Journalism’s problem of scale demands a rethinking of the news product

The newsroom at The Daily Telegraph

The newsroom at The Daily Telegraph. | Credit: victoriapeckham/Flickr

I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to untangle the mass of conflicting visions about the future of the news industry. But recently I heard a phrase of unusual clarity: “Traditional journalism, as a process, does not scale.”

The person who spoke this line was Matt Berger, the director of digital media at Marketplace. What he meant was there is no business model that will support an organization with 100 reporters writing 100 stories (or, as we used to refer to the newsroom, 100 monkeys at 100 typewriters).

When you are going up against a World Wide Web that has so much real-time content, it’s almost impossible to gain enough traction to adequately monetize the work of a single soul banging away at a single keyboard. This old model was only possible when information was scarce. And information was scarce because it was delivered on newsprint. (And yes, there are still a few places that can achieve the necessary scale in the digital realm, and we all know who they are.)

Of course, there is nothing earth-shattering about this concept. It’s blatantly obvious. And yet, when you stop to consider it, you wonder how anyone who cares about the future of the industry could be thinking about anything else. Or why so many news sites are still swimming upstream by trying to sell ads against work churned out by individual journalists.

The implications of this challenge are unsettling. The single “article” — journalism’s basic unit of commerce — will only rarely generate enough value to cover its cost of production. (Gulp.) But as I began to consider what scalable journalism meant, I also realized how many conversations I had had recently that were really about addressing this very problem.

I recently sat down with Steve Rosenbaum, author of “Curation Nation” and founder of His startup seeks to address this issue by helping news sites appropriately harness content that’s out there already, rather than attempt to produce it themselves. Plenty of people might want to visit the homepage of Field & Stream to watch a video about boat trailers or fishing lures. But it’s not realistic to think that magazine’s staffers can churn out enough quality video to satisfy the demand of either the audience or advertisers. Again, it’s a question of scale.

Yet the Internet is brimming with videos about these topics already. So Magnify reels in an array of relevant videos that editors can choose from. Field & Stream provides the context (you’re watching this in the confines of their site’s video page) and the curation (they choose the content that they feel is most valuable). The best part: The magazine can sell pre-roll ads or ads on the site even though the content (the actual video) was created elsewhere. Depending on the arrangement, the magazine either pockets the revenue or shares it with whoever made the video. This last point marks an evolution of the concept of curation. Not long ago, showing someone else’s video on your site was considered “theft” by some. Now, many just call it “distribution.”

The issue of scale is also lurking in the background throughout the recent report from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism on Post-Industrial Journalism (though it weighs in at an industrial-length 122 pages). Much of the report discusses the need for a new workflow that is more open and responds to the ways in which information is currently assembled and consumed. (For a smarter, Cliff Notes version of this concept, read the post from my friend and former editor Reg Chua.)

Obviously, the layers of editors that were once charged with policing copy have no place in the modern, distributed newsroom. But editing — the process of vetting, sharpening and enriching content — still holds tremendous value. I spoke recently with Roman Heindorff, one of the founders of, a browser-based product that helps organize a newsroom’s workflow. The founders were trying to address an increasingly common problem: how to bring sense to the news organization of the future, which will be made up principally of part-time contributors working on myriad projects, sometimes across vast geographies. Camayak has begun to gain traction with campus papers, which often have hundreds of occasional contributors who need a seamless way to collaborate with each other. The overall goal is to make the most efficient use of available human resources to produce greater amounts of content. The founders also believe there is a virtuous circle involved: The more people are able to use the platform to collaborate successfully, the better the content.

Marketplace’s Berger approaches the problem from the perspective of structured journalism. Achieving appropriate scale requires putting lots of up-front effort into building a digital product that doesn’t wilt with the day’s news. This means creating a database of content that the audience can dip back into multiple times and still draw new conclusions. The database can be regularly refreshed with new content to extend its life.

His Exhibit A is a Marketplace feature called Future Jobs-O-Matic, an interactive tool that lets you browse hundreds of professions to see how many people are employed as welders or what the average salary of a machinist might be (Answer: $39,000). The database is updated every two years, but people keep coming back to it, sharing it, using it in the classroom, etc. Buried in the data, of course, are also nuggets that traditional “article-producing” journalists can use as building blocks for stories.

The implications of what this all means from where I sit are far reaching. Much of what I do involves teaching students the rudiments of how to produce an article — which has an ever-shrinking economic value. Clearly, this needs to be rethought. And those of us who inhabit journalism schools need to create an environment that pushes students to produce journalistic artifacts that have a shelf life, that draw content from the crowd and that still provide a platform for storytelling and for meeting the information needs of the public. Should be a snap.

About Gabriel Kahn

Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC Annenberg School of Journalism, studies the business models of news organizations.