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05.12.09

The Scrappy Entrepreneurs Who Will Save Media

The future of news isn’t newspapers, blogs, or revenue-sharing models—it’s all three. From Rupert Murdoch on down to the Internet’s cub reporters, meet the newshounds who are joining forces to reshape tomorrow’s media landscape.

Like the mayhem in the broader economy, the media-business crisis is far from over, and in the case of newspapers and magazines is nowhere near the end of the shakeout. But outlines for the future of news are clearer now than they were a few months ago, with even some hopeful signs of positive change. There are three major categories to consider, which to some extent overlap: traditional media, revenue-sharing among content creators and distributors, and new models for news gathering in both for-profit and nonprofit guises. The subject is vast, and the flow of data, conference reports, and punditry has become a gusher. But stepping back from it all, the conclusion is inescapable that the information industry is focusing on solutions while it is still in the midst of a wrenching upheaval.

The entrepreneurs, the young, and the baby boomers are full of energy. They believe news is indispensable and that ingenuity about how to collect and pay for it is worth a great deal.

Traditional media. The bankruptcies, closings, and cutbacks have tended to overwhelm an important trend. Newspapers (and magazines) with national reach are no longer downplaying or dismissing the prospect of charging for their content and are considering new approaches to monetizing their output. The New York Times and Washington Post test of subscription-supported discounts for the larger-screen Kindle is one example, among others I have heard whispers about. Rupert Murdoch has become increasingly outspoken on the payment issue. I am reminded of what happened a generation ago, when Murdoch got fed up with British newspaper unions. He broke them by moving to new plants and hiring strikebreakers. He can be very tough when the stakes are high enough.

The showdown in Boston over the future of the Globe and reports from other cities such as Chicago and San Francisco indicate that the civic leadership finally understands they will lose an indispensable asset if newspapers go under, not just for providing news but for advertisers. Business needs to advertise, and the Web alone is not enough in some display categories. When the economy revives, surviving newspapers, smaller and humbler, will still be a good place to strut goods.

There is also an intriguing notion that newspapers could be sold to new owners for as little as $1 plus debt and be relaunched through restructuring with much lower legacy costs, perhaps as public-service enterprises. This proposal on the MinnPost Web site for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune caught my eye and highlights the importance of public radio and television as a potential partner for newsgathering in the years ahead. There is a concept in financial maelstroms known as the overshoot. It may be that the imperiled newspapers will not disappear to the extent that now seems likely, but will endure, albeit in different forms.

Revenue sharing. I have been amazed at how much has changed on this issue since the winter, when the issue of whether news was a freebie seemed settled simply because link distributors and some recyclers said it was. Here again, the ultimate formula remains elusive. But the new venture started by Steven Brill, Gordon Crovitz, and Leo Hindery reflects a sense that a subscription model or an add-on charge to broadband fees (comparable to the cable television system) or some other metering device will emerge. If Google still thinks it is everybody’s friend, it isn’t paying attention to the Justice Department’s various probes on antitrust matters or the delay imposed by the judge on the settlement of the book publishers'/authors' suit against Google because of the objections of so many other parties with an interest in the outcome.

New models. Everyone with a professional interest in journalism now knows about ProPublica (supported by a large philanthropic gift), MinnPost (foundations, membership, advertising), and Politico (a for-profit division of a television company). But there are many other outfits in various phases of development using journalists spun off from local papers and others with less formal experience. The Web-based St. Louis Beacon has a partnership with KETC, the public-television station, for sharing space and some content. The partners are producing a “high-quality product based in trust with the community,” Jack Galmiche, president of KETC, told Current.org. Something similar is in a very early stage in Seattle in the weeks since the Post-Intelligencer ended its print edition.

The Center for Public Integrity has a longstanding reputation for creative journalism outside the conventions of the press as we knew it, but startups such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (with money from the Pulitzer family) are deploying a variety of reporting resources and disseminating material through many outlets—print, Web, and broadcast.

Almost without exception, the entrepreneurs and managers in all three categories are in some stage of struggle for traction or survival. But there is so much on the downside happening that the beginnings of the upside can be missed. The entrepreneurs, the young, and the baby boomers are full of energy. They believe news is indispensable and that ingenuity about how to collect and pay for it is worth a great deal, especially when the alternative is obsolescence. I’ve now listened to a lot of these people talk about their plans and am impressed with their fierceness of intent. That is no guarantee of eventual success in the reinvention of news, but you can’t get anywhere without it.

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House, and was a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post.