Journalists and consumers alike are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing world of news reporting, says a study just released by the Pew Foundation’s Journalism Project. But 2013 also saw surprising and encouraging innovation, the report found.
The news business has been under financial siege since the Internet sparked the collapse of traditional advertising models. But amidst all the chaos, interesting new patterns are emerging that suggest consumers will continue to find news that matters to them, says Amy Mitchell, the Pew report’s lead author.
Mitchell notes the critical role that social media now play in how people absorb and even help create news. Half of Facebook users now get news from Facebook, most of them getting it from friends without looking for it, Mitchell said. Not surprisingly, this is most true of the younger 18-29 bracket, she said. Only a third of those users who get news on Facebook follow journalists or news organizations.
News by the masses
The socializing of news consumption is paralleled by the social creation of news content. Pew found that 12 percent of online news consumers have posted news videos taken themselves and 11 percent have submitted content to news organizations. “This changes the dynamic of how news is created,” Mitchell said. “It’s now a much closer connection.” This self-reporting of news comes heavily into play with dramatic events like the Boston Marathon bombing.
On the supply side, Portland’s Oregonian recently made a bold move to generate more revenue, notes Mike Ananny at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. The paper is now paying reporters based in part on how many clicks their stories generate and how long readers stay on the page.
In the past, Ananny said, different sections of the newspaper always subsidized hard news. Usually it was the auto section and classified ads. “Now we have much more data on the individual story level,” Ananny said, allowing a cash-strapped paper to motivate its reporters with clicks.
The danger, Ananny notes, is that this could radically change the nature of the news, skewing it toward “click bate.” Ironically, the Oregonian move was presaged by a satirical Portlandia comedy segment in which a local newspaper is taken over by an online link site.
“We’ve parodied this kind of thing for a long time,” Ananny says, “but it’s not surprising when a paper is strapped for revenue.”
The future of news
So where will the hard journalism of tomorrow come from? 2013 saw some dramatic changes on the landscape, Pew’s Mitchell notes, with big personal brands and deep pockets making some bold moves.
Sports and elections data guru Nate Silver left the New York Times, taking his FiveThirtyEight blog to ESPN and expanding its reach. Policy wonk blogger Ezra Klein left the Washington Post to create Vox.com, which aims to “explain” news in simple and fun ways. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million. And Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar has put up $250 million to found First Look Media, a new journalism conglomerate.
The nonprofit First Look’s first move out of the box was to hire Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden NSA story, to operate a website called “The Intercept,” devoted to “fearless adversarial journalism.”
Aside from wealthy benefactors spotting seed money, it’s not really clear yet what the business model is for these enterprises, said William Grueskinn at the Columbia School of Journalism. “We’re kind of in the ‘Let one thousand flowers bloom' phase right now,” Grueskinn said.
Another emerging model is the niche nonprofit group, represented by the Marshall Project, funded by former hedge fund manager Neal Barsky and edited by Bill Keller, a former editor of the New York Times. The Marshall Project is focused strictly on criminal justice reporting. Again, the Marshall Project website is long on content vision, but short on revenue models.
Serious nonprofit journalism, Grueskin says, must take as a starting point the highly successful ProPublica, founded in 2007, which has now partnered with more than 90 news organizations to provide serious investigative journalism.
While big donors finance large journalism efforts, a multitude of smaller local digital only news outlets have also taken hold, the Pew study notes. There are over 460 digital only local news outlets, Mitchell says, filling the gap left when newspapers cut back their reporting power.
Most of these are nonprofit groups, many of them with fewer than five employees and some of them sole proprietors. They operate on a shoe string, with long-term sustainability a question. Whether the model is nonprofit or for profit, large or small, local or national, the trick to funding serious journalism remains uncertain.
Pierre Omidyar says as much in a video on First Look’s website, where he says he hopes to restore to journalism “the critical but expensive support that is often neglected in the digital age.” But how will they make this self-sustaining? “We’re figuring that out,” he answers, with a self-deprecating laugh.