Information Finds a Way, but Does Revenue?

My last post was “Fear Not, For Information – It Always Finds a Way” published in the Sacramento Bee. To play a little devil’s advocate with myself. I propose a look at revenue. This is a post for PBS’s IdeaLab.

My writing on PBS Idea Lab was introduced to me as a way to publicly discuss the growth of Spot.Us, my Knight News Challenge project. I’ve received kudos for being honest in my blog posts. I’m comfortable talking about where Spot.Us is falling short, and where we are exceeding expectations. I think we are doing a bit of both — and trying to adjust to succeed more and fall short less. Hey, that’s the nature of iterative projects, which I’ve always said needs to be at the heart of Spot.Us as a new concept.

So let’s keep that bit of honesty alive in this post in order to talk broadly about journalism. (If you just want the updates on Spot.Us, scroll down to the bottom.)

Robert Niles at OJR wrote two recent, fantastic pieces. In the shadow of The Economist’s article proclaiming this to be “The year of the pay wall,” Niles wrote “there is no revenue model for journalism” and that “doing journalism is an act of community organizing.”

Doing journalism as an act of community organizing is something I’ve been writing/thinking about for a long time — ever since Assignment Zero first failed. (Its failure only becomes more beautiful and poetic with hindsight). But I want to focus on Niles’ first point.

“There is no revenue model for journalism.”

That’s not an easy thing to say. Probably not good cocktail conversation at a journalism mixer. But let’s entertain Niles for a minute.

He says there are three main ways publishers can make money.

  1. Direct purchases, such as subscriptions (or pay walls), copy sales, and tickets
  2. Advertising
  3. Donations, including direct contributions and grant funding

Niles then proceeds to break down the three and concludes, “Publishers must take a sober look at these three options and decide how best to maximize their income opportunities within them.”

Others might disagree with Niles and cite a plethora of other revenue streams (see: How to turn journalists into profit centers), but I don’t think we can outright dismiss Niles’s point of view by dreaming up other revenue streams outside of these trusted few.

Keep in mind the tone I mentioned earlier: Honesty, both the good and the bad. So let’s take a good long look at just the headline. Certainly, Niles didn’t mean there were no revenue streams. He simply meant there is no new revenue stream to pluck out of the sky aside from those main three.

But let’s take his headline to the extreme for a minute. We can keep these three revenue streams and, as the trends show, entertain the idea that journalism just isn’t sustainable. That’s what I did in a thought experiment while witnessing the back and forth banter of two friends on Twitter, an exchange that was archived by Deanna Zandt.

My response to ‘journalism mimics art’ in full was captured in a bit of a rant:

….a hard cold truth might be that [journalism] isn’t sustainable.

But you know what – even if journalism isn’t sustainable in that classic sense it doesn’t mean it will disappear. There are plenty of endeavors that have NEVER been sustainable in the true sense of the word.

I use poetry as an example. Poetry in and of itself has never been sustainable in the way we might think of other goods and services.

Are we afraid poetry will die? No. Has it ever even been scarce?

I think we could extend this [lack of sustainability] to almost all of the high arts (as opposed to pop arts).

One of Clay Shirky’s most profound and popular posts about newspapers had this to say:

The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing
budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident.

And while we all agree with the wisdom of this, we seldom take Shirky to task. If Wal-Mart won’t subsidize journalism, somebody else must step up. But perhaps whoever that is won’t have profits and sustainability in mind.

I’m not proposing that we just give up, all join co-ops and grow dreadlocks (although that would be cool with my internal hippie). What I am suggesting is that, in this age of experimentation, which we all agree is happening, there are certain assumptions we make that steer the direction of our thought.

One of those assumptions, and I claim this all the time, is that there will always be a market for news and information. That marketplace is in flux and hard to pin down at the moment, but people want accurate and thorough news and information. If this assumption is true, then journalism will be sustainable once we figure out the marketplace again and how to “sell” the news.

Compare this to poetry, where there is little demand. There is no robust marketplace and poetry is not “sustainable” in the true sense of the word. Instead, it is traditionally professionalized through patrons of the arts.

The Relative Importance of News and Information

In conversations with people that conduct audience research I’ve come to realize that news and information is not as important to the average reader as it is to folks like you and me (bloggers, journalists, news junkies, etc).

Here’s what they tell me: two times a week. That’s how often people have the urge to dive into civic issues at the local level. Of those two times it’s unclear whether or not news and information is even desired, or if it’s just the urge to tutor the kids at your local school, or do some public gardening, etc.

I wonder how often people feel the urge to hear poetry?

I don’t claim to know any truths about the value of journalism and original reporting. Hey, I’m biased! I’m just suggesting that, as journalists, when we have this discussion we should recognize our bias and tendency for over-valuation.

In that vein, I want to follow this train of thought to an extreme. For me, it’s often helpful to think in extreme examples and then determine the factors that lead to one or the other extreme. I could very easily write a blog post where the value of news and information is compared to food (three times a day, please) instead of poetry. Following that path would give us different conclusions.

So fear not! No truth has been discovered in this post — it’s just an attempt to shake things up.

Spot.Us Updates

1. The Redesign is making progress — It’s always slower than you want it to be. But so is transportation. One day, we’ll just be able to snap our fingers and, presto-insto, be somewhere new.

2. Pitches are coming in and going through the pipeline — We still need to figure out a better way to keep pitches on a deadline. A last resort would be to start deducting money from pitches that go past deadline, but that is a last resort. I’m sure there are other measures we can put into place to make sure deadlines are met. By the way, the newest pitch comes from a very cool Peter Byrne who wants to investigate the UC Regents.

3. The iterative process continues.

4 thoughts on “Information Finds a Way, but Does Revenue?”

  1. Market value isn’t inherently linked to economic value. Is sex you pay for the very best kind? Is buying a kid or a wife the best way to get one? Does the fact the conceiving a child is free make the kid worthless?

    I was surprised to read in a Worldwatch paper that most food is raised by women. Flies in the face of common sense, doesn’t it? But throughout much of the world, women work in the fields to feed their families. What they raise isn’t counted in economic analyses because most of it isn’t sold. It’s part of the “informal economy,” which makes it largely invisible.

    I don’t know where this leads us, except that I rather like the informal economy. It’s people by folk doing what matters.

  2. I have a theory that there is way text based online communities (web forums, I run one) and journalists can co-exist.

    See… If forum visitors are visiting a text based platform, would not a skillfully written piece provide some welcome variation? Izine may come close to describe this category of mashup.

    But for this to work I think journalists may have to dive in and learn about monetizing their work. (via banner ads video ads and text ads surrounding their work).

    One could strike a deal with a web publisher like this.

    If you want to place my text on your web page – I want you as part of the deal to place this web code into the header of that page. I will then serve banner, text ads or video ads to that page and will collect all revenue generated directly.

    Submit written work
    Submit own we page “ad code” that you control and earn from

    If you wanted to you could control the content of ads served – serve only charitable ads – sell ads directly to ad clients – or use agency services to provide you with ads that you have some degree of choice over. Trade ads at a local cafe for free meals.. (kind of kidding here but barter deals are very easily struck for ‘no money exchanged’ trades I can assure you..)

    As I follow various podcasts about the technological frontiers of journalism, a recurring theme keeps popping up. Whenever they get to the part about how a new venture will be funded, the tech pundit journos all chorus at once – ‘advertising’.

    You folks may have to manage not just the text you provide web publishers – you may have to learn to manage the ads (your own ads) running around it.

    I hope to get a debate / think-tank going on this at one of these upcoming events.

    All the best,


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