We spent a couple of days in New York earlier this week enjoying the suffocating heat while hearing what other people are saying about the changing media landscape. On Monday, the Bulldog Reporter Media Relations Summit presented a panel of mainstream media veterans from the Wall Street Journal, CBS and Hearst Magazines and one new-media upstart from Huffington Post, a news organization whose sudden success baffles a lot of traditional journalists.
The best quotes were from Alan Murray (right), Executive Editor of Wall Street Journal Online, who at one point characterized Huffington Post and similar aggregation sites as “parasites.” Facing HuffPo Managing Editor Jai Singh (below left) at the other end of the stage, Murray one point asked, “Isn’t that the Huffington Post model? Go do something else and then we’ll let you be a journalist?”
Singh, a print journalist who was an early pioneer in digital news at CNet in the mid-90s, declined to engage in battle, preferring instead to carry the banner for a new kind of journalism. Defending HuffPo’s participative model, he remarked simply, “Community is fundamental to journalism online.” Huffington pays few of its contributors, rewarding them instead with visibility and Web traffic. Singh noted that a blogger recently asked HuffPo to pull down a link to his sites because the traffic was crashing his servers. Murray conceded that the traffic from Huffington was gratifying.
Murray was a bit smug in pointing out that the Journal never gave away its editorial content and today generates about $200 million annually in digital revenue, or about double its $100 million editorial budget. “But how many other pubs are going to be able to get to same place?” he asked
Ellen Levine, editorial director of Hearst Magazines, didn’t seem particularly worried about that question, although she acknowledged that journalists will no longer have the luxury of being insulated from the business side of the house. “The most important thing I’ve learned in last 54 years is if you don’t understand the P&L, you are out of business,” she said.
Levine sees the market dividing into two camps, with disposable print on one end and high-end luxury magazines on the other. The disposable market will migrate quickly to readers like the Apple iPad, but Levine said luxury publications are going to be around for a while. “The day I can wrap myself in my iPad in the bathtub, that’s when magazines will be gone,” she said, drawing the biggest laugh of the session.
Investigative Journalism Under Siege
One thing all panelists agreed-is that investigative journalism is under severe pressure because of lack of funds and reader preference for quick-hit sound bites. Investigative reporting “has been most challenged by the collapse of business models,” Murray said. “A team can work six months on a story and it will never be paid back.” Few viable alternatives to newspaper-sponsored investigative journalism have arisen. At the moment, ProPublica’s nonprofit approach appears to be working, but Murray questioned its scalability. “ProPublica sets up investigative journalism as the equivalent of the opera or the symphony,” he said, choosing examples of organizations that are known to appeal to small, elite audiences.
Singh agreed. “Much of the news is commoditized. Investigative journalism is where the value is,” he said. But publications no longer get the mileage out of in-depth stories that they once did. Singh cited Rolling Stone’s blockbuster account last week of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s insubordinate remarks about the Afghanistan war as evidence that exclusivity has almost ceased to be meaningful. “The Rolling Stone story was picked up by Time and Politico before it was published in Rolling Stone,” he said. Huffington Post has created a modest investigative journalism fund to help fill the gap.
Panelists agreed that it’s no longer viable for 100 newspapers to maintain Washington bureaus just to report the same news. “When I ran the Washington bureau [of the Journal] during the Clinton administration, there were 150 reporters chasing the same ‘blue dress’ story,” Murray says. “What’s killing the metro dailies is that they had monopolies. You can’t just differentiate by geography anymore.”
Investigative reports used to help sell magazines by enticing readers who were interested in one story to subscribe, Levine said. “That doesn’t work anymore. People just print out the article that interests them.”
Singh saw possibilities in that fact. “There is an opportunity to create products for people who just want to read one article,” he said. The others nodded, unclear about what that product should be.
At one point during Monday’s discussion, The Journal ’s Murray told of getting calls from former network television producers looking to work on an experimental webcast at the paper. When told that the Journal couldn’t afford their talents, most asked simply to be made an offer.
Television journalism, which was never much to write home about in the first place, has become a pale specter of its former self as talent has fled the budget-strapped industry. On Tuesday, we chatted with Marijane Miller, who is one of those refugees. Miller is now a producer at WhatGives!?, a media company that creates programming to promote charitable causes. She spent more than 20 years in broadcast television, much of it producing documentaries and educational programming, and she worked on some pretty visible stuff.
Now Miller travels the country with a Sony videocam creating her own mini-documentaries of people doing work to make the world a better place. Miller said she became demoralized and frustrated during her last few years in commercial television as quality documentaries gave way to low-budget reality TV and voyeurism. Reality TV is anything but real, she told us. People who do stupid and outrageous things in real life are often only too happy to reenact their absurdities in front of the TV cameras. The sad thing is that many television producers these days are only happy to oblige.
The last straw for Miller was working on a reality program in which a person did something truly revolting. We won’t go into details, but Miller characterized the act as “sick. I thought they were going to throw the person off the program,” she said. “Instead, they asked him to reenact the scene.”
The happy ending is that Miller described WhatGives!? as a bit of a throwback to the golden age of television. “They just tell me to go out and find good stories and tell the truth, and” she said. “I haven’t had this much fun in years.”
This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 30th, 2010 at 1:02 pm and is filed under BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, Newspapers, OnlineMedia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.