As the debate about the future of news continues to rage, Robert Picard, in his usual thoughtful way, points out that journalism is not a business model, but an activity. That is true in one sense, but in another – and I believe this is also the point Picard makes – journalism is a business, in the same way that plumbing or doctoring is a business. That is to say, it doesn’t get done unless someone pays for it. Before I get accosted by new media gurus about the virtues of citizen journalism, let me add: you can do your own plumbing and doctoring, or ask your friend to do it for you, and you may get very good results. But on the whole, you get what you pay for.
So yes, journalism is, as Picard defines it, “a body of practices by which information and knowledge is gathered, processed, and conveyed”. That is the activity. The business model is the mechanism we devise to finance this practice and to distribute the information it produces. One such business model is the newspaper, both in the sense of an organisation that gathers processes news, and a distribution platform (in other words, the pile of paper with text on it). In many parts of the world, this business model is not longer viable. What will replace it?
I don’t have the answer, but I can make some observations. First, newspapers are still, in many cases, very profitable businesses. The global recession has hit many businesses hard, and newspapers particularly hard for a variety of reasons. But many of the world’s newspapers are still viable businesses, and newspapers still reach a mass audience in most of the world (even those markets in which the industry is said to be in decline). Secondly, much of debate about the future of news happens in the splendid isolation of the first world, without taking an cognizance of the developing world, where most people get their news from newspapers, and where nobody bothers to research how those with access to digital and mobile media use them. Those issues should be factored into any thinking about the newspaper as a business model.
Lastly, while I don’t think that the newspaper as a platform for the delivery will survive – in fact, I can confidently state that it won’t survive! – the important question is what will replace it as an organisation that gathers and processes news. Because when a newspaper like the Rocky Mountain News folds, that whole news gathering infrastructure dies with it.
So what, you may ask? Other forms of news journalism will step into the breach.
But will they? The whole point about the way that we produce news is that it is very expensive. And I very much doubt that new media can take up the slack, as Karthika Muthukumaraswamy argues. Yes, citizen journos beat the mainstream press with photos and descriptions of the Mumbai blasts. But you get two kinds of news, which may be categorised as routine and non-routine. Non-routine news is events, such as the Mumbai blasts, which nobody can predict or plan for. There, citizen journalists will always have the advantage, because while there is very little chance that a professional journalist (for want of a better term) will be at the right place at the right time, chances are very good that there will be someone with a cell phone camera.
But when it comes to routine news – press conferences, court cases, debates of parliament, sports events, political campaigns – the professional journalists have two huge advantages: access, and time. Simply put, the average citizen journalist does not have the time to sit through a three-month court case, day after day, and provide detailed coverage. And the average citizen journalist won’t be get an interview with President Obama about his latest health care plan.
Yes, citizen journalists and bloggers can do journalism, and provide news. But they won’t have the time (=money) or the access to supply the daily grind of routine news, which fills 90% of our newspapers. Can we do without it? Well, modern democracies – and, incidentally, market economies – depend on the dissemination of those kinds of information. Mainstream journalism as we know it may not be perfect, but in spite of what Jeff Jarvis and the rest of guru-dom think, it provides something that the bloggers and citizen journalists can’t. Without them, we won’t only have a different kind of journalism; we will also have a different kind of society.