Aguiar and Josh Stearns. At first, we thought it was important for Montclair State to provide space so members of the ecosystem — public TV, public radio, NJ Spotlight, NJ.com, bloggers, and technology providers — could work alongside each other. But that turned out to be much less important than other mechanisms for collaboration. So far, members of the ecosystem have joined in a content- and audience-sharing network, learned how to share information on election nights, worked on collaborative reporting projects around Hurricane Sandy recovery and immigration, shared best practices with each other, and taken training in a wide range of topics.
At the same time at CUNY, colleagues Sarah Bartlett and Garry Pierre-Pierre created a Center for Community and Ethnic Media, where they also provide training and translate the work of various publications into English so it can be shared and reach a wider audience. They are helping the New Jersey News Commons reach out to ethnic publications throughout the state. At the Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, we have undertaken business research to benefit all these entities. In research on the state of the New Jersey ecosystem overseen by my CUNY colleague Chris Anderson, he concluded that networks are necessary for the survival and success of members of the ecosystem — but networks need leaders. Those leaders can be strong-willed members of the ecosystem. They can be foundations or universities. These leaders should also include large, old-media companies that can find new life, new growth, new audiences, and new efficiency by bringing together members of their news ecosystems into formal networks.
There’s one big issue with trying to forge a network out of the emerging ecosystem in a market like New Jersey: There aren’t enough nodes yet to make a fully functioning network. In other words, the ecosystem isn’t big enough; it needs more members to cover more communities. That leads to a new and necessary role for incumbent members of the ecosystems: incubation. The Commons has administered small start-up grants for new sites, but we still need to do much more to encourage new journalists and community members to start their own beat businesses. We need to grow the ecosystem. It is in the enlightened self-interest of the existing entities to encourage, recruit, train, and support new colleagues in the ecosystem. The more nodes in the network, the more valuable the network is for all. The more hyperlocal blogs there are to report on towns in the market, the less reporting large news organizations need to do, the more news they have to point to, and the more these news organizations can concentrate on large-scale reporting and investigations. The larger the ecosystem, the more outlets there are to distribute other members’ content. The larger the ecosystem, the larger the audience that can be delivered to major advertisers that still want to reach an entire market. On and on the list of benefits goes.
Incumbent members of news ecosystems should actively recruit, train, mentor, and support new members. When a newspaper lays off journalists — as happens too often and will continue until news organizations reach their sustainable sizes — why not offer to help these experienced and trusted professionals set up new businesses? Give them a technology platform and assured distribution as well as a base of advertising income until they reach critical mass. Foundations can look at critical areas of coverage that are missing in a market. They can issue challenges to find entrepreneurially inclined journalists to fill those needs, helping them with seed funding and training. Networks can recruit and train people to fill blank spots in coverage. The New Jersey News Commons did just that by recruiting news bloggers in communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy and giving them seed grants and training, funded by Dodge and Knight. Universities can train journalists in the business skills they lack. They can train local entrepreneurs in journalism and skills that may be new to them. The goal: A larger, better, more effective and sustainable news ecosystem serving a community.