I’m not convinced that newspapers are dying, even though there’s plenty of financial evidence that they are. (Poynter analyzed the latest revenues and predicts the industry will lose another $1 billion+ this year.)
However, I do think the industry is in a prolonged period of painful disruption. But two disrupters have entered the game, and I’ve a strong feeling they’ll reshape the news industry in a way that no publisher or tech company has been able to do.
Cynics may say that these men can only put more publications out of business, but I see it differently. I think they may just make news profitable for all of us. Ultimately, this will bode well for brand journalists, technologists, and perhaps even the news organizations of the newspapers themselves.
Jeff Bezos – one of the original disrupters of the digital era – completed his purchase of the Washington Post earlier this month.
Pierre Omidyar – another original disrupter – is launching a major news organization with Glenn Greenwald, the investigative journalist who broke the NSA story.
Bezos spent $250 million (of his own money) to buy the traditional media company. Omidyar is spending the same amount to build something brand new.
Both see a future in news – especially in investigative reporting, the area that arguably has been hit hardest by belt-tightening at newspapers.
How to Disrupt the News Industry
People have been rethinking the news business for a long time. I got my start in journalism at the very beginning of the digital era and spent all of my career working in or alongside teams that were re-imagining the future of news. I’ve always believed that news has value and strong investigative reporting is essential to freedom and democracy.
Over the years, I’ve heard about every type of revenue generator: paywalls, content tiers, freemium models, per-article pricing, advertising, custom content and yes, non-profit. Most news organizations have a mix of these payment types, but no combination has been especially lucrative.
Most traditional newspapers have seen their revenues decline in an intensely crowded media market. Even digital publications, despite the hoopla over the “Internet killing the newspaper star,” struggle. Salon.com, for example, has had losses since its inception.
I’ve also seen the best minds in journalism try to start or turnaround news properties. Some have been very successful. The Wall Street Journal has always been a subscription model. ProPublica has won two Pulitzer Prizes in its short history.
As a nonprofit, there’s more to ProPublica’s goals than revenue, but no publication is making the kind of cash that Bezos and Omidyar have made with their technology ventures.
Invest, Invent, Innovate
Three attributes set Bezos and Omidyar apart from your typical managing editor founding a new journalism venture:
- Their willingness to invest to invent and experiment and then innovate the results.
- Hordes of cash that they’re willing to use – to an extent.
- A track record of using technology to disrupt an industry. Retail hasn’t been the same since Amazon and eBay arrived.
It will be interesting to watch these two as they reinvent the news business. As any technologist knows, it’s much easier to start from scratch than to retrofit an entire system. Omidyar might have the advantage.
It’s possible that we’ll get not one but two new business models to consider. Let’s hope so. The industry needs some new thinking.
We can no longer afford to treat news as a commodity. It’s never going to be uniform in quality, and we should never – as a free people – delude ourselves into thinking that it is. But I do believe that there is a business model that will subsidize the high costs of top-notch journalism.
Bezos and Omidyar: let’s see what you can do.