Let’s talk today about what will not fix the journalism business model — working harder.
First, let me just say this: After being in newsrooms now for 17 years and after serving on the boards of directors for two nonprofit media organizations, I can assure you, journalists are a hard working group. I have yet to meet a truly lazy reporter.
Sure, we have all had our moments where we didn’t check that one last detail, or where we just had to blow off the rest of the afternoon. But truly lazy reporters don’t make it through two years in a professional newsroom.
I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have looked out into a room full of reporters and said to myself, “you know what’s wrong — it’s that we just don’t work hard enough.”
American journalists are already working hard — I would contend that they are being overworked. So, let me go on the record right now and say this once and for all — to save our industry we do NOT need to work harder, and we do NOT just need to do more.
We are dealing with a systemic breakdown in the news industry. No amount of working harder or doing more will fix this. Why? Well, let’s play a little imagination game here for a second.
Imagine that you are driving down the road and your car starts sputtering. It finally gives out and you are stuck on the side of the highway and your car won’t go anymore. What do you do? Well, you could try harder and do more of what you had been doing – push that gas pedal to the floor … I bet the car still won’t go anywhere.
To be sure, you could work harder and get that car moving again. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, just hop out and start pushing. The harder you push, the faster it will go. But is that the best solution? I think not.
The better solution would be to figure out what went wrong with the system and address that. But when you haven’t been in the habit of thinking your system could fail, you also don’t get in the habit of evaluating that system critically.
In the case of the news industry, we have been fat, enjoying an industry monopoly for a half century, and we began to believe our own myth: “we do things right, and everyone else just needs to appreciate us.”
In the case of our car, we need to figure out if it needs more gas or needs a new engine, or maybe something went wrong in an internal system we know nothing about. Interestingly, the same is true of our industry.
What neither situation needs is for someone to simply to work harder.
And that’s where we are right now. Ad revenues have sputtered and are now failing to make the industry go anymore. What has the news industry’s solution been? It has been to ask journalists to work harder, post more content to our websites, work longer hours to cover every shift and posting on weekends, all while trying to eek out another 10 cents per thousand page views.
We pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and when that didn’t work, we hopped out and we pushed.
Instead we need to be looking at the engines and the fuels that will get us moving again. Ad revenues are a piece, but they aren’t the whole. Subscriptions are nice, but they don’t translate well to the web (though hats off to everyone trying out pay walls. I’m in your corner. Don’t get me started on the whole “information wants to be free” debate. That is a post all in itself.)
We need systemic solutions.
As best as I can find, there are four possible revenue sources for media companies. Period. Advertising and subscriptions are great. But we need to be looking for other ways to support the industry.
More on that later.