Online opportunities make journalism’s future bright, despite gloomy feelings

It’s easy to believe that these are the worst of times for journalism.

All you have to do is look at opinion surveys to find that journalists are lower in public esteem than lawyers and car salesmen. Or look at the steady decline in newspaper circulation and TV news viewership. Or recall the scandals that have tarnished some of the most powerful brands in journalism — The New York Times and CBS News. Or observe the recent announcements of layoffs or buyouts in newsrooms across the country.

There also are legitimate reasons, as newspaper and TV news audiences contract, to worry about the future of our society. We’ve relied on newspapers, the major TV networks and local TV news to uncover problems in government, business and society that need to be remedied. This kind of public-service journalism has kept government officials honest, contributed to the punishment of evildoers and rallied public support for social change. But who will produce this kind of journalism if big companies don’t invest in it? And can investigative reporting continue to have an impact if the audience for traditional media continues to shrink?

These are important questions. There is good cause to be concerned about the trends — in technology, in audience behavior, in the business of media — that are playing out all around us.

But I, for one, do not believe that journalism’s future is gloomy. In fact, I think that when we look back on the early years of the 21st century, we will recognize it as a period of exploding opportunity for journalists and the start of an exciting new era for journalism. I also think it’s quite possible that we’ll look back on these years as a period when a better informed public began to emerge, thanks to new communications channels and technologies.

Am I nuts? Maybe. The signs of decline in traditional forms of journalism are real. But declining audiences and financial returns for newspapers and television news do not necessarily translate into worsening prospects for journalism, nor into a more poorly informed society.

From many to few and back again

We need to start by recognizing that the mass-media era of the past five or six decades is an anomaly. Looking over 200-plus years of U.S. history, the norm has been a multitude of media choices. Consider the dozens of pamphleteers whose work could be found on the streets of Philadelphia in the years before the Revolution. Or take a look at N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual, where I found that in 1908 Chicago, there were 30 daily newspapers, including five in German, four in Bohemian and three in Polish.

In the last half of the 20th century, that wide variety shrank to just a few news options. In most cities, the media audience gravitated to just one daily newspaper and no more than three local TV stations. This was good for those companies’ business; as a monopoly or oligopoly, they could steadily increase prices for advertising. This made local newspapers and TV news extraordinarily profitable — with profit margins of 15-25 percent for newspapers, 25-40 percent for TV.

Now consider today’s world. We once laughed at predictions of 500 channels, but that’s the wrong order of magnitude. Counting cable networks, blogs, podcasts, email newsletters, etc., it’s more like 500 million channels today.

This explosion of choice is good for consumers, but bad for the companies that thrived during the mass-media era. There’s probably nothing that can reverse the trend of shrinking audiences for TV news and newspapers. And those shrinking audiences will, ultimately, mean shrinking profits. In the short term, we’re seeing these companies maintain their profitability by cutting expenses. But they can’t do this indefinitely without harming quality, reducing the appeal of their products and thereby accelerating the decline in the size of the audience.

All of this is why many of the most successful media companies now have a multiplatform strategy — newspapers, Web, TV, cable, magazines and more. Adding a distribution channel can help a media company reach new audiences. But those new options — in a world of almost infinite choice — are unlikely to bring the kind of profit that media companies once raked in during the years of monopoly or oligopoly market positions.

This is the most transformative era in media since at least the birth of television — and, perhaps, the most transformative era in society as a whole since the Industrial Revolution. In a period of metamorphosis, there will inevitably be losers. Some great media businesses — ones that delivered terrific journalism as well as solid financial returns — are going to fail within the next 10 years or be acquired by other companies. And those that survive will probably employ fewer journalists than they do today.

So we have shrinking audiences, declining profits, and fewer journalism jobs in traditional media. For those who care about journalism, journalists and the important role they play in our society, this seems like a bleak picture. But assuming that the future of journalism hinges on the fate of the big media companies would be a mistake.

New technologies yield journalistic opportunity

Looking back on the history of communications, it is clear that new technologies have often created new opportunities for journalism.

