So, you’re a blogger. You gettin’ paid for what you write?
Nada? Thought so. Me, too. Nada. But don’t worry: Corporate types who run content businesses have big plans for us. They’re gonna make us stars of online local news.
Here’s an example: In the latest edition of American Journalism Review, writer Karen Carmichael outlines the plan for Albritton Communications’ strategy for local online news in Washington, D.C. She writes:
[T]he new operation is determined to figure out how to make local online news a profitable venture and to reimagine the relationship among reader, blogger and news organization, with heavy aggregation and partnerships with area bloggers key parts of his strategy. [emphasis added]
Damn. We’re going to be reimagined. (Say, how much does that pay?)
Jim Brady, who once ran washingtonpost.com, sees a brave new world:
We are trying to reinvent what local news can look like in a world in which you can combine the technology of the Web and the broad reach of a television station, so you can deliver the macro and the micro at the same time.
Brady’s planned site, TBD (for “To Be Determined”) would use “multiple platforms” (such as Albritton’s TV stations and Politico, which it owns), “targeted precision” using zip codes to deliver news more precisely, geocoding for mobile devices (will advertisers really like that?), and other vaguely described tools.
Brady says, “There’s lots of money on the Web, but there’s a lot more people fighting for it.” He speaks of revenue, but not about coin-of-the-realm payout to potential content producers like me and my blogging buds.
In Carmichael’s piece, few sources provide specifics. Take this graf, featuring Erik Wemple:
Adds TBD Editor Erik Wemple, “We’re unconstrained by a print platform — we don’t have to get a paper out every day or even every week.” That freedom will enable the editors to channel all of their energy into the Web site, which will be constantly changing, he says.
Huh? How’s that going to work, exactly? Who will channel what and how and for how much?
And more from Brady:
I think the mobile generation is going to change local news for good.
How? For whose “good”? The audience? The advertiser? The corporate owner? And “I think?” That suggests Brady is guessing — like so many news organizations trying to figure out their new business model(s).
The AJR piece is guesswork about what might be with little evidence provided explaining how what might be will come to be. But one theme emerges: Corporate entities would like to get something for nothing. Again, Wemple:
“We want to change the way we do coverage, the way journalists view coverage,” Wemple says. Instead of sending out one reporter who can interview only a few people, he asks, why not pull in news feeds from other sources and post fans’ thoughts and experiences to cover, say, the opening day of the Washington Nationals’ season? [emphasis added]
Translation: We want to use fewer reporters by running content obtained from people we don’t have to or want to pay. That’s how we will build our revenue stream and minimize our expense stream.
The explorations by corporate chieftains of “new” business models contain content streams that they do not wish to connect to compensation streams. That’s you and me, fellow bloggers. That’s how our relationship with news organizations is being reimagined. If what we write is worthy, we will be aggregated, and without what bloggers might consider appropriate compensation.
Here’s a graf starring Steve Buttry, billed as TBD’s “director of community engagement”:
“We want to cover the breadth of the community experience,” Buttry says. Creating a network of affiliated bloggers, he says, will allow TBD to report on a broader range of topics beyond what the site could do on its own with its small reporting staff. What he’s looking for are current, frequently updated blogs focused on the local area.
Affiliated bloggers? How does one become affiliated? That come with a steady paycheck? (And note that line: “its small reporting staff.” Hold down costs, please.)
Real money? Apparently not.
TBD won’t pay bloggers directly — instead, the sales staff will work with interested advertisers to sell ad space on the bloggers’ sites, and TBD will split the revenue with them. Brady and Buttry believe that the partnership will drive more traffic to the bloggers’ sites and help them to sell more prominent ads. [emphasis added]
Yep, they’re going to split online ad revenue with us. And that online revenue is growing and will soon surpass traditional print revenue, says the Wall Street Journal.
But c’mon: How much is a corporate news organization trying to maximize revenue from a local news website actually going to compensate affiliated bloggers and other semi-volunteer content providers?
