Journalism's New Business Model?

Journalists have been worried for some time about their jobs, not so much about being able to work at something but about how much they are going to get paid for it and how reliably.

The move online, which seemed to some observers to be happening surprisingly slowly, has quickened in its pace recently. This has meant job losses but also a decisive change in the relationship between the people who do the researching and writing and the people who manage their work and market it to get revenue from advertisers and subscribers.

A decade or more ago, online boosters were predicting many less readers but much more advertising than has happened. The readers online are there alright but, outside very specialist and professional areas where premium fees are paid by the corporate purse, no one expects to pay for news or basic information. As soon as someone makes it difficult to access a story, the bulk of that herd of readers has moved on to someone else who will provide sufficient grazing for them to be able to make a reasonably lucid comment on Facebook.

Newspapers like to think that advertisers, who have not appeared in sufficient force, are being deterred by adblockers but the malaise goes deeper than that. It also derives from the nature of the internet. If a reader is irritated by payment, they can graze. If they are irritated by the ads (and many ads are irritating), they start to avoid even a free site. The idea of a white space to be filled between stories, transferred from print to online, does not work well. Hence, the shift of marketing funds to social media where the game is to get us to endorse a sales message through an action.

So what trends can we identify? Too many for our short blog posting but we can note two of significance - the response of the owners of newspapers to the crisis with a new cost-cutting business model and the rediscovery of the advertorial or sponsored story. In the first case, newspapers are hiving off content to specialist independent units providing investigations or story lines on contract but which are able to freelance as they will as general content providers. Both of these developments have important cultural implications.

The rise of the off-balance sheet content unit turns employees in a hierarchy into insecure small traders, moving from unwitting proletariat to petit bourgeoisie in a dip of the accountant's pen. These social and political influencers now become part of the same process of alienation that has seen service workers hived off into self-employed consultancies without having any long term security while the potential rise of advertorial threatens to create even more distrust of a profession already highly distrusted as teller of truths.

In some ways, this is just an intensification of what the media always was - a business like any other trading in what people want to hear. Half a century ago, the numbers distrusting what they were told was far less because journalists were able to present themselves as a profession dedicated to certain standards in creative tension with a business that was intrinsically profitable. Those standards are difficult to uphold when there is no security of tenure or newsroom camaraderie and owners are searching the horizon for the cheapest supplier of copy.



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