Distributed Journalism: the Future of News?

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.


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    Pretty good analysis, I think. Right now, this system is running mainly on entrepreneurial startup enthusiasm, but I don’t think it will be sustainable for long if these “new journalists” don’t start getting paid a living wage.

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    Roger Rabbit spews:

    I think paid work should be eliminated. Employers are assholes and taxes on wages are too high! Employment sucks! The government should pay everyone a stipend to pursue any hobby they want. This is sort of already happening in our community; for example, King County pays Stefan Sharansky $75,000 a year ($225,000 / 3 years) to support his public records hobby. For that kind of money, Goldy could pursue journalism as a hobby, and some of my friends could pursue law as a hobby. (I remember one of my law school professors saying, “Practicing law is a fine hobby if you can afford it.”) Politics, a hobby of the rich, would be open to more people. Other people could pursue hobbies like art curator, archaeologist, amateur historian, or farming. Best of all, nobody will have to work or pay the outrageous Republican taxes on earned income! I think Congress should pass this plan immediately.

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    You don’t get “paid a living wage” – you have to work your tail off to generate revenue. Which we do. And my husband and I are making “a living wage” from ad revenue for our site – plus paying freelance writers/photojournalists for assignments beyond the ones we have the time and inclination to handle – next step, actual permanent employees. It’s got nothing to do with startup entrepreneurial enthusiasm. We made a few good decisions and took a few chances. We don’t take anything for granted, and we have to stay ahead of the curve as the news and advertising businesses continue to evolve, but so far so good. I feel more secure in this than in the job I voluntarily quit a year and a half ago to take a chance on this — overpaid corporate “old media” newsroom manager – I’m sure that job would have been cut by now (it wasn’t even directly replaced when I left). Good luck to one and all… TR

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    ArtFart spews:

    Sorry, I don’t buy it (and why should I, if it’s free anyway)?.

    Not that the ink-stained wretches of “old” journalism have exactly been living like kings or anything, and of course some of ‘em have the misfortune of having to work for someone like Uncle Frank. Nonetheless, at least up until now working as a reporter for a medium-sized or larger daily (or the news department of an established commercial TV station) has at least paid something resembling a living wage. On the other hand, there are hordes of Goldys working their fishermen’s-gloved fingers to the bone and scratching out a bare subsistence at best. Sooner or later you’re liable to look at yourself in the mirror and ask “Why the hell am I doing this?” and not be able to conjure up a coherent answer. Then if Jay Inslee (or whoever) calls up looking for a staffer with expertise in “high-tech” issues–you’ll be gone in a heartbeat.

    In the meantime, what the general public sees is the Web full of all these sources of “information” whose focus and credibility varies all over the map. Except for a few of us masochists who like to wander all over cyberspace in search of some Great Cosmic Truth, most will eventually give up and decide it’s easier to be ignorant.

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    Broadway Joe spews:

    I don’t know why, but this kinda reminds me of something I came across recently along a similar vein. Amazon is considering the idea (or already has) of directly publishing new works to their Kindle 2. The bitch is that Amazon’s publishing fee would be quite steep in terms of percentage.

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    Green Thumb spews:

    Goldy, you’re so right that a new structure needs to be put in place that pays “journalsts” adequately. One developmental problem has a chicken-and-egg quality: It’s difficult to generate sufficient revenue for a new venture when the quality/quantity of product is modest, but it is equally difficult to elevate said quantity/quality without sufficient revenue.

    For example, if I were launching a news website in my community (Olympia), would I be willing to pay for a “subscription” to run Publicola’s stories? Eh. I must admit that this site hasn’t become a must-read for me. Now, maybe it should, but as a former legislative reporter I haven’t thus far been all that excited about its reporting focus and style. So if my budget is tight, am I going to pay for the prospect of getting the kind of statehouse reporting I need? Probably not.

    That gets at another challenge for the blogosphere: A big part of its initial appeal has been its lack of corporate blandness. Yet what you are proposing is an AP-style arrangement that cannot help but reduce the “personality” of individual news producers.

    The other factor to consider is that an AP-type organization needs to have strong management. You know, people who are good at bean counting, writing contracts, etc. Swashbuckling visionaries and impassioned investigative reporters aren’t necessarily the best people to run the day-to-day operations of such an outfit. So I hope the business plan includes paying for really good operations people.

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    Green Thumb @7,

    Subscribing doesn’t necessarily mean paying for content up front. In my mind, it’s more about agreeing to pre-negotiated rates and fees that would allow you to embed selected content as needed, most likely on a revenue sharing basis.

    For example, if the Times were to embed a Publicola post, much in the same way that it uses AP content, Publicola might receive a portion of the revenues generated from the page views within the Times’ site.