The digital revolution has had a huge impact on the people who gather news. In 2016, employment was down 40%, from 50,000 to 30,000 people in the newspaper business, and still rapidly falling, according to the Pew Research Center. Many newspapers have gone bankrupt, and all have become less relevant to daily life. Today, far fewer people are keeping a public eye on local and state government, which means that legitimate discussion is easily buried in fake news.
Why are newspapers and the news business in decline? After all, this is supposed to be the information age, and the need for knowledge has never been greater.
The reason for the decline is fairly straightforward. Since the 1800s, news organizations have earned most of their money from advertising, and only a fraction from subscriptions or street sales. But the old advertising model is broken. It’s far more efficient these days to reach customers who are already searching for products on the internet rather than advertising and marketing through the general media.
But advertising isnt the only way that the press used to make money, and it isnt the only approach that can be taken in the 21st century. Maybe we could take a page from the old community publishing model.
Community publishing used to approach the mission of the press as both a business and a public service. Typically you’d find:
• A profitable printing operation that churned out books, legal notices, accounting ledgers, minutes of local organizations, wills and deeds and a thousand other essential record-keeping tools for the public and private business; and
• A not-so-profitable newspaper that provided a public service, and also helped the printing operation stand out from its competitors.
In recent years, the old printing operations themselves became unprofitable We use far less paper than we used to, and many of our books and notices and record keeping tools have now been converted to digital forms, where publishing is more efficient and less expensive. So along with advertising revenues, printing services revenues are also drying up.
In the near-vacuum of community news, we have seen a surge of new media functions, but they often have serious problems. Facebook moderators have editing styles that are not informed by a tolerance for open debate or any knowledge of where the actual limits of debate are (or should be) according to US tradition and law. Craigslist has no social responsibility, and using it can be risky.
Many proposals for new journalism ventures amount to the “better pilot” model. If we could just have better pilots flying more specific routes, the idea goes, we’d have more people paying for piloting services. While this approach has had some success, it has not kept many pilots off the retirement rolls. Maybe we need to envision not only new kinds of pilots and airplanes, but an entirely different approach to aircraft design. We need new kinds of community hangers which not only encourage new pilots, but also new ways to think about what it means to fly.
Media services as a new business model
Every community has information needs, whether its just the humble bulletin board at the local library or the most elaborate community press organization.
In recent decades, community information needs have broadened, and some of these are already being served by commercial media services operations — for example Flickos for video digitization and Lumoid for media equipment rentals. These are “long tail” services that don’t specifically target local political, environmental and social information needs, so they only show the commercial potential, not the potential for service.
Let’s imagine a new kind of local/ regional media service, perhaps a non-profit organization, possibly a media cooperative. Imagine the projects it could take on:
- Volunteer video production unit for meetings, school events, sports and other community needs with full high quality switching and livecasting;
- Video and photographic equipment rentals for weekend specials or family event specials as per the Luminoid model.
- VHS and digital tape to digital transfer, for family heritage videos, as in the Flicko’s business model.
- A photocopying / scanning operations for printing, document handling and family album reproductions and heritage scrapbooking.
- Thermal imaging equipment for home and business energy audits;
Additional low-cost services that could be delivered by trained volunteers include:
- Elderly podcasting support for free audio books, in connection with library and with Librivox.org; This is especially important public service outreach for nursing homes and vision impaired.
- Teen’s educational animation software & studio space (eg Dragonframe or other animation application);
- Time-lapse photography, ground penetrating radar, drone video, and other advanced digital imaging services.
- Computer video editing rentals, for the shop, with training, or for experienced users, to take home.
- Teen video gaming contests and parental training for video game participation;
- Small business marketing and web design consulting and support that empowers the small business owner;
- Individual, family and community: Book publishing assistance and local market pooling for low-cost online books and books-on-demand.
- Assistance with community blogging for additional information outreach from religious, agricultural, small business development and other local civic improvement groups
Community news and public agenda setting would be one of the centerpieces of the coop. It could (and should) be a democratic news environment, where readers and viewers would not only vote for the most important stories and set the agenda, but would also have a voice in the way information is developed in the first place.
In this instance, members of the community would know in advance about topics coming up in the news and would have an opportunity to comment or contribute. Similarly, if a critical mass of readers wanted a reporter to look into a public situation and report back, the readers should be able to initiate reporting efforts. At the same time, professional and citizen reporters could propose and bid on these kinds of projects. So a transparent and public agenda setting function would be a healthy way to approach public issues.
Overall, we can move in the direction of MORE, rather than less, democracy in our information systems, especially if we act collectively. We can face the technological revolution fearlessly, and make the best of it, rather than allow it to make the worst of us.
As Henry David Thoreau said in Walden, over 150 years ago: “Why should we leave it to Harper & Brothers … to select our reading? As the nobleman of cultivated taste surrounds himself with whatever conduces to his culture, genius, learning, [or] wit … so let the village. Do not stop short at a pedagogue, a parson, a sexton, a parish library, and three selectmen, because our Pilgrim forefathers got through a cold winter once on a bleak rock with these. To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions …”
Examples of new business models:
- Using a media services model, the North Carolina Daily Tarheel is close to breaking even again, according to this 2017 Poynter Institute article.
- A new breed of cooperatives is looking to redefine local media, The Guardian, Nov 14, 2014.
- Taz.de the Berlin cooperative daily newspaper
- New Haven (CT) Independent – Non profit newspaper
- “Who Killed the American Newspaper?” on this web site.