Beginning in the 1830s, advancements in printing technology enabled entrepreneurs to turn out tens of thousands of newspaper editions at low cost every day. The hugely successful “penny papers” expanded newspaper readership and became the dominant vehicles for advertising. Higher circulation and competition, of course, fueled a need for reporters and editors.

Or consider the advancements in cameras and, again, printing technology that enabled Henry Luce and his colleagues to create Life magazine in 1936 — at that time, an entirely new concept that provided steady employment for a new team of writers, editors and photojournalists.

Radio and TV, of course, also created new journalism jobs. And there are some interesting parallels between the early days of broadcasting and the early days of the Internet. In both cases, individuals and companies began using new technology to create and distribute content long before a clear business model had emerged. And in both eras, there was a vigorous debate over whether people would respond favorably to advertisements in the new medium.

In the end, radio came to be financed via advertising, and the same business model carried over to television. Networks and local stations became successful businesses, and therefore were able to hire a growing number of journalists.

Now, in the early 21st century, the question is: Will Internet business models support the creation of original journalism? Until recently, it’s been hard to answer that question with a yes. While most traditional media companies launched websites, they served more as alternate distribution for already-created content than as a platform for original journalism. Most of the jobs created in online news have involved re-packaging and updating rather than original reporting. And online startups such as have struggled mightily to reach profitability.

Developments within the past year, though, suggest that business models for the Web are beginning to mature, and that they could be sufficiently lucrative to pay for original content. Some examples:

  • Coming out of the recession, Internet advertising is booming — and traditional media companies are taking notice. If you’re in the media business and you want to grow, you have to make an investment in original online content. That’s why the New York Times Co. bought, why Dow Jones bought and why Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought
  • In some categories — sports, technology and business — it’s already possible to generate sufficient online advertising revenue to pay journalists to create original content. That’s because these are categories with established bases of advertisers who want to reach the audiences interested in that specific kind of content.
  • To support the costs of creating other types of journalism, ad-targeting technologies are beginning to offer promise. Online publishers have touted the Web’s targeting capabilities since the first banner ads were deployed in 1994. But the ingredients for effective ad targeting are only just now coming together: demographic targeting linked to user registration, contextual targeting built on keywords (e.g., Google AdSense), and behavioral targeting technology that delivers ads based on types of pages visited previously.
  • Individual journalists are using the Web successfully to market themselves, build their audience and even finance their journalism. Consider Dan Washburn’s “Shanghai Diaries” blog. Washburn is a former newspaper journalist who covers China as a freelancer and is working on a book. With no book contract yet, he solicits donations via PayPal. In doing so, he’s taking a cue from Chris Allbritton, a freelancer whose blog readers ponied up $15,000 in 2003 so he could cover the Iraq war. Allbritton is now based in Iraq and being paid by several media outlets.
  • Capital is flowing to entrepreneurs who launch journalism ventures. Jason Calacanis’ network of niche blogs, Weblogs Inc., was just snapped up by AOL for a reported price of $25 million. Journalists who launched, envisioned as a network of “citizen journalism” sites covering towns and neighborhoods, just got $3 million from investors to expand their business. These developments demonstrate that journalists with an entrepreneurial bent may be able to build their own media companies.
  • Yahoo!, which became one of the Internet’s most successful content destinations while creating little or no original journalism, is changing its approach. In the past few months, the company hired multimedia journalist Kevin Sites, commissioned regular columns from high-profile columnists for Yahoo! Finance, and launched an online adventure travel channel featuring original video. If any of these initiatives prove successful, Yahoo! won’t be the only site making investments in original content on the Web.

Online journalism can serve public interest

Taken together, these indicators suggest that there’s going to be money available to support original Internet journalism and employ the journalists who create it. But it’s less clear that Internet-based media can fulfill the public service role that newspapers, network TV and local stations — with their deep pockets, experienced journalists and large audiences — have played during the mass-media era. But I remain optimistic that Internet journalism will be a force for constructive change in our society.

