As newspapers and other large media corporations struggle to develop new business models for the twenty-first century, I wonder if we aren’t already seeing the future of journalism gradually evolving before our eyes… a future that, from the consumer’s perspective doesn’t really look all that remarkably different from the past?
I was reading the New York Times this morning (online of course), and clicked through on a headline in the Technology section, “Why It’s the Megabits, Not the MIPs, That Matter.” It’s an interesting bit of analysis, at least to a techno-geek like me, but what I found truly fascinating was the fact that the Times had picked up the piece from the GigaOM technology news network.
Of course, this kind of arrangement is nothing new. Newswires like Reuters and the Associated Press have played an integral role in our media since shortly after the invention of the telegraph, and syndicated columnists have long been a mainstay of opinion pages nationwide. Hell, there are often days when less than half the stories on the Seattle Times front page are written by Seattle Times reporters.
What’s different today is the explosion in number and quality of web sites and networks like GigaOM, and their ability to expertly specialize in subject matter far beyond that of traditional news wires like the AP. As the Internet and other related technologies continue to tear down the barriers of entry to the media market, there will be many more, not fewer, opportunities to enter the field of journalism. These opportunities may not always pay well (or, at all), but they are there none the less.
The result may be that journalism is gradually transformed from a profession dominated by generalists to one of specialists, each focused on their own particular field of expertise. And as traditional media outlets grow increasingly comfortable with the notion of outsourcing their content to a growing number of third party sources, we may see an end to the kind of duplicate efforts that have long characterized certain types of coverage. (For example, do we really need four TV cameras at the same press conference, when the same sound bite inevitably ends up on all four evening newscasts?)
Under such a model one could imagine an entrepreneurial journalist setting out to provide in-depth coverage of Seattle city government, a notebook computer and compact high-def camera in hand, serving as a one-person, city hall news pool for any and all media outlets wishing to subscribe. The fact that the same footage might appear simultaneously on KING-5 and KOMO-4 has little downside considering that few viewers watch both broadcasts at once, and if properly done, the only thing keeping the Seattle Times from supplementing their city hall coverage with this wire-like reporting might be a misplaced sense of pride.
Neighborhood sites like West Seattle Blog could fill a similar role, distributing hyperlocal coverage to regional, state and national outlets. On the flip side, a political site like Publicola could serve as a sorta Capitol news bureau for West Seattle Blog and other neighborhood sites.
Yes, such a model would surely lead traditional news outlets to hire fewer full time reporters, and produce less and less original content, but that’s already happening as it is. And as the Internet continues to tear down barriers to market, those newspapers and broadcasters who transition to a more portal-like product while failing to provide a richer and more varied experience to their audience will inevitably face serious competition from upstarts who will.
All that’s lacking now is a standardized distribution and payment network… a kinda AP representing bloggers and other journalists that allows media outlets of all sizes to reproduce content in print, on air and online, without having to negotiate a hundred different contracts. Ideally, this would take the form of a cooperative owned by the content creators themselves, but I suppose the market will have a say in the final details.
Or maybe not. This model of distributed journalism is clearly playing a larger and larger role in the news industry. The only question remaining is whether the journalists themselves will reap a fair share of the profits.