People don't just crave information, they seek judgement from trustworthy sources who can find information and make sense of it

The future is grim for the newspaper but quality journalism is still kingImage for representation only
Blog Journalism Wednesday, June 01, 2016 - 12:01

As the meteoric rise of web content, and the disruptive force of social media begin to be reckoned with, the future looks increasingly uncertain for print news organisations. One of the standard responses of media analysts is that newspapers should ditch their expensive printing presses and elaborate distribution chains and go Web-only. Unanswered however, are questions about how enough revenue would be generated to support news organisations’ large and highly experienced news-gathering staff.

Everywhere, the self-assured prophets of journalism are spouting their proclamations: readers will never pay for news on the Web; readers must pay for news on the Web. Journalism must find a way to generate more profits; journalism must become a nonprofit.

The only thing that is clear in this scenario is that anyone who claims to have a silver bullet solution isn’t playing straight. There isn’t one answer that will save every news organization. The differences within the news industry, from small, hyperlocal newspapers and websites to national publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Times of India are too vast. And not every newspaper is going to make the transition across the digital divide. 

There have been some serious proposals put forth on how to generate revenue for online news content that bear consideration, but almost all carry risks. As The Economist noted in August 2009: “It will not be easy. For ten years, readers have been enjoying free news online, and the BBC, public-radio stations and commercial television news outlets like CNN will continue to supply it. A newspaper that tries to charge will jeopardize online advertising, which often accounts for 10–15% of revenues.”

One approach is to erect a pay wall around stories on the Web, while making an exception for print subscribers. With its business news focus, The Wall Street Journal has charged for online subscriptions for years, but its formula may not necessarily apply to other general interest newspapers.

Some publications have charged for a digital simulacrum of their print editions, which certain readers find easier to navigate than a newspaper website. (The New York Times offers the Times Reader.) The Financial Times keeps readers on a meter, charging those who look at more than a certain number of stories a month.

Some, including former Time magazine editor Walter Isaacson, have proposed micropayments for individual articles or a menu of coverage. Smartphones, with customized news applications, are another possible source of paid revenue

The best minds in journalism are mapping out new strategies to adjust their business models for producing quality journalism in the digital age. I am confident that in the next few years we will see experimentation and adjustments along the way.

Decades from now, the quality newspapers that remain may not literally be on paper. They may be on portable tablets or some other device we haven’t yet envisioned. But journalism will continue to thrive. My optimism is based on the fact that there is a human craving for trustworthy information about the world we live in – information that is tested, investigated, sorted, checked again, analyzed, and presented in a cogent form. 

Yet people don’t crave just information. They seek judgment from someone they can trust, who can ferret out information, dig behind it, and make sense of it. They want analytic depth, skepticism, context, and a presentation that honours their intelligence. They want stories that are elegantly told and compelling, with quality pictures and videos. And they want to be part of the conversation.

In print, the New York Times has developed a loyal audience of highly educated and informed readers who are passionate about their relationship with the newspaper and who have proved willing to pay handsomely for it. While Web news browsing and the habits of Internet readers are different, the digital audience also turns to trusted brands and reliable news filters.

During the months leading to the 2008 election, for example, nytimes.com had an audience of more than 20 million unique visitors per month. These readers, of course, were also likely supplementing their journalism diet with other sources of political news. The process of creating an engaged and informed citizenry takes a variety of forms, none necessarily more perfect than the other

Quality journalism plays an irreplaceable role in our society. It is time to move past all the shouting over which platform or which business model is best and to join in an urgent and collective effort to protect what matters most: quality journalism and the journalists who create it.

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