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Journalism as it Was, Is and Should Be – The Story So Far

June 7, 2011

“The Story So Far – What we know about the business of digital journalism” is a detailed report by Columbia University on the state of journalism in the 21st Century. The report is based solely on the US media landscape.

It is a highly detailed study into the economic issues that news organisations—large and small, old and new—face with their digital ventures. With an admitted bias “We do have a bias: We think the world needs journalism and journalists.”

“The Story So Far” underlines that has the game changed forever with the advent of the Internet. What’s more, many traditional media outlets haven’t even worked out the rules yet, let alone found their way to the field. Despite this, it provides numerous examples of positive outcomes for those that have dared to step outside the box.

The most reoccurring theme throughout is the loss of revenue from advertisers. Advertisers now have far more options than ever to spend their dollars, meaning constant downward pressure on advertising rates – particularly in the digital realm. This is causing many large traditional media companies to struggle to hold onto highly profitable print editions and keep pace constantly evolving online trends for significantly lower returns.

The report ultimately concludes that it’s clear many sectors of the traditional news industry have been slow to embrace changes brought on by digital technology. They also have been flummoxed by competitors who invest minimally in producing original content but have siphoned off some of the most profitable parts of the business.

At the same time, digital journalism has created significant opportunities for news organisations to rethink the way they cover their communities.

The recommendations of the report are;

  • Digital platforms have been treated too often by traditional news organisations as just another opportunity to publish existing content. Many sites are filled with “shovelware” rather than giving consideration to these platform as business opportunities.
  • Media companies should redefine the relationship between audience and advertising. Journalists must make a fuller commitment to understanding the audiences they have and the ones they want, and to revamping their digital offerings to ensure deeper loyalty.
  • Media companies ought to rethink their relationships with advertisers. Advertisers now have many more ways to reach customers than they used to and that some of these methods, such as social media, can be cheap and effective. News organisations have their own strengths: They produce journalism that is geared to their communities, and they employ sales forces who know their markets—both of which should give them a competitive advantage.
  • News and marketing companies should develop alternatives to the impression-based pricing system that dominates online advertising. Moreover, media companies must come up with ways to build content value into digital display ads; too many of them are relics of a decade ago — boxes on a page that convey little of the information or appeal that historically made advertising valuable to consumers.
  • News organisations must be vigilant about outright theft of their content, but they should also realise that most aggregators operate within the bounds of copyright law and are generating value for readers.
  • It is asking a lot to expect a legacy division—in news or ad sales—to embrace such a radically different world as digital. Bigger companies should analyse the potential in creating separate digital staffs, particularly on the business side.
  • Journalists must be prepared for continued pressure on editorial costs. We are likely to see a world of more, and smaller, news organisations, the most successful of which will leverage their staffs and audience by using aggregation, curation and partnerships with audiences to provide content of genuine value.
  • Mobile digital devices represent a special challenge for news companies; for every successful new product or new platform, there will be others the company tried that didn’t work.
  • Any news site that adopts a pay scheme now should have very limited expectations for its success—at least on the Web. A pay plan merged with an ambitious strategy to improve users’ experience on mobile platforms has a much better chance to succeed.

The document can and should be downloaded in it’s entirety here, all 143 pages of it, however we have read though it and sliced and diced each chapter. Because of the sheer volume of information, our edited version will be published in 9 parts, each representing the individual chapters of the report.

  1. News from Everywhere: The Economics of Digital Journalism – Challenges preconceived ideas that the Internet is the root cause of the problem but does examine the seismic shift it has created between traditional methods and the digital world.
  2. The Trouble with Traffic: Why Big Audiences Aren’t Always Profitable – Introduces the idea that user engagement is just as important as outright numbers. Examines different behaviour patterns of users who enter via search engine, homepage or social media links.
  3. Local and Niche Sites: The Advantages of Being Small – Discusses hyperlocal sites and the potential for profit by focusing on specific regions. Appraises the difference between independent hyperlocal sites and those owned and controlled by traditional media empires.
  4. The New New Media: Mobile, Video and Other Emerging Platforms – Points to the emergence of mobile devices, like the iPad, as a way to increase user engagement. Also details the increasing importance of news video and the challenges it brings.
  5. Paywalls: Information at a Price – Contrasts the pros and cons of introducing payrolls. Which approach is best, free or paid? Readers now get the content they want for free online, why would they pay?
  6. Aggregation: ‘Shameless’ – and Essential – “Read Less, Know More.” Aggregators are both the scourge of traditional media  and a necessary evil. Like it or not, consumers don’t seem to care.
  7. Dollars and Dimes: The New Costs of Doing Business – Traditional media is experiencing dramatic revenue losses with the shift to online publication. At the same time, new business models are emerging that are wildly successful. Where is all the money going and can it be recovered?
  8. New Users, New Revenue: Alternative Ways to Make Money – The process of finding new readers and dollars is forcing media companies to redefine who they are and what business they are really in. To be successful, enterprises must understand “The Internet isn’t a friend or an enemy. It’s reality.”
  9. Managing Digital: Audience, Data and Dollars – The importance of managers responding more deftly to opportunities cannot be understated. Managing move to digital is more than just cutting expenses, understanding the medium and responding to the ever-changing landscape is vital to success.

There are also many lessons to be learned for public relations and corporate communications specialists. Dramatically reduced staff, constant pressure on editorial costs and more news organisations all point towards a growing dependance on PR practitioners to fill in the gaps. And at the risk of pushing a shameless plug, tools like online newsrooms will no doubt become increasingly important.

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