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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 May 2006, 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK
The changing mix of money and media

By Dan Gillmor

Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein (l) and Bob Woodward, AP
Ad revenue made Bernstein and Woodward's Watergate expose possible
A few years ago, a newspaper writer looked at the burgeoning world of online news gathering and dissemination and said: "One of these days we're going to find out what people actually want to read."

Journalists, accustomed to telling their readers - or viewers or listeners - what they need to know, might have found the idea somewhat disturbing. Here was the possibility that the audience would, via mouse clicks, become the arbiters of what was newsworthy, and that journalistic competition might reflect a lower, perhaps the lowest, common denominator.

If so, journalists who cared about depth and quality would face what we might call a tyranny of popularity.

Competition time

Apart from the elitism that suggests, the worry isn't entirely wrong. But while mass media tend to be pandering more and more to entertainment and diversion, not serious journalism, something else has occurred in the online world.

The more serious cyber-journalistic competition appears to be for niche topics, where bloggers and other people using democratized publishing tools can win audiences by going narrow and deep, instead of the wide and shallow coverage that prevails in much of the mass media.

But the most serious competitive threat to traditional journalism doesn't come from bloggers and their compatriots. It comes instead from businesses that are also using technology's power. They're winning advertising, the other kind of "content" that appears in print publications and broadcasts.

What if we're in for a decade or two of decline in the watchdog journalism that takes deep pockets and a civic commitment to produce?

Marketing isn't disappearing overall. It's just moving to different venues, and bodes badly for the way we've supported journalism over the past century or so.

Newspapers, in particular, rely in significant part on classified advertising, a lucrative business with absurdly high profit margins.

But in recent years web services such as eBay, Monster.com, craigslist and others have carved away a nontrivial portion of that business. They offer customers, both buyers and sellers, a much better deal: greater convenience, larger selection, unlimited "space" for the advertisement on the web page and lower prices, sometimes outright free.

The competitors for classified advertising are nimble, well-funded and innovative. The only one of those attributes newspapers can match, for the moment, is the ability to invest.

To their great advantage, the online competitors can operate far more leanly and cheaply for their customers - in part because doing journalism would be an absurd distraction from their businesses, not a foundation of what they do.

TV licence, BBC
Few broadcasters share the BBC's funding system
Meanwhile, Google and other online advertising brokerages are carving away some of the remaining revenue. This occurs even as they cosy up to traditional media organisations, which apparently see no alternative to doing business with companies that ultimately could be their undoing.

Ad break

Consider broadcasters' problems. Commercial programmes rely on the 30-second advertisement. In our home, we have a hard-disk video recording system. It comes with a remote-control device that makes 30 seconds disappear with a single press of a button. Goodbye to another business model, and I can't say I'm terribly bothered by contributing to what for the producers is a genuine problem. In an age of innovation, business models face disruption.

Few organisations have the current luxury of the BBC, which collects what almost amounts to a tax to fund its reports. (Pay me or go to jail: Now there's a business model.) Fewer still have the kind of franchise that looks unassailable.

For most media companies, the days of waiting for the phone to ring, and then take advertisers' dollars as a matter of course, are in ever-greater jeopardy.

Sound journalism is a foundation of an informed citizenry in self-governing nations. These economic trends suggest serious problems for the organizations that have used the manufacturing model of media - with attendant barriers to entry that made it so profitable for more than a half-century - in part as a way of supporting high-quality journalism.

Job advert in newspaper, BBC
Many classified adverts are moving to the net
So I worry. What if we can't come up with useful journalism business models in the near term to replace the eroding ones? What if we're in for a decade or two of decline in the watchdog journalism that takes deep pockets and a civic commitment to produce?

Even in a worst case, it won't all disappear. People will still write books, and some mass media are likely to survive in some form. Foundations are taking up some of the slack, and concerned citizens are beginning to ask the right questions about the trajectory of journalism in this new century.

Maybe newspapers will die, but if they do some kind of deep local coverage will emerge from the wreckage - including the work that citizen journalists will do - even if it doesn't go as deep as we'd like, at least not right away.

While I'm ardent about the potential of citizen media, there's nothing to guarantee that we emerge from the coming turmoil with an ecosystem that includes many innovators alongside the venerable players.

Certainly I don't have clear-cut answers, though I have contempt for a widespread notion - in US journalism executive suites, at least - that wholesale shedding of journalists is a sustainable business model for the long term. Maybe it's the smart move right now, but it ignores the public trust element of journalism and mocks the communities where it's practiced.

The urgency with which some smart people are now discussing this subject is the best current news. This needs to be a global conversation.

Dan Gillmor is author of We the Media, a book about technology and the development of grassroots journalism. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media.

Dan is writing a series of columns for the BBC News website and will also respond to readers' questions and comments.

Do you agree with his views? Comment by clicking the link below.

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