My optimism stems, in part, from my faith that an open, accessible publishing medium should be good for a democratic society. If someone had told me 15 or 20 years ago that we would have a medium that allowed anyone to publish anything they wanted, and that through that medium just about anyone could read it, I am sure I would have celebrated such a development as positive for democracy.

My faith in the Internet is not blind. I recognize that a solo blogger with no journalism training is not likely to do the kind of investigative reporting that our finest newspapers do. But the Internet has at least three capabilities that can help make online journalism an influential force.

First, the openness of the Internet enables people with something to say to find an audience, even if they are not backed by a major media company. Original voices have emerged: Joshua Marshall, Xeni Jardin, Glenn Reynolds, Ana Marie Cox. And we’ve seen that bloggers can focus the attention of the public — and mainstream journalists — on stories that might otherwise have been undercovered. Think, for instance, of the bloggers who made an issue of Sen. Trent Lott’s comments that seemed to praise fellow Sen. Strom Thurmond’s support of segregation in the 1940s.

Second, the Internet’s “viral” characteristics — its foundation technology of hypertext linking and users’ ability to share information easily via e-mail — can help lead people to discover great journalism they would have missed. Even if financial pressures lead traditional media companies to shrink and to do less original journalism, the good work that is done can be spread widely via person-to-person communication.

And third, RSS feeds and feed-reading software offer the potential for solving one of journalism’s fundamental problems: that any story reaches only a fraction of the people who would have found it relevant if only they knew it existed. Feed readers are still very primitive, but I can certainly imagine one that sorts and prioritizes my RSS feeds based on criteria including where I live, what industry I work in, what sources I most trust and what content other people like me have found interesting. The idea of a digital “Daily Me” has been floating around since the 1970s; RSS feeds are the technology that might allow this idea to become reality. RSS also shows promise as a revenue engine based on ad targeting.

And technology continues to march forward, creating new devices that can act as conduits for journalism. A world where TVs can download Internet content or where mobile phones and iPods can access online video is a place where citizens have many more ways to access great journalism.

Who will be the pioneers?

We are only a decade into the Internet era; this medium is still in its infancy. But if I’m right about the direction Internet journalism is headed, some group of journalists working today — or perhaps still enrolled in school — will be recognized as the pioneers in the field.

Some of them are probably working in traditional newsrooms today, just as many of the journalists who invented TV news started off working for newspapers and wire services.

If you watched a newscast in the early TV era, you saw a guy sitting behind a desk, reading a newspaper or wire service story. As their medium matured, talented journalists figured out a whole new narrative vocabulary, inventing perhaps the most powerful medium ever for journalistic storytelling.

When the history of media is written, who will be recognized as the inventors of interactive journalism? Who will be the Cronkite of this new field? We can’t yet know, but I’m sure some will come out of newsrooms and journalism schools. Others will come from the worlds of theater, screenwriting, animation, photography, computer science and game development.

What they will have in common: an urge to create, to discover, to share what they know and, just maybe, to change the world. What could be more exciting than to create something — a story, a photo, a video, a sound recording — and make it available to anyone who might be interested?

I find myself thinking these days about Edward R. Murrow, the subject of a movie that’s currently in theaters. The hallmark of his career was unflinching journalism, whether delivered on the radio from war-torn London or on TV from the fields where he produced the “Harvest of Shame” investigative report on the plight of migrant workers.

Murrow got his start in radio but moved over to TV when he saw its power. If he were alive today, I think he’d be captivated by new technologies and excited by their potential to get important stories out to the public. He’d certainly recognize the decline in audience that CBS News has seen in the past few years, but he’d be interested in new ways to deliver great journalism to the maximum number of people.

Can you imagine “Harvest of Shame” on a video iPod?

Rich Gordon is associate professor and director of the new media program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Before coming to Medill, he was the first new media director for The Miami Herald. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he was an early leader in the use of technology to analyze data for journalistic purposes.

About Rich Gordon

Rich Gordon is associate professor and director of the new media program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Before coming to Medill, he was the first new media director for The Miami Herald. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he was an early leader in the use of technology to analyze data for journalistic purposes.