The world of media is a much different place than it was when I first got going with Rocketboom a full decade ago. In 2004, the format for Rocketboom was efficient, effective and exciting as a means of delivering news stories online. That was pre-video iPod (i.e pre-portable video), pre-YouTube, pre-iPhone, pre-Twitter, and pre-Facebook era.
Today, I’m not so sure the staple Rocketboom delivery style is as effective for news.
I’ve had a look around at others doing shows that would fit into the same genre of news and I don’t find their shows to be very effective either.
While video can be one of the most powerful forms of communicating news when formatted well (or not at all), I’m sure you’ve noticed that video can be one of the most ineffective and inefficient ways to communicate a news story, ever.
Just look at any mainstream TV news broadcast. Can you imagine a more ineffective way to consume the news for 30 minutes? In the same time, you could manage to absorb exponentially more information online. I regularly made this point in 2004.
As TV news has tried to make its way onto the internet, it hasn’t done much to alter its format to adapt to the medium, and is usually outdone in effectiveness by a simple text article or even a single tweet.
On the local level, most online news sites are absolute disasters.
There is a very clear reason why they are this way, related to the same kinds of problems journalism has in general: it’s completely a business model problem, one that is entirely caused by advertising.
It’s easy to understand the dilemma. The more views a story gets, the more money it makes.
But over time, technology’s effect on ad sales causes a downward trend in cost of doing business to the advertisers. I discussed the reality of this effect on video in a state-of-online-video article for Tubefilter at the end of last year.
As a result, for any ad-based content business, readership must continue to increase upwards to keep up with downward trending revenue from ad sales.
This leads to designing content for the sake of spreading it further.
This is why CNN’s homepage is filled almost completely with news stories about horror, shock, conflict, deaths and extreme instances of human suffering – these stories lead to more clicks, and thus more ad money. And then they blame it all on you: “Its what you click on the most, we’re just serving you what you want”. This is a textbook example of what happens when you allow your editorial to be controlled by the lowest common denominator click-thru-rate. CNN’s home page would be 100% porn if you would accept them for it.
Time, as another example, is also blatant about their need to create more advertising friendly journalism, to increase profits.
Buzzfeed also notes that the majority of its revenue comes from forced-meme content that it creates internally for advertisers.
But without a Buzzfeed level of scale, or a high dollar CPM due to deep ad integration, sustainability from online advertising sales is probably not ever going to be enough for anyone to afford operating a newsroom that is sufficient enough for their intended community, while keeping the needed journalistic integrity intact.
This scenario hits worst at home, where local news stories simply don’t scale beyond the interests of a single small neighborhood or town.
Local news efforts, for example, continue to lose ad revenue from their friendly local business neighbors to out-of-town companies including Craigslist, Google and Facebook.
This is not bad: local businesses are enriched as a result. And news will necessarily flow on, with or without any business. But a community with a weak news network is a community that is itself weak overall.
I’m surprised more non-advertising business models have not been tried. Especially because of the classic conflicts between editorial interests vs. advertisers interests which only gets worse with more technical ability to integrate.
People are trying to use technology to “fix” a problem so that they can be more effective with advertising while trying to keep that business more separate from their intended business of journalism.
Yet, whoever thought of paywalls as an alternative for the news was in a bad place. As if anyone wanted a world where we must pay for the NYTimes but get TMZ for free.
This is our reality now.
When a local news organization puts up a paywall so that only some of the community will be able to afford to get the news, you know as a matter of fact that the company is not there to serve the whole community. I think local news should strive for a mission to be available to all equally.
I’m not surprised to hear The Gannett, The Tribune, News Corp, Scripps and Time Warner have all essentially dumped their journalism divisions in the past year in favor of more investments in entertainment.
At the same time, I believe the need for journalism in our world is growing and should not be abandoned.
Its a problem I’ve been watching for the last decade from afar, and I’ve decided it’s time to stop talking about it and give it my best effort. I don’t have the answers to fix the medium’s problems, but I’m sick of media being manipulated by advertisers, and feel its ruining a great deal of progress for the worlds media.
When I moved to NYC in 2001, I began blogging. In early 2004, when I came up with the idea for Rocketboom, I knew I was was at the right place at the right time. When I looked around to see almost no one noticed what I saw as being imminent, I built an example, put it out there, and arguably, had an impact.
Meanwhile, there was a tangential conversation going on around Rocketboom which I watched but did little to participate in. This conversation highlighted Rocketboom as a harbinger to the changing nature of journalism. By 2004 blogging had already rendered “the death of print” into a lowercase topic, just something to watch, but journalists had no idea what would happen next…to journalism. With Rocketboom, some saw it as an example of the video news medium being instantly unlocked and there was a real moment of mayhem and confusion.
‘Journalism’ was an area of interest I developed slowly over time that was unexpected. I took a journalism class in high school accidentally and didn’t think much of it but once I launched Rocketboom I was often accused of being a journalist – and I rejected the idea, because I was approaching the show from a design and technology perspective.
Over time, as I read more from other journalists about what they thought Rocketboom was doing, I found myself agreeing. I realized I just happen to be one of those people who tries to live my life with the same kind of values that journalists do. A lot of bloggers tend to be the same way, but don’t exactly identify with known principles of journalism. Even still, Rocketboom never really had a pure ‘journalistic’ intent, but I do think in many cases we consequently committed acts of journalism.
Humanwire – a Rocketboom spin-off show about local interest stories with international appeal – was my first real dive into thinking of what I was doing as wholly journalistic. Trying to make a business with Humanwire was much more difficult, and this is where I came up against what I consider this big problem at its worst: the relationship between journalism and advertising. It’s nothing short of a large scale catastrophe.
