Solutions for digital journalism will need us to unlearn a lot
May 6, 2016
Solutions for digital journalism require unlearning and adapting to a new landscape, as traditional media faces challenges and the need for transformation.
A memorandum from an editor of an American newspaper sparked an article from Poynter last week, bringing an interesting analysis of the fragility of the newspaper business model. The article's conclusion is simple and unsurprising: news companies cannot afford the quality of their product. But are newspapers truly doomed to die, or are we banging on the same key expecting a different result?
The text by Teresa Schmedding comments on an e-mail sent to the newsroom of a news company in the San Francisco region, California. James Robinson, the company's content director, talks about how some employees would have to be laid off, and yes, this would worsen the quality of the newspaper, with less accuracy of information and more publication errors.
Robinson's mea culpa reveals a hecatomb in terms of employment in the USA. The country lost half of the copy desks it had in 2007. In 2015 alone, 7,000 professionals were laid off. And things are going to get worse ("The winter is coming," as they would say in Winterfell).
Schmedding classifies the situation as being "the last nail in the coffin of traditional media". It's hard to disagree with her about the survival of newspapers and companies whose competitive advantages were linked to printing and distribution infrastructure. But is it a grave for journalism as a whole?
Well, if so, it will be the first case in history where an industry or profession completely disappears without having undergone mutations and adaptations to the new scenario. "Darwinianly" speaking, everything indicates that the error of traditional media so far has been the attempt to realign with the same mindset inherited from newspapers and magazines. Models based on the sale of advertisements and subscriptions will never balance the account (or at least not until there is a recreation of the system adapted to digital as suggested by Magid Abraham, which I address in this text).
Investment in newspapers will not pay off as long as the news production model (or any other journalism or entertainment content) is inherited from traditional media. Installation costs, newsroom creation, subscription to expensive support services (such as image banks) are tied to the revenue that was raised on account of printing and distribution monopolies. Digital dismantled this need, offering a faster and more agile product, with a lower (or marginal) cost. The digital audience has already surpassed the print one. Monetizing the digital operation is much more difficult than it was in print. The way out is not to seek more money in digital - it goes through spending less to produce the news.
Few digital operations in the world realized the turnaround that digital would bring early enough to make the operation viable in new media still with a margin coming from the profit of print and electronic. The Guardian, one of the three digital news operations in the world considered a success case, announced a cost cut of the order of 20%. In addition, it began to explore alternative revenue sources like asking readers to "join" the newspaper to fund the costs of investigative journalism.
The digital newsroom of the future will not be like traditional ones and most likely should not even be "physical" centers where all participants meet. Databases, geographic location tools, social network APIs, graphic production software, and infographics and crowdsourcing are elements that will make up the core of these new models. The journalism that will come out of this mutation forced by the digital shock will need polishing and its results should take time to be fit to replace traditional journalism. However, the change will happen. If we facilitate, seeking ways to facilitate this migration, it will be easier for everyone. Unfortunately, everything indicates that we will travel the path with more friction.