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Maybe the News Business Shouldn't be a Business - The LAMP

Maybe the News Business Shouldn’t be a Business

By May 11, 2009 News One Comment

More consolidation, less money, resource sharing, the threat of closing down altogether.  Sounds like many businesses these days.  And some households.  What I’m talking about in this particular case is the business of news.  A business it is, still, at least right now.  And it’s in trouble, not only because of the current economic turmoil, but also because of money troubles combined with digital technologies allowing many more players into the game (not wanting to mix my metaphors, let’s just go with the concept of  the market-as-a-game.  Everyone else does).

Another recent reminder that news as we traditionally conceive of it is losing the battle with our current economic/social/technological circumstances is the New York Times report that in many TV markets news studios are either pairing up with local newspapers or are sharing resources (equipment and talent) with other competing studios.  Or they’re doing both.  More and more news businesses are losing money because advertisers don’t have many advertising dollars to invest these days.  And they pay for most of the news we get via the traditional outlets such as TV and newspapers/news magazines.  They even pay for a lot of web news content.  

Pair that situation with the fact that , for a longer period of time, journalists, journalism educators and public advocates of all types have been concerned about what happens when everyone is a journalist, and whatever anyone posts through any digital platform is considered news and treated as news by any number of fractured audience groups.  What happens to cohesion?  What happens to journalistic standards like fairness, balance and truth?  What happens to people getting good information that they can use to make sense of the world?  What happens to shared information?  What happens to making lots of money from the news?

Maybe news shouldn’t be a business at all.  Seems hard to imagine since news has followed a business model in this country for literally centuries.  Journalists have been trained, either in school or on the job at newspapers, in newsmagazines, at radio stations, on television and for many websites (sponsored by the CNN, MSNBC, FOX, NY Times, etc.  brands) to create news that will sell audiences to advertisers.  News is a product.  Even the news for PBS and NPR is a product fit for the public broadcast brand, though less so than within the for-profit world.  The point is that now we need a new paradigm for thinking about news and information. 

The digital realm is forcing us into a new paradigm deeply, though the current economic situation is making us feel it more acutely at present. Unfortunately paradigm isn’t a word that sits well with many people because it, accurately, suggests a revolution in thinking, then practice.  Maybe we’ll just go with model for right now.  That’s a more palatable word, especially for those who think like business folk.  The business model for news is on the way out.  It’s time to face that fact.  What a journalist does is going to change.  What a journalist is will change as well.  Maybe we won’t have the word journalist eventually.

But I’m taking a very long view, as I prefer.  Starting with baby steps, let’s consider the proposal by long-time journalist and journalism educator Len Sellers.  In a recent interview published in Miller-McCune Magazine, he’s suggesting that the solid sources of accurate, responsible, cohesive reporting ought to be centered in the nation’s leading journalism education university centers pairing up with big money foundations.   In other words, the centers for solid reporting will be  journalism students and their seasoned mentors working at universities which are funded by foundations, not corporations.  This is a shift in the business model, and will change the relationship of advertising dollars to audiences.  The news generated from these sources could be created for all platforms, and more time could be spent preparing in-depth investigative reporting.  Hallelujah.

I’m on board with that kind of news future, but I think it would necessarily be paired with a good slew of citizen journalists doing their own investigative, local, even micro reporting across many different platforms as well.  News and information have to come from lots of different sources.  Everyone needs to be a consumer as well as participant.

And that’s where I give my spiel for news literacy.  No matter what the paradigm–or model–everybody’s got to know how to evaluate news and information, and everyone’s go to know how it’s put together, how the arguments and facts are arranged to convey meaning, whether using words, images, sounds or various combinations of all these.

Maybe some will still make money from news in this transformed news and information order, but many will not.  It will require a shift in thinking and practice.  But that’s where we’re headed.  In the long view.

Katherine G. Fry