In the era of newspapers, people never really paid for news.

News have always spread freely among people, thanks to radio and television, word-of-mouth, small talks at bars, phone calls: “Did you hear what just happened?”.

What people paid for, for years, were essentially two things: the work of research, curation and fact-checking conducted by journalists, and the physical support on which they were distributed. That is, paper.

The former is still valid, while less noticeable: if the role of filtering and monitoring of news by news organizations is getting more and more disrupted –in an era where information overload grows at a rate of millions of bits per hour– the role of reporters is still crucial to guarantee accuracy and truth, to debunk hoaxes and verify the reliability of the sources. In this sense, nothing has changed. What has changed is the way this process happens; the techniques have changed, the available tools have changed, the platforms have changed (Reported.ly, anyone?). But even in this radically transformed scenario, the role of journalists has stayed the same. They should provide reliable information: it is a service. And people, I think, are still willing to pay for it.

But what about paper, and newspapers? Newspapers were essentially made up of two elements: content, and the paper where this content is printed.

And what is paper if not a device,
one of the many we use to convey news?

Moreover, it is was (and still is) an expensive and bulky device, slow to produce and hard to distribute. Yes, we sold newspapers because they gave to people the power to reach the news. But actually we sold the paper, not the news.

With some exceptions (in-depth journalism, scoops, niche and local news) the Internet then made news a commodity, and paper not needed anymore. The need has been disrupted also by the uprising of new devices –computers, smartphones, smartwatches, wearables– that were (sorry, are) lighter, smaller, more beautiful. Business models were broken, many newspapers died, people lost their job. Yet the progressive disappearing of newspapers didn’t kill journalism, as much as the disappearing of vinyls and tapes didn’t kill music. Truth has been out there for a long time, but we didn’t want to see it: journalism and news live outside their media.

© Phil Gyford on Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This is why a news organization that doesn’t invest in technology is likely to die. It doesn’t mean that every single newspaper in the world has to develop and own a unique technology; it means that it has to find a distinctive and pristine way to use and approach technology, if only by creatively using open-source platforms or tools that already exist. Vox, BuzzFeed, Quartz, the Guardian and many others news organizations are already doing that, providing their readers with amazing user experiences and innovative storytelling. This matters, now more than ever.

On the other hand, some companies still rely on a more old-fashioned approach. No worries, though. If you arrived late at the platform, you still have time to jump on the bandwagon of digital transformation: turn the table upside down, change your mindset, do it today. Revolutionize your priorities, reorganize your newsroom, reverse your approach. Don’t complain about people not paying for news anymore; truth is, they never did.

Journalism is alive and kicking:
if you’re broke, that’s your fault.

First, exploit technology. Technology is an ally, not an enemy. It doesn’t mean to be “only” digital-first and mobile-first. It means using technology in an innovative way to let the readers live an experience that is seamless, interactive, immersive, gamified, unique. An experience they would invest in their most precious belongings: not money, but time and attention. Don’t forget that technology and innovation travel a fast lane. Two months ago we didn’t have apps like Meerkat or Periscope and, in two years from now, we might not have them anymore.

Once we have established this powerful connection, we can try to build a new relationship atop it. The link between the content and the audience is where we can think about a new business model for news. As Fortune’s Mathew Ingram brilliantly put it at the latest International Journalism Festival in Perugia,

How? This is still hard to tell. Jeff Jarvis suggests we reinvent our relationship with the community of people formerly-known-as-readers and start seeing journalism as a service. We should build solid memberships and save energies: «Let’s do what we do best, and link to the rest», Jarvis recommends. We should see the reader as a producer and a source of news, rather than a recipient; as a colleague, rather than a customer (while improving the way we serve her as customer); as a fundamental and active part of a greater ecosystem, rather than solely a beneficiary.

We need readers to trust media companies again.

We need to gain this trust through a newly established relationship that exploits all the benefits made available by technology. In the news industry, to quote Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, “everything must change so that everything can stay the same”. Newspapers must open their doors to readers, not shelter behind them. Because one thing is certain: journalism has never been so widespread, exciting, powerful, and fast-growing.


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Thoughts On Journalism

Taking on the problems and challenges in journalism. Spreading ideas, passions and new ways of thinking about media. A publication run by Media Lab Bayern.

Valerio Bassan

Written by

Head of growth strategy at VICE Italia. Head of Product at Forbes Italia. 2017 Tow-Knight alumn.

Thoughts On Journalism

Taking on the problems and challenges in journalism. Spreading ideas, passions and new ways of thinking about media. A publication run by Media Lab Bayern.

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