(This is a follow-on to my post regarding Yahoo and AOL's intentions to become media concerns by picking up displaced MSM reporters. While generally supporting the companies' directions, if only as least-bad alternatives, I cautioned that the habits of retreaded reporters might be problematic, if not managed appropriately. Joe Tartakoff poked me regarding that dangling statement, so here's an elaboration. Caveats: I have never worked in or managed a news gathering organization. However, much of the following seems evident from the financial realities of the situation, so I begin there, and end with my estimate of the impact on reporting.)
The top lines of media organizations are imploding, with print hurt first and worst. How bad is it going to get? Historically, revenue averaged across all media has been about 1/3 subscription. The dreams of some newspaper execs aside, the subscription line is gone for good for many organizations, except in high value vertical niches. The 2/3 of revenue that was advertising has also been shrinking. Much of advertising has already disaggregated from the media channel to, for instance, craigslist, since its bundling with content was a matter of distribution economies that now look like a historical accident. Suppose, generously, that the 50% of advertising that was proverbial wasted is gone for good, and you're down to 1/3 of the former top line industry-wide. Make some tougher assumptions about advertising that moves to dedicated sites and you could easily be down to the future sector running at 10% of the former gross.
As Jeff Jarvis points out, revenue is useless if you can't make a profit. Managing towards internal needs and goals other than net margins have turned print media into a fancy way to lose money. The core of my argument is that AOL and Yahoo may have stumbled onto a good idea because they are natives in the land of diminished top lines, less likely to have accumulated damaging or distracting internal goals, and therefore more likely to be able to fit their expense structure to the reality of revenue.
Consider The Competition
A media business trying to create value and derive revenue does so in the face of alternatives for the reader. With the Internet's demolition of distribution choke points, competition for attention is now global. With media brand loyalty fading fast, the reader or viewer will pick and choose from anything that Google can find. Consider James Murdoch's broadside against the BBC as a confirmation from the industry itself. If you aren't diving into one of Jarvis' hyperlocal niches, your competition is anyone with an IP address and similar content. That's another suggestion that the industry as a whole will end up much smaller - there's no way to maintain margin in a market so grossly over-supplied. If anyone's to profit, the supply must diminish.
The reporter has competition, too. People like me. I've played the computing and communications technology game in various ways for 30+ years. In that time I've met less than 10 reporters/analysts that I would consider really knew the domain. People who if I gave part of a story I could count on to understand where it fit in the grand scheme of things, and know how to go hunt down the rest. (Or who, conversely, I would want nowhere near my shop if I had a story I was trying to keep quiet.) Most of the rest have practiced some mix of people journalism and rearranging press releases, often accompanied by gross naiveté or bias regarding industry dynamics or business in general.
I think that's been a common experience to those in business, technology or other niches. Before the net, it was fairly easy for those in a complex professional domain to say 'Well, this is hard, and you can't expect too much' without making the jump to question the media's expertise and reliability more broadly. The Web in general and blogging in particular blew that up. Real practitioners across the spectrum from law to genetics to criminology to the military can have their own voices if they want to blow off steam or get their messages out unadulterated. Both expert writers and committed readers are out there, and can now meet up. The comparison with the pabulum handed out by the MSM has been stark for those who have made it. That's also competition that has to be beat or co-opted to have a hope of extracting revenue, now that distribution control has been destroyed.
If I were putting together management guidelines for a new media organization, or giving my two cents to a reporter who wanted to survive the ongoing implosion, I'd have these two at the top:
1. Reporters (or whatever we're to call them now) must know their beats. Not only as a professional goal and ethos, but as a result of management commitment and measurement of the goal. 'Knowing the beat' means not just knowing the people, but understanding the logic of the domain enough to reason in it. Having a point of view on it is useful and perhaps necessary, so long as it is founded on fact and knowledge, not prejudice, and made explicit. This means that management can't be bouncing reporters from one beat to another, and that reporters have to get beyond people and keywords in their analysis. The purely process part of reporting is being incrementally replaced by Google, RSS, twitter - and it will only get worse as time goes on. It no longer creates value.
2. The 'reporter' must now be a participant-observer in the community of interest. Not a community organizer, but a mirror to the community, virtual or real-space. The idea of the 'heroic reporter' who goes out, finds the story, does all the leg work and the writing, is dying. It can't be afforded. The tools that are destroying the old distribution choke point have to be turned around and used to advantage, to observe, cultivate and understand the target domain and its people. It's not crowd sourcing in the full sense of that term, because the reporter is exercising judgement in what to focus on and emphasize, and how to put it within a framework for understanding, but it has common elements. 'Reporting' is going to take on some of the flavor of managing online forums, moderating mailing lists, or editing a wiki page. (Another point in favor of AOL and Yahoo, who have plenty of experience with online community, where many media organizations have been highly ambivalent.)
It seems to me that reporters motivated and weaned on J-school stories of Watergate and the like are going to find it hard to fit in this world. The omniscient voice is just plain gone, and there are plenty of alternate voices to call BS on selective sourcing or political cant. The economics above imply the profession is going to shrink radically. The skill and motivation set for the survivors may be rather different from what attracted them initially, or was part of their training. Double of course for editors and publishers who have even more years of the old ways 'baked in'. That's the long form of my caution on AOL and Yahoo recycling the personnel of the faltering MSM.
Organized reporting (new style) will have some things going for it. The first is simply being on the job continuously, as opposed to domain experts who have other lives and produce sporadically based on self-motivation. Pulling together those bits and clues, filling in the blanks and backstory, and making it easily available must add value, or the profession is just plain gone. Since as I've observed elsewhere, the best way to learn a field is to watch experts argue about it, that continual contact will lead to beat expertise.
Second, editors and many reporters will have a sense of what will be broadly interesting within a community, or even beyond it. That's hard for someone deeply embedded in their own work in a domain. (I really suck at this. I seem to have virtually no ability to predict whether a superb analytic post (ha!) will just lie there, or something I dashed off in a moment of amusement or annoyance will get picked up and circulated. There's a talent there. A few bloggers, Glenn Reynolds and the like, have it, but I don't and so I feel the need.) Having the title doesn't necessarily convey the sensibility, so the content selection part of editing will continue to be debatable ground between reporter and editor. One might even conjecture that the two roles will collapse together, due to economic pressure.
None of this is novel with me. If I'm adding anything it's bridging between financial realities and organizational implications. And I'm well aware that most of the MSM would claim they've been doing this all along. I give that as much credibility as the claim made back in the day by CompuServe and AOL that we were 'selecting and organizing content for the benefit of the user'. Both we and the MSM were making pious claims while actually tending a distribution choke point. Now it has to be real, or die.