Highly Prized Content Can Be Yours For A Price

by | Mar 27, 2010

I didn’t go to journalism school, but I was a journalist while in school. My training as a reporter and news editor on The College Reporter–more than my classes–prepared me for the work I’ve been doing for 22 years now.

My uncle was a journalist, a pioneer in TV broadcasting. When I graduated from F&M, I asked him if I ought to pursue a Masters in Journalism. He said that’s one way to do it, the other is to become an expert in a field first, then start covering that field. As it turns out, that’s the path I chose, or maybe it chose me. Either way, I worked in marketing communications for many years before I started to cover the industry on AdPulp, an industry site I co-founded, write and edit.

With that in mind, I’d like point to Chris Lynch and his ideas about where journalism, and J-school education is today.

In the coming years, I think most journalism schools will shrink or disappear. The ones remaining will be drastically different, with students focusing on topics that don’t relate to content creation at all. Moreover, some of the best new professional content creators won’t attend journalism schools. They will hail from different majors and degrees, like business, computer science and finance. The notion of being a professional journalist who is merely an objective observer of a topic or industry will officially fade in the coming years. This is a good thing, since it was a stupid fantasy that it should be like that anyway.

…most journalists today aren’t experts; they merely report about people that are. This creates a barrier and credibility problem that people paid little attention to before the Web because the journalists’ identities to regular people were less transparent, and less social.

Lynch, who works at Socialtext in San Francisco, also writes about something he calls “the Reader Elite.”

The move to a pay model will be the first step in giving rise to the Reader Elite. Pay-for-media sites will employ smaller staffs that will produce headier content to satisfy its needs. Paying up to hundreds of dollars a year for their content boutiques of choice, the Reader Elite will expect stories, videos and podcasts put together by on-site content creators across the world.

Skipping over the elitist part of his argument for a moment, I’m thinking I’d very much like to get a percentage of the readers who frequent AdPulp to pay us hundreds of dollars a year for our work. Perhaps, that’s the next stage in AdPulp’s evolution as a media property.

But what about the remainder of Lynch’s points above? Is objectivity a tired old 20th century notion with no place in modern media? Are J-schools a waste of time and money? Will the rise of pay models hurt civic discourse? These are meaty questions and I thank Lynch for serving them up.

An objective storyteller is a faulty idea. Storytellers, by definition, have a point of view. Fairness is the question, not objectivity.

As for J-schools, they will adapt or perish, just like the businesses that employ their graduates. Will they adapt fast enough for this fast changing marketplace? If they don’t, another kind of school will rise up to meet the need, which is what happened in advertising. In advertising, one goes to an industry school like The Creative Circus or Miami Ad School to learn from working professionals. I can see where media companies might start calling for this type of hands on, real world training too. Whether established schools or startups staffed by working media professionals meet the need isn’t important, because the need will be met.

Lastly, will online pay models reward elites, while ignoring the needs of those who can’t afford multiple expensive subscriptions? I don’t think so. The idea that information is free (and wants to be free) is is still in beta. As far back as the late 18th century, people, not all of them rich, paid for content. In fact, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” cost two shillings, which Paine thought too high. The public did not agree and Paine’s pamphlet sold over one hundred fifty thousand copies in its first printing. Eventually over five hundred thousand copies were sold.

The mistake made recently by digital publishers of all sorts was to offer their content for free in the first place. Many, like The Times of London, now see the error of their ways and are preparing to put the genie back in the bottle. Here’s how the managers of that particular paper see things:

There are those who argue that it is in some way contrary to the “spirit of the internet” to charge for content. This is an absurd contention. The internet is one vast free market. Indeed it is the critics who fail to understand the net. In the early days it might have been possible to regard online publishing as merely a marketing teaser to encourage print sales. Years later, the internet has grown up and grown out of this. It is a proper platform for publishing a newspaper and we propose to treat it as such.

The Times will charge £2 a week for access to both the Times and the Sunday Times, which goes to Lynch’s point about hundreds of dollars per year, per periodical. But here’s the thing, if a site produces original content that no else has, their product is worth every penny. Which is another way of saying there’s too much talk about technological upheaval, and not enough focus on the fundamentals of the media business. I often say, “may the best storyteller win.” The reality is if an organization is able to charge for its content–because it is high quality and in demand–it needs to do so.

[UPDATE] Mashable is reporting that in the last four years, newspaper ad revenue dropped by 44.24%. That’s nearly half of the industry’s revenue.