Keeping online journalism away from the Underpant Gnomes

Someone recently asked me if I’ve come across any future business models for journalism that I felt passionate about.

My response: Hmm. Hmmmmmm. Um. Let me think here. Uh…Uh….No, I guess not.

I could talk or blog up a storm about the innovative new content that news organizations need to provide, or the innovative ways to gather that content. I am, after all, a reporter, so it’d make sense for me to offer more insight there. I have no business training.

But that elusive business model remains the elephant in the room. And many a reporter have joined me in putting our heads down, figuring out the content end of the equation, and hoping the folks with business degrees will figure out how we’ll continue to earn paychecks for creating that content.

Basically, Web-savvy reporters right now are the Underpant Gnomes. We’re getting better at gathering the underpants, but we don’t know how to turn them into profit yet. That Web content is providing very little revenue now, and we don’t know how it’ll produce more revenue in the future.

So at what point do those Web-savvy reporters take it upon ourselves to brainstorm some solutions? When do we expand our expertise to the business side?

I say “Now” sounds about right. I don’t have any answers, but I’d love to dedicate some energy toward finding some.

And the journalists who have already immersed themselves in the online culture are the ones best fit to see where it’s going.  The content-providers ought to be readying ourselves for that responsibility.

When the so-called curmudgeons ask why we spend our time on our Web site, I tell them we need to lay the foundation for the future. That even if we’re not making money on it now, we’ll quickly be thrust into deeper irrelevancy if we don’t maintain and even advance our brand as a news organization.

It sure would be nice to say “…and here’s how we’re soon going to make money off of it.” That would be a discussion-ender for just about any so-called curmudgeon.

I might not come up with any answers anytime soon — no one really has, so that’s nothing to be ashamed of — but I’m no longer going to consider it someone else’s problem.

  • Damn right Daniel!!

    To be honest – I’m not a business guy either. Part of what motivated me to switch gears into spot.us was because I couldn’t, in good conscious, continue to spend all my time thinking about content – if we don’t have a way to make sure that content creates money.

    Is Spot.Us THE answer. Probably not. I don’t think there is such a thing as a silver bullet – but I do believe in the law of numbers. If enough people tackle this problem – we will figure something out.

  • Daniel I couldn’t agree more!

    I worry about this more than I worry about anything else concerning the industry and have considered studying business studies and economics in my spare time just because I am so obsessed with finding a way to fund good journalism.

    Not that I think I’ll be able to come up with anything on my own, mind you. I think future revenue for online journalism will be distributed and it will be a collective effort to learn what works and what doesn’t.

    But I am staying optimistic that there is a way to make good money online.

    A few months ago I walked past an advertisement for a local newspaper’s baby beauty competition. Competitions like this are run by newspapers all over the UK because they are popular and profitable. But, at some point, someone had to link the publication of cute baby pictures with the delivery of local news.

    Whilst it seems normal for that connection to be made now, I imagine it took a creative mind to see the opportunity in the first place.

    What is in our favour is that journalists are supposed to be good at making connections that may not seem so obvious to other people.

    I know traditionally journalists have been kept away from the process of making money, but I think the market have changed so dramatically that this practice can’t go on.

    I think we could all do with better understanding our market and learning how to appeal to it. That doesn’t mean we have to kowtow to our biggest sponsors in the face of a negative story, it just means having a good idea of who we’re writing for and what they might actually want to read/participate in.

  • The sad fact of the matter is that you’re not going to monetize the news to the extent that it was, say, 15 years ago. While it think a successful business model will emerge, the heyday has passed.

  • @Digidave After all the Uhs and Ums, Spot.us was the first thing I mentioned when I replied to the question. I agree it’s not a silver bullet, but it does strike me as an important step.

    @Joanna My paper has taken a similar somewhat step in print by producing more stand-alone magazines. Not our core mission, no, but as far as I know they’ve been profitable. So you’re right that trying to cling to revenue from department stores and classifieds probably isn’t the best idea. If shifting staff resources away from selling print ads and toward putting on baby beauty competitions is going to pay the bills, I’m all for it.

    @Josh I very much agree. But can it be monetized to the point where we partially make up for the reduced costs of printing the paper product, to the extent that we can maintain an adequate reporting staff that the community needs? Maybe, but that’s not a given.

    Of course, that’s taking the assumption that the professional news organization needs to be saved, which I recognize not everyone assumes. I personally believe that, but wouldn’t be at all surprised if someday the “business model” for journalism doesn’t include professional organizations.

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  • I attempted to address this question here: http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2008/01/28/making-money-from-journalism-new-media-business-models-a-model-for-the-21st-century-newsroom-pt5/
    The fundamental thing is that things are moving so fast that no one has time to plan the business model. The expectation is of a Darwinian selection process it seems… or Google just buys us all.