At the recent Networked Journalism Summit I referenced a darker argument on the future of online advertising by Doc Searls. Here is where I discuss it.
Because I write about the Internet and what it’s doing to the press, and follow that story at my blog, I am sometimes asked what I believe the future of newspapers to be. Or, more bluntly, “will newspapers survive?”
Very rarely is anyone satisfied with my answer: “I really don’t know what’s going to happen.” (I like that answer, myself.) “… And I don’t think anyone does.”
Not knowing what the model is, we go on. We go on with newspapers. We go on with Internet journalism, and the practice of reporting what happened. We go on with the ordeal of verification. We go on with the eyewitness account, and with the essential task of getting and talking about the news.
Reasons for my uncertainty about the newspaper in the combination we know it now were well stated recently by Doc Searls of the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School, who also writes about the Internet and keeps his own blog.
For metropolitian newspapers, whose problems I know best, it’s not just the forced march to the Web and the decline in revenues from the printed product. It’s not only that free content seems to be the standard online.
“The larger trend to watch over time is the inevitable decline in advertising support for journalistic work,” Searls writes, “and the growing need to find means for replacing that funding — or to face the fact that journalism will become largely an amateur calling, and to make the most of it.”
So (class) why does Searls say that the advertising model may be broken too? Isn’t there advertising to be won on the Web? There is, and it is coming on. But underneath that something else is going on. “Harder to see…”
While rivers of advertising money flow away from old media and toward new ones, both the old and the new media crowds continue to assume that advertising money will flow forever. This is a mistake. Advertising remains an extremely inefficient and wasteful way for sellers to find buyers. I’m not saying advertising isn’t effective, by the way; just that massive inefficiency and waste have always been involved, and that this fact constitutes a problem we’ve long been waiting to solve, whether we know it or not.
The inefficencies that created modern advertising are themselves under pressure from the Internet. That is what Searls argues, and I think we need to consider it. “The holy grail for advertisers isn’t advertising at all,” he writes, “because it’s not about sellers hunting down buyers. In fact it’s the reverse: buyers hunting for sellers. It’s also for customers who remain customers because they enjoy meaningful and productive relationships with sellers — on customers’ terms and not just on vendors’ alone.”
Searls thinks sellers and buyers can increasingly get into information alignment without advertising and its miserable kill ratios in the battle to break through the noise and reach the few who are actually in the market. (I will leave you to read the rest and figure out why he thinks advertising will shrink to the the perimeters defined by “no other way.” It involves something he calls VRM.)
Suppose he’s right. Possible outcomes are a new business model, or “no business model at all, because much of it will be done gratis, as its creators look for because effects — building reputations and making money because of one’s work, rather than with one’s work.”
Searls means the hypothetical blogger who pours time and effort into her reported blog may do it for free because it builds reputation points. Then she gets paid for other things that result from the (free) blogging. Hardly a perfect model—in fact, it has tons of problems—but it is different. Money because you do good work at your site is different than being paid for the work you deliver to the masters of production at the local newspaper.
Scott Rosenberg thinks the likely decline in advertising under Web rules may be good for journalism. “We have the chance to invent new ways to support our work — ways that don’t depend on the essential bait-and-switching of old-fashioned advertising.”
One alternative was announced this week. “Paul E. Steiger, who was the top editor of The Wall Street Journal for 16 years, and a pair of wealthy Californians are assembling a group of investigative journalists who will give away their work to media outlets.”
So here is the deeper set of possibilities we must contemplate: Many newspapers may find that they are unable to charge, or recover “lost” revenues from the print era with Web advertising. If that happens, will existing news organizations die, shrink, limp along with expiration dates, get absorbed into larger Web empires or find a way to grow some other subsidy business?
It is also possible that newspapers will morph into something new, Net Based News Organizations—also called NORG’s by combining in a fruitful way with “the amateur calling” that Searls mentioned. Non-profit, lower profit, semi-profit, part-profit: all combinations should be ruled in.
Private business, family business, non-profit trust, community ownership, cooperative ownership, the public radio model, the crowdfunding model, the “rich person with a conscience and good advisers model,” other variations on the gift economy… all these should be made seaworthy. We don’t know how many will make it across so we need to launch a lot of boats.
We don’t have to save the newspaper industry. We do have to bring “the press” across the digitial divide.
A different version of this post will be published next month by the Newspaper Association of America in a special forum on the future of the newspaper.