This is not a business model: It borders on uncompensated use (some would call it theft) of intellectual property, tactfully labeled the product of community engagement.
Albritton’s plan for TBD is an exemplar of discussions about the financial future of news raging throughout the industry. Lots of marketing rhetoric; little concrete, specific, data-backed planning.
But core questions remain:
Who’s going to pay for news? How, and how much?
Who’s going to be paid to produce news? How, and how much?
This is about money. Period. And, according to James Fallows, a very bright newspaper guy, much of the problem for newspapers is how the Internet — particularly search engines such as Google — has unbundled what newspapers have traditionally bundled and sold as a package. Consider this exchange between Fallows and Howard Kurtz on a recent Reliable Sources on CNN:
KURTZ: Let’s explain a little bit about — about what the core of the problem is. Here’s the New York Times, for example. What I’ve always loved about newspapers is it’s a package, it’s a smorgasbord. And you have got the front page and you’ve got stories from all over, you’ve got the business section, you’ve got the weekend and arts section, there is a sports section in here. People paid money and they got to pick and choose what they care about, movie reviews.
What Google and other search engines have done is they have unbundled all this. You don’t have to read this part. You can go to one article. You can get a link from somebody else and come in and read something that you have written for the op-ed piece, or you can just read what happened in the Yankee game.
So that is a crisis for people who are in the packaging business.
That packaging business is the mainstream print media, collapsing under the weight of its ancient business model and its arrogant failure to recognize sooner that the Internet would be a formidable competitor for advertising. Adding to their woes: No one online is paying for those unbundled pieces of news. And I’ve written (here and here) about the stupid, asinine decision that the newspaper industry made: get rid of the experienced professionals who created the product that attracted the readers who were sold to advertisers. This industry failed to invest in its own unique product.
Thus the search for a new business model. And there are many on the testbed. Which will work? Here’s Fallows and Kurtz again:
FALLOWS: I think there is a line I quoted here from Clay Shirky, who is an NYU media professor, and his line, which I think guides a lot of the tech world’s effort is, nothing will work but everything might. That the accumulation of 1,000 efforts in a certain direction can have a cumulative effect.
And I think that is the faith on which a lot of these tech businesses have been built. And they’re saying to people like us in a business that for a generation have seen contraction, if you try 1,000 efforts, 90 percent of them won’t work, but the 100 percent that will work and that you don’t know before you try them, that can be the way that a new business takes place.
KURTZ: But do magazines such as yours and newspapers such as mine have enough time to throw those 900 things against the wall and see what sticks because, obviously, advertising revenue down, online revenue not taking its place… [emphasis added]
As Kurtz notes, the clock is ticking. The other factor complicating the search for a business model that works is this: News, as a sole product, does not make money by itself. It requires other means to enable news companies to be profitable. That traditionally has been advertising and subscription revenue.
Now, with hundreds of millions of Internet users expecting news to be free forever, the search for profit has become far more difficult. But Fallows is hopeful:
I think this is going to be a particular problem to work on and some mixed solution, partly charitable efforts like Pro Publica, partly different ownership models, you know, partly different revenue models. There will be no one solution, but a lot of ambitious people will find ways to address this need. [emphasis added]
But if they plan on using bloggers in their reimaginings of relationships, then pay us — and fairly.
I’ll be damned if I’ll write for free for the sake of community engagement or any other reason, such as saving someone’s business model. We’ve seen current online enterprises to which bloggers contribute thoughtfully and credibly but receive little or no compensation — although site owners and a few employees make a nice living.
The corporate honchos considering whether these various pie-in-the-sky business models would work in the future of news must damn well think beyond revenue streams to include compensation streams.
Volunteer content providers learn quickly that you can’t pay household bills with just a byline.
News sites must be prepared to pay for content. And the sad irony is this: If news organizations had not canned tens of thousands of experienced, veteran journalists, they wouldn’t have to give a damn about what bloggers think or do.