Journalists Have a Future!

In another life, I’d be a journalist – the life of a journalist is fascinating to me, and I love reading stories of the embedded reporters, whether on the campaign trail or in Iraq. Reading the work of my former debate teammate, James Hohmann, on Politico is pretty cool.

So this article by James Fallows of the Atlantic piqued my interest (you should also check out this Powerpoint by a Google economist). Ostensibly, it’s about Google and how they’re helping – not hurting – newspapers. But really, it’s a discussion of how the future of news organizations might look. The whole article is worth a read, but I thought there were two points that warranted writing about.

First, the ads. Online advertisements sell for a fraction of what print ads sell for. As Fallows explains, part of the problem is time:

…people who read printed newspapers report spending an average of about 30 minutes a day with them, whereas online users flit in and out of news sites in an average of 70 seconds.

This won’t last – within a reasonable time period, most people will get the majority of their news online, or on their smartphone. Look at it another way: for advertisers to be effective in print, they have to 1) catch the eye of a prospective buyer; 2) convince the buyer that their product is worth purchasing; and 3) either head to a store to purchase the product or get to a computer and go to their website.

Online advertisements are a whole different story. They can target a specific audience; interact with the audience in ways no print advertisement ever could; and offer a direct link to the product. When you think about it, it’s crazy that these ads are so cheap. Add in all of the potential new ways to advertise on the iPad and other high-tech gadgets, and it seems to me that advertising rates will pick up. All of this leads me to agree with Fallows that eventually (soon?) the  advertising model will be viable for journalism. There’s a future in journalism!

Another business model for journalism is to institute a paywall (i.e., in order to access an article from a certain site you need to be a subscriber). Now, for any one newspaper to put in place a paywall is basically suicide – watch what happens with the New York Times’ planned paywall. If I would have to pay to read an article on the Times, I’ll just head to any other website. Personally, I think the model that will be most successful – making the most revenue for the newspaper while minimizing customer pain – will include micro-payments (i.e., each article you read on the Times’ website will cost you a nickel), though there are real issues with that as well.

In any event, the future of journalism seems to be brighter than many believe, and I’m glad. The transition will be tough for many of these companies (Newsweek’s future is looking bleak) Having a free, independent press is necessary for democracy, and the more voices available, the better.

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