Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's the business model, stupid.

So, Al Giordano has a post up entitled Black and White and Dead All Over over at his website, and frankly, it's tiresome, and simple-minded, in the extreme.
The basic gist: Newspapers are folding, becoming online editions, and generally exhibiting acute signs of suffering. And what that means, per Giordano -- who is out on the speaking circuit -- is that a thousand flowers will bloom in the absence of dead-tree media.

First, to be kind, let's stipulate where he and I agree.
a) The fall and trouble associated with papers is widespread, rampant, destructive of contemporary journalism, and the informed public will suffer as a result.

Okay, that was a short list. Here's where he and I disagree.
a) That journalists had it coming because we were all of us in the pocket of corporate media. That's simply not true at the local level, or even at the regional level. Most of us -- as in 99% were trying to do a good job.

b) That the Internet has now flanked print media. Also untrue. Newspapers and magazines continue to offer sound journalism because -- drumroll -- they throw resources after trusted reporters who know they're onto something. The blogosphere is great for opinion, often deep insight, and when it comes to breaking news -- sadly late. There are exceptions, but they prove the rule. Josh Micah Marshall over at is the exception for his tenacity in following the State Attorney Scandal. Individual journalists like Walter Pincus, and his contemporaries are the exceptions because they have deep wells of contacts. Most of the Internet blogosphere have a small network of contacts that are useful, occasionally, for breaking news. But not consistently. Moreover, the blogosphere has few resources to do vital things like file FOIA requests, go to meetings, network on the payroll, etc. -- the typical things journalists do when in the field that waiting for AdSense bucks has not yet been able to duplicate.

c) That the sooner the traditional media are gone that it will create a vast wellspring for the blogger to pick up stories. Actually, here, he and I agree, but only partially. Yes, if traditional media die, this will create an opportunity for the blogger. But only if they die, which implies that while traditional media continues to limp onward, that the blogger is shut out. Surely, if traditional media die, those with something to say will have to come to the blogger, and then the tireless blogger will receive a well-deserved scoop. But until then, sources (especially whistleblowers) will continue to gravitate to the news outlets where their statements can have the widest impact.

All of this cuts to the twin issues of audience and revenue model. It stands to reason that audience=dollars/n, where n is a four to ten digit number. What is important to note is that AdSense is not a revenue model for the individual contributor, unless they have a trust fund, live with their parents, or have become independently wealthy.

Nor have any other revenue models appeared that supplant AdSense, and until Google collapses -- of which it shows few signs -- there likely won't be any models that can supplant AdSense.
AdSense will always favor the momentary attention spike versus the truly valuable -- ie, first draft of history -- journalism, because most people would rather be entertained than informed. Don't get me wrong: I'd rather be entertained than informed, but I'm informed because I know I must be in order to be remotely valuable to society. Being well-informed is always a sacrifice of pleasure, although, I will admit that being even moderately well-informed is its own, twisted reward.

The other thing is that the fate of over-leveraged national media outlets is not necessarily indicative of the overall state of journalism. It's indicative of being over-leveraged.

Bottom-line, until a business model is found for individual correspondents to live on more than the ramen diet, the thousand flowers Mr. Giordano proposes will never bloom.

They'll never even sprout.

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