Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Future of Journalism Queensland 3: Paying for journalism

This is the third in a series of posts about last Saturday’s Future of Journalism Queensland summit at QUT, Brisbane. See links to part one and two. The next session was about business models and was entitled “Who is going to pay for journalism?” The session was moderated by Antony Funnell, the host of ABC Radio National’s Media Report, an excellent weekly program that is compulsory listening for anyone with an interest in journalism in Australia and the world beyond.

Funnell moderated a three person panel. They included Dr Jean Burgess, a postdoctorate research fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation where she works on cultural participation and user-led innovation in new media. Also on the panel was Phil McDonald, Queensland managing director of marketing and communication firm George Patterson Y&R. He is also a board director of the company nationally. Completing the panel was Cameron Reilly, founder and CEO of new media company The Podcast Network.

Cameron Reilly began the discussion by describing big media as an anomaly of the 20th century. In the middle of the 19th century there were hundreds of newspapers in the big cities of the world. Then the economics changed when newspapers began subsidising the selling price with advertising. But the era it ushered in has been now been undermined by the Internet. Reilly said the Internet has taken us back to the type of communication that dominated the previous 40,000 years: that of telling stories to each other. The fundamentals of the economy has changed, he said and “there was no putting the genie back in the bottle”. He said there were now 75 million blogs and 100 million videos (a day) on Youtube. Reilly said these diverse platforms were undermining “the controlled oligopoly” of big media.

Funnell asked the panel if the future meant there would be many small-sized business in place of a few large ones. Reilly noted the fact that Crikey had bought up several important political blogs in the previous day or so but would ever only employ a handful of journalists. Given that traditionally news in print form was paid for by classified ads, he asked rhetorically: “Is Seek going to be the new investigative journalism site?”

Phil McDonald took up the conversational cudgels from the adman’s perspective. He said consumers were consuming more news than ever. But how to target them in the new environment is the frustration for advertisers. He said what clients wanted was a return on investment and were prepared to take risks to follow the news online. However the charging of advertising has not kept up with the provision of news. He said producers need to create more, to make money for his clients. But habits have also changed and people now consume news when and where they want it. “A credible source of news is where people start and what advertisers want,” he said.

Jean Burgess spoke next. She said the mass media need to be seen in the context across the creative industries. She said news was only one of the creative industries obsessed with “delivering to the consumer”. Burgess said its “here is the news – you can now comment” is “not respectful” and not how the blogosphere works or how audiences engage with media. She asked whether media organisations were interested in engaging with social media, an area where there was “lots of experimentation”.

Burgess saw the Viacom law suit against Google’s YouTube as a clash of business models. A better way, she thought, than "Viacom's belligerent charge to the courts" might be to get some component of the revenue generated, rather than asking for the content to be taken down. She said the agenda was now being driven by the demands of an engaged audience and people could make a living out of the new media. “Maybe not a river of gold,” she said, “but a trickle of silver.”.

Reilly said his company “breaks even” using a mixture of subscription, advertising and consultancy work. He was unsure where the revenue might be in five years. Advertising was the “easiest guess” but lots of work was required to make it happen. And he warned that it would be a serious problem if he was hit by a major lawsuit. He said he had respect for journalists but it wasn’t what he did. “99 percent of bloggers and podcasters don’t want to make money (and) don’t consider themselves journalists,” he said. “If anyone said I was a journalist, I’d be horrified.”

The panel then took several diverse questions from the floor. Reilly said he got 90 percent of his news from Twitter and believed the 20th century economic model where we “supported fat rich white guys in Mercs and Jags is gone.” But he was very pessimistic about the future for journalists saying there was a “tough decade ahead”. But the writing was on the wall for a long time before the recent Fairfax bloodletting and his question to journalists was “why did you fiddle while Rome burned for 20 years.” Burgess suggested that if the Courier-Mail disappeared “then maybe the ABC would blossom”. McDonald concluded that brands like the Courier-Mail won’t die, “but (they) need to realise impact in different forms”.

No comments: