[Editor’s note: Ian Gill is a Vancouver-based veteran journalist and non-profit leader who just happens to write regularly for The Tyee. Last year he surveyed the state of journalism in Canada and, seeing a crisis, searched here and abroad for hopeful developments. The result is No News Is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse and What Comes Next, published by Greystone Books. Gill recently acted on his findings by joining, as president, a new public interest media model called Discourse Media. Below is a piece by drawn from Gill’s must-read book for anyone worried about the health of our national conversation.]
That giant sucking sound you hear? Oh that’s just the implosion of Canadian media. The hollowing out of Canada’s media is bad for democracy, and it runs counter to the claim that in the post-Stephen Harper era, Canada is somehow “back.” Actually, we have become a media backwater and it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
And yet, the life expectancy of serious journalism looks to be a lot longer than the life expectancy of legacy media suggests.
At a gathering of media innovators in Perugia, Italy, last year, I began to believe that technology might actually be journalism’s saviour. Journalism isn’t dead, Jeff Jarvis said in a keynote address. “What’s dead is the business model for mass media.”
Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism, is the author most recently of the book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. His basic thesis is that legacy media are failing precisely because their business models depended on viewing their audience as a mostly ignorant mass, with editors and reporters dumbing down the world’s complexity into easily digestible content they thought was all we deserved or could handle.
This no longer works when a lot of content is cheap to create, easy to find, and mostly free to access. The media that succeed in the future, Jarvis says, will act less like content providers and more like service providers who find out what communities need to function more successfully and then, where appropriate, apply the tools of journalism in service of those aims. The digital revolution will make it easier for journalism to respond to people’s concerns, and journalism will be judged less by volume than by the value it creates. Jarvis states in his book: “Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something. To be a service, news must be concerned with outcomes rather than products.” Interestingly, CUNY now offers a degree program in what it calls “social journalism.”
As aspirational as all this might sound, there is evidence that people are willing to pay for good journalism that addresses the issues they’re interested in.
Starting a media funding ‘movement’
Consider the example of De Correspondent, in the Netherlands. A couple of years ago, two prominent Dutch journalists decided to quit their posts at traditional newspapers and launch a website where, in the words of publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth, “We make journalism we believe in, and our members buy it.” Simple as that. They crowd-funded an astonishing $1.7 million in a month (the first $1.3 million in just eight days), charging €60 for a one-year membership, but also inviting readers to donate as well as subscribe. Many did. De Correspondent doesn’t take any advertising, and it doesn’t have any institutional investors, meaning “We don’t have to take any other stakeholders into account” — just readers, Pfauth said. De Correspondent steers clear of “news” reporting, since you can find burning buildings or flamed-out celebrities anywhere.
Instead of focusing on what is unusual from one day to the next, “We try to write about things that happen every day.” They write long-form, often investigative pieces about systemic issues, rather than symptomatic ones. And, most tellingly, they eschew the pulpit in favour of a platform that is purpose-built for the exchange of ideas. “Our journalists are conversation leaders,” Pfauth said, “and our members are contributing experts.” Journalists as curators, in other words, and comments as content, rather than being dark matter generated by cranks and trolls.
By crowd-funding, De Correspondent consciously set out to “start a movement,” not just a publication, and having grown membership and revenues since the initial flush of interest, the model seems to make the case that people will pay for journalistic symphonies, not just jingles.
More evidence comes in the form of Blendle, another Dutch startup that has been christened the “iTunes for news.” Co-founder Alexander Klöpping was a technology reporter at a well-regarded newspaper when he came to realize that “none of what I was writing was getting read by my peers.” Klöpping is in his twenties, and people in their twenties for the most part don’t read newspapers (one study shows that when millennials hear about news, usually on social media, 57 per cent of those who want to know more go straight to a search engine; five per cent go to newspapers).
Not just in the Netherlands, but in Canada and elsewhere, blame for a growing democratic deficit is assigned to young people’s lack of interest in public affairs, which is further equated to their lack of interest in newspapers. Young people don’t much trust institutions, and they especially don’t trust governments “now that politicians aren’t exactly achieving anything,” as Felix Salmon, senior editor of Fusion, told one session in Perugia. By extension, young people also don’t trust, or just aren’t interested in, politicians’ bedfellows of yore, mainstream media.
Klöpping’s team hit upon a deft way to repackage existing media into what he calls a “completely frictionless” platform that allows people to pay only for the news they consume. You may not want to read every story in the New York Times, or De Telegraaf, but that’s what conventional sites ask you to do. You subscribe to a whole paper, labour away to choose what you want to read, and throw out the rest. But on Blendle you simply pay, per article, for what you read. It costs the equivalent of just 15 to 40 cents per article, and you can ask for a refund if you don’t like the story (about five per cent of stories trigger requests for refunds) — the idea behind the enterprise being that, in Klöpping’s words, “Just as there is Spotify for music and Netflix for movies, you now have Blendle for news.” Young readers, he claims, are paying for news for the first time, and “Those are the people I want to get. Two-thirds of Blendle users are under 35.”
In-depth journalism as money magnet
What is fascinating, and heartening, is that “news doesn’t sell well on Blendle, long-form does.” Whether Blendle helps or hinders big media players in the long run, paywalls have mostly failed because they extend the idea that people want the whole hymn book. Allowing micropayments for specific content speaks to the appetites of individuals, not masses. Whether Blendle is sustainable, and whether it can work in the English-speaking world as opposed to the small and quite particular media market that is the Netherlands — those and other questions are up for debate. The site derives its ongoing revenues via licensing and revenue shares with the news organizations whose material it features (split 70:30 between the news organization and Blendle). The New York Times and German publishing giant Axel Springer were sufficiently impressed that they bet about $4 million between them on Blendle, which expanded into Germany in 2015 and soon boasted about 650,000 users in the Netherlands and Germany.
Blendle launched a beta version in the US in March 2016, featuring content partners that include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Mother Jones, Barron’s, FT Weekend, Newsweek, the Economist, and one of the better experiments in web-based long-form journalism, the Atavist Magazine. It is charging 25 cents per story. Blendle, incidentally, partly owes its existence to a €200,000 grant for innovative journalism provided by the Democracy and Media Foundation, which, like Canada’s Inspirit Foundation, was itself funded through the proceeds of a media company sale.
If Klöpping and Co. have begun to crack the nut on what is now a perennial question in journalism — how to attract and keep millennials, who are the readers, watchers, and indeed players (not to mention voters) of the future — then maybe that’s a ray of hope. Maybe all this crowd-funded, crowd-sourced disaggregation of content and disruption of legacy media is good news for journalism. Here in Canada, the Winnipeg Free Press has latched on to the micropayment idea, putting its website behind a paywall in 2015 (ho-hum) but offering up an alternative to its $16.99 monthly plan through a micropayment option that charges 27 cents per story. “What we’ve found is that there’s a lot more engagement for the people who are on the site,” said publisher Bob Cox. “They’re spending more time with stories.”
While digital sales thus far account for just two per cent of the Free Press’s revenue, that offsets losses in print circulation and offers a low-cost way to attract new readers, and revenues, to the paper. “We really see pay-per-article as our route to new readers,” Cox said.
Back in Perugia, a session on new business models naturally featured De Correspondent and Blendle and referenced other digital start-ups in Europe, including two German sites, Krautreporter and Correctiv; Hungary’s Direkt36; Iceland’s Stundin; Sweden’s Blank Spot Project, etc. The common theme that emerged was not just the extent to which new media organizations were turning to crowd-funding, but the emphasis on treating readers as members. That requires a level of service and attention that is unprecedented and expensive, but one that the founders of these sites believe is absolutely essential for gaining loyalty and retaining it.
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