With Rocketboom, Know Your Meme and Humanwire I was constantly jumping through hoops with advertisers – and walked a thin rope to keep my integrity and the writing in tact. I was attempting to provide the greatest potential value to advertisers, to raise the most money for myself and the business. That regularly posed conflicts with the ultimate goal: providing the best work for everyone else. This conflict of interest cost me in ways that were exhausting and dissatisfying.
Around the time I sold Know Your Meme, I decided to regroup with Rocketboom, especially as I got locked into a very strict, 3 year non-compete clause (which just ended in April of this year, BTW) and separately, I was getting deeply involved with PBS on a few levels. I was drawn to PBS early on because of the progressive ideas behind the people running the national digital department in D.C. and wanted to understand more about lessons learned from producing journalism sans advertising.
First I established a relationship by brokering a deal to bring Humanwire to PBS. Though that deal was completed, the show never aired with PBS due to…you guessed it…the unwavering demands of the advertiser, which caused a conflict of interest with the content. Afterwards, Rocketboom produced a broadcast quality kids show with the creator of Blues Clues and won an excellence award for the program.
Also for PBS, I created a training program to serve PBS’ 250+ member stations around the country with contemporary & future considerations for online programing and audience building. The first to undergo the training was the local PBS member station in Bloomington, Indiana – and it is fair to say for both Bloomington, and myself, it was a success. This particular experience with PBS was especially influential for me as a deeper study into how the tradition of broadcast news works (from business to news cycle work flows).
I have noticed producing the news on purpose can actually be expensive, and it’s absolutely in a fragile state at the moment.
In contrast to PBS, I was curious to learn about Scripps. I went out to their HQ in Cincinnati a number of times at the end of 2013, and met with people in the broadcast and digital news departments. I spoke to them a bit about my platform ideas (though I mentioned nothing about my business ideas), and learned a bit of what they are up to – especially with their business ideas. Unlike the PBS HQ, where I found very progressive thinking, I came away from Scripps feeling like they were not going to be helping the situation much.
CIRCA AND VOX
Newer sites like Circa and Vox are interesting but not attempting to solve any big problem that we truly have, in my opinion. They will likely suffer in the long run if they rely on advertising. Vox is hands-down my favorite new news site, and I highly recommend that you get them on your radar. I like them simply because they pick great angles and write great articles, on time. How can the world support these excellent journalists, so they can keep doing what they do? They claim they have a new technological platform that is in part the answer, but I’m not sure it’s new or relevant to any answers. You could put the same journalists to work at Buzzfeed and they would continue to write great articles over there.
If you cut through the mission statement of Circa, I think they are trying to say that there is news out there already but the problem is that journalists are not very good at understanding the key points of the story, or when and how to update you about new key points. So they have come up with a new technological way to organize their articles. IMO, Circa is only interesting because they too have scooped up a few great journalists who could also write great work if they were at Buzzfeed. Relatively speaking, good journalists tend to do a fine a job at explaining the key points at the right time and updating you with the right recap when need be. If you look at this article from Circa on the Telecom industry, I believe you will find it painful and difficult to understand. They have an app that will display it better though the entire page of content could have been reduced much more, maybe down to a single paragraph.
BuzzFeed and Mashable, a couple of other examples but with scale, are some of the most valuable new journalism efforts we have, primarily because they too have scooped up some of the best journalists that already were.
These top companies know how to hire talent and talent is indeed rare. It’s the same story in terms of the need to scale your news to billions, especially if its a story about 10 Llamas You Were Born To Click On Now in the case of Buzzfeed, or Passers-by step over shot man [watch] on Mashable. These companies are feeding off of information deprived and dizzy people to sell to advertisers as the only form of profitability to warrant the loss that will come from hiring great classic journalists to cover more important stories.
I would rather read Buzzfeed’s best journalists over CNN’s do to the extra freedoms Buzzfeed can offer its journalists, but what problem is being solved? It’s a home page of cats instead of the bombs CNN uses, while the whole news medium continues to collapse for everyone else that can not scale to such worldwide proportions.
Again the problem is not a technical one – it’s a business one. It’s all about how advertising requires the kind of business dealings and scale that a great news story should not be required to have.
When I crossed my notes from my own experiences with audiences, classic concepts like 1000 True Fans, my studies with PBS’ non advertising methods, the growing crowd funding phenomenon, and especially the upcoming equity crowdfunding act, I believe the right models for local news lay somewhere near here. Far from nonprofits and paywalls, far from advertising and sponsorships, and much closer to aligning with the spirit of community that can materialize around a product or service if it fills a need for that community, and does so in a way that is excellent.
A typical way to build an online company is to create a product and put it out there, even without a business model in mind. If it becomes loved by people, you can usually find a way to monetize it. Its a classic, solid proposition that provides the opportunity to ask yourself, what is really needed for people, instead of how am I going to sustain.
Still yet, when traditional news sites partake in this mental exercise, it seems they can not let go of how the site is going to generate revenue for them while not interrupting their preexisting business, thereby extinguishing any possibility of a new product that might compete with their old product. Its either advertising or pay-wall. They accept the business model first and then try to build something from that foundation.
While there will never be one way, and everyone will want something different, this is how I believe its productive to approach the ultimate local news problem of sustainability:
1. Focus on the destination and get the right news in the right place in the right way so people will want to visit the destination.
2. Increase effectiveness in contributing original reporting and media for stories that lack coverage elsewhere.
If you can accomplish these two things effectively, everything else will fall into place naturally.
In other words, its not really a business problem after all.
Its simply a design problem.