At a forum on the future of journalism held in WGBH’s Yawkey Theater on Wednesday, the consensus was that aggregating as many eyeballs as possible in order to show them advertising does not produce enough revenue to support quality journalism. Instead, news organizations like The New York Times are succeeding by persuading a small percentage of their audience to support them through subscription fees. (Click here for some tweets from the session.)
“One of the things that interests me is the end of the audience as a discrete category that can be treated as an aggregate,” said Clay Shirky of New York University. “Scale was the business model,” he said, describing the attitude among Web publishers as “‘At some point scale will play out.’ And it didn’t.”
As it turns out, Shirky continued, pushing people to “a hot new story” didn’t really matter that much. “What really matters,” he said, “is that there’s about 3 percent of that audience who really cares whether that newspaper lives or dies. We’re just at the beginning of that.”
Shirky and his fellow panelists — Tim O’Brien, publisher of Bloomberg View, and Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, moderated by Nieman Journalism Lab editor Joshua Benton — noted that the revenue model being pursued by the Times and others is essentially the same as the system that funds public media outlets such as WGBH, WBUR, NPR and the like.
O’Brien and Zuckerman disagreed over the need for mass media. O’Brien argued that the audience for an entertainment program can come up with ways of paying for it that don’t depend on attracting a larger audience. “We’re talking about different ways to finance passion,” he said.
To which Zuckerman retorted: “We’re not just talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’ We’re talking about news.” The challenge, Zuckerman said, is to find ways not just of funding journalism but of building enough of an audience so that investigative reporting at the local level can have enough clout to influence events.
Zuckerman also raised the issue of how news organizations do and don’t foster civic engagement, offering the example of the sudden closing of North Adams Regional Hospital in western Massachusetts. The closing put about 500 people out of work and left residents about 45 minutes away from the nearest emergency room.
Zuckerman praised the Berkshire Eagle’s coverage, but said the paper offered little sense of what the public could do. That, he said, would require “advocacy journalism” of the sort that makes traditional journalists uncomfortable.
That led to an observation by Shirky that newspaper editors are actually well-versed in telling their readers how to get involved when it comes to something like a theater review. Not only do readers learn whether the critic liked the play or not, but they are also told when and where it is being performed, how much tickets cost and how to buy them. But when covering a political story, Shirky continued, readers never learn how to make a donation or get involved.
Zuckerman said the problem is that news organizations don’t like to promote what-you-can-do measures when it comes to partisan politics.
By contrast, he added, news organizations have no issues with telling their audience how they can help after a natural disaster, explaining: “There is not a huge pro-hurricane constituency.”