Is the media rising up from its much heralded grave?
By James Robinson
As a still young man spending a good amount of money studying towards a Masters in journalism at a foreign university, I have – sadly – become used to snide comments issued from the corners of mouths. “A lot of jobs in journalism,” people say snarkily out of the sides of their mouths, or something else in that vein.
At the end of April, I had the privilege of attending the two-day Nieman Narrative Conference in Boston. Most speakers acknowledged this fascination with the death of journalism. Jill Abramson, Managing Editor of the New York Times and a woman with a job more interesting than many, said that in recent years it has been a question that she is asked more often than any other. Susan Orlean, whose novel The Orchid Thief was turned into the movie Adaptation, also made jest of this singular fascination with the death of journalism. But surprisingly, there was hopefulness in abundance among guests. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta talked excitedly about leaning into change. And as Orlean put it eloquently, what are the chances that a demand for stories and a curiosity about the world will ever go out of fashion?
In America, there is growing (anecdotal) recognition that the trials facing journalism are ones of medium and delivery, and not the end of demand and need for product. The extremely profitable classified pages in newspaper have shrunk beyond recognition, and belong to the internet now. Advertising revenue is down, and so are circulations. The age of excess and plenty in the media is done. But innovation and experiments in the USA have started to reveal trace outlines of new market models. It will be less lucrative, maybe, but still highly functional.
In a New Zealand restricted by slightly arcane bandwidth limitations and a smaller population base, these sorts of initiatives are yet to take hold. To me, the following four show some intriguing promise.
Patch.com launched in December 2007 and was acquired by AOL in 2009. Patch.com sites serve a specific suburb or community. In Massachusetts, Patch has specific sites for 75 different communities. The sites are newspapers without the newspaper. Individual overheads are small. The community websites are staffed by one full-time editor, and freelance reporters, taking home $40 an article. Editors don’t work from offices. They live in and work out of the community they cover, equipped with a mobile office.
The content thinks small: picture updates on fundraising drives by the local Scouts wing, town meetings, house sales, police blotters and a daily “Five things you need to know” piece. It promotes engagement and people do comment, seeing news on events that they encounter on a daily basis. Members of the community can post notices to online message boards, and upload their own photos and videos on news stories. Patch opened its 500th website in December 2010, and with the Huffington Post overlord Ariana Huffington in charge of AOL’s news operations, the company has announced that it is going to employ a second fulltime journalist in most communities.
The venture has attracted cynicism, Microsoft failed with its Sidewalk venture in the 90s, and profit-loss information is not available. AOL chief Tim Armstrong has said that the project is still in investment mode. One fact is undeniable: with news saturated with tales of media outlets shedding jobs like sands in an hourglass, Patch was the largest employer of new journalists in America in 2010.
Digital subscriptions and apps
The New York Times, to the chagrin of those who now feel that news should not have a price, recently put a pay wall on its website, offering only 20 free articles a month to readers. The Boston Globe is in the midst of erecting a pay wall, splitting its content between the free breaking news and lighter content site, Boston.com and a premium Boston Globe website. The Wall Street Journal Online, launched in 1996, is the most established paid online news service, and has nearly a million subscribers.
The long held theory is that the WSJ could maintain this online due to it serving a niche community and a specific business need. But, in the first month, the New York Times added over 100,000 subscribers, on digital plans ranging between $3.75 and $8.75 USD a week. That is over a 10 percent bump in readership on its daily circulation of 900,000 newspapers. Long term success remains to be seen, but early results are promising.
Obviously, the online news market has spread well beyond the personal or work computer. 108 million people have bought an iPhone. 15 million have bought an iPad. There is an obvious intent to monetize this new wave of technology, which provides media outlets with a direct, moving line to consumers. I attended a presentation given at the Boston Globe as part of a Masters class I took last year. The newspaper’s metro editor was emphatic. The paper realised that they had given away news at first on home computers, but the new technology will provide them with a new opportunity to avoid old mistakes, and in the process increase its subscriber base and reduce overheads.
Byliner.com /Kindle Singles
Byliner has a simple mode of operation: top shelf, long form journalism, with new stories available for individual purchase every 10-14 days. Stories sell for $2.99 USD or $4.99 for an iTunes Audio version. The writing itself is the draw. It fosters long form writing, providing a market for The New Yorker style story that hovers in the ether between stock standard Time magazine issues-feature and full-length book. The impact of Byliner has been immense so far. Its debut article from Into The Wild author Jon Krakauer called into question the veracity of Greg Mortensen’s book Three Cups of Tea and the honesty of his fundraising endeavours. It made headlines globally and put Mortensen under an unflattering spotlight. Broadly, the “Kindle Singles” for sale on Amazon provides established magazines with a second point of sale for marquee pieces of journalism. The New Yorker has begun to offer individual pieces of journalism in the format.
The Atavist pulls from the Byliner model and goes in a multimedia direction. The new platform is a collaboration between a Wired writer, a New Yorker editor, and a graphic designer. It offers a basic model of a single story for download onto an e-reader or in audio format. But through an iTunes app the Atavist offers a multimedia product that puts a new take on the format. The premium version comes embedded with videos and audio, and your place in the story can be bookmarked to aid switching between audio and print versions.
Most intriguingly, it uses each medium available within the overall storytelling. Its debut offering, a 12,000 word article by Evan Ratiff on a $150 million bank heist used security footage as its article’s lead.