Ecosystems and networks
What now for news? — Part III
I have been working on an essay that explores new relationships, forms, and business models for news. It is my reply to the question, “Now that your internet has ruined news, what now?” I do not pretend to predict, only to explore opportunities. On Medium, I’ll share the first third of the essay on new relationships for news to get your reaction and help. Here are part 3; find the rest on on Whither News? More to come.
Since the invention of the high-speed press, news has been 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. They operated in monopolies or oligopolies. They maintained pricing power over the cost of content to consumers and of advertising to sponsors and they wielded buying power over suppliers. The arrangement was great — for publishers, at least — while it lasted and it’s no wonder they so loudly lament its passing. The single force that enabled 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 soon on our heads with Google Glass and devices yet uninvented). 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 yet 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.
To take 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 sold by the state to New York’s PBS station. Our little-heard public-radio stations were also taken over by stations in New York and Philadelphia. Our one statewide radio station, NJ101.5, is — how shall I put this with academic rigor and grace? — drek. We have one once-dominant newspaper, The Star-Ledger, owned by Advance Publications (where I used to work), a few more dailies owned 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. Such is that state of legacy media in New Jersey.
But we do have a growing cadre of local bloggers like Montclair’s Baristanet, Red Bank Green, Morristown Green, My Verona NJ, Elizabeth Inside Out (published by a former student of mine, serving a poorer town than the rest), Rahway Rising (writing just about redevelopment), and The Alternative Press (which covers a handful of towns). And I wish for many more. We have local communities like Jersey Shore Hurricane News connecting through Facebook, where thousands of people gathered to share information during two big storms and in between and since. We had Aol’s Patch. Former newspaper people are trying 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; 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 Pro Publica 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. 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, in Facebook, on Pinterest, on Tumblr, in forums on NJ.com and other media sites, and in their own blogs. When I use the words “news organization,” I could mean any of them, not just the big, old paper.
There are many nonmedia contributors to the 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. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Google+, and other technology platforms allow people here to publish and distribute what they know.
There are more players in the ecosystem on its periphery, serving its members. Google provides 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 a few 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 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 most every market — now has a growing and disorganized hodgepodge of sites, services, communities, and individuals that operate 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 of monolithic media in which large, vertically integrated companies with tangible products, obvious control over scarce resources, and clear brands controlled the scene. Now we have this disorganized mess 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 score or more of them are covered. There is no single simple business model for them all as their used to be: circulation + advertising. Quality and credibility are sometimes question marks. Surely, you say, this is not an improvement. Perhaps not yet, but it can be. New Jersey 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 as does everyone in it. Its members must start by aiding each other, by collaborating to do more together than each could do apart, thus finding efficiency; by concentrating on what each does best and thus improving the quality of that work; by sharing generously. These, too, are new skills for news people who have been accustomed to operating inside their moats, behaving competitively and secretly.
The first and most basic form of collaboration is the link. “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” is my tweet-ready dictum. A local news organization is no longer expected or able to bring the world to your doorstep. It won’t do as good a job covering the world as a host of services that are now a click away: The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC…. The local paper can’t afford to do it all anymore. The link enables a local newspaper online to send users to other news services or to source material. This also drives members of the ecosystem to specialize, to use precious resources wisely so they may deliver the highest quality service and so they will get more links to them, bringing more audience and greater value. Members of an ecosystem soon learn a Golden Rule of linking: Linking to others is a service to a readers and a courtesy to the site that receives the link. It is also a way by which linkees discover linkers and may link back in return. Linking can and should be a virtuous circle.
Members of an ecosystem can obviously work together in more direct ways. They can share content, audience, and best practices. They can share effort to work on joint projects, accomplishing more together than they could alone. They can share revenue through joint advertising sales — a model I will urge in the last section of this essay — and other activities, like events. They can also save on expenses by pooling their purchasing power for space, technology, or services.
None of this will happen on its own. Indeed, loner 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. Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins thought the network was such a good idea it wanted to invest but the newspapers could not agree even to take the money. They wasted their own money instead. In the end, which came quickly, the network was a gawdawful disaster, for the publishers could not agree about anything, from tactics to strategy. News organizations must see that it is in their enlightened self-interest to reach out and cooperate within it. Collaboration is an imperative for survival.
To lead the horses to water in New Jersey and create a structure to foster and support collaboration in the state’s news ecosystem, I worked with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and other local philanthropies as well as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to help conceive of the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University. It is run by the founder of Baristanet, whom I’d crowned the queen of hyperlocal, Debbie Galant. The Commons has four tasks:
- To train members of the ecosystem in the skills of journalism, media, and — this is important — business.
- To curate, distribute, and thus encourage the best work from the ecosystem across its members. The Commons uses a service called Repost.US, which I’ll describe later.
- 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 — advertising sales, primarily — and I will discuss that in the last third of this essay. In addition, Montclair State provided space so many members of the ecosystem — public TV, public radio, NJ Spotlight, NJ.com, bloggers, and technology providers — can work alongside each other in hopes that joint efforts would ensue. So the members of the ecosystem have joined in a content- and audience-sharing network, learned how to share information on election nights, and worked on collabortive projects around covering Hurricane Sandy recovery and immigration.
At the same time at my school in New York, 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 in the state. At the Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, we have undertaken business research to benefit all these entities, which I will outline later. In research on the state of the New Jersey ecosystem that my CUNY colleague Chris Anderson oversaw, he concluded that networks are necessary to 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 universities and foundations, as in New Jersey. 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 my home state, New Jersey: There aren’t enough nodes to make a network. In other words, the ecosystem isn’t big enough; it needs more members. That leads to a new and necessary role for incumbent members of the ecosystems: incubation.
It is in the enlightened self-interest of these entities to encourage, recruit, train, and support new members of the ecosystem. For the more nodes there are 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 more reporting there is that large news organizations don’t need to do, the more they have to point to, and the more they can concentrate on large-scale reporting and investigations. The more members of the ecosystem there are, the more outlets there are to distribute other members’ content. The more members there are, the larger the audience that can be delivered to large advertisers. And on and on the list of benefits goes.
So I believe that incumbent members of news ecosystems must actively recruit, train, mentor, and support new members. When a newspaper lays off journalists — as happens too often and it will continue to happen until news organizations reach their sustainable sizes — why not offer to help these experienced and trusted hands 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 and issue RFPs to find entrepreneurially inclined journalists to fill those needs, helping them with seed funding and training. Networks can also recruit and train people to fill in blank spots in their coverage; the New Jersey News Commons did just that in 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 and 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.