With the economic model of newspapers in disarray, “going digital” has meant more stories, more provocative headlines, and more clicks to generate ever less revenue. In his book Geeks Bearing Gifts, Jeff Jarvis, a professor and champion of “social journalism”, argues that a new wave on the web has - and must - come to tide. The relationship business, he says, might offer journalists a better way to serve the public in more efficient and enduring ways.
Song: "The Dream Machine" by John Zorn
BOB: With the economic model of newspapers in disarray, “going digital” has meant more stories, more provocative headlines, more clicks to generate ever less revenue. Cue the jingle!
JINGLE: Present and future business models to monetize the newspaper industry.
BOB: In his book Geeks Bearing Gifts, Jeff Jarvis, a professor and champion of “social journalism”, argues that a new wave on the web has - and must - come to tide. The relationship business, he says, might offer journalists a better way to serve the public in more efficient and enduring fashion.
JEFF JARVIS: We have to stop thinking of journalism as a content factory, and we have to rethink it as a service. If my local newspaper knew more about me, gave me greater relevance, it would get greater engagement from me, it would get higher value advertising for me, and I think that a relationship-based strategy is where we have to shift journalism.
BOB: What is a relationship-based model look like, compared to the content factory that was so availing for so long?
JARVIS: Let me give you an example after Hurricane Sandy. My information needs in New Jersey were clear: I needed to know what streets were open, where the power was coming back and which Starbucks had Wifi. What did news give me instead? It gave me articles, which summed everything up to say, well, a lot of trees down, a lot of power out, as if i didn't know that. If instead we thought of journalism as a platform, where communities could share their own knowledge, we could share what streets were closed and where the nearest Starbucks is with Wifi, and where we can get gas. That's a way to rethink what we do and what our role is in a larger ecosystem of news.
BOB: Now, just to be clear, I don't want to make this all about the commerce. You believe that the relationship model also serves the journalism in very specific ways?
JARVIS: What we're used to doing in journalism is deciding what's important and then writing about it. I think the process of journalism doesn't start with the story. The process of journalism necessarily starts with listening to the public and only then finding the best mechanisms to help the public meet their needs. If all we do is keep churning out 400 pieces of content a day, the same to everyone, then that's not a great service, and I think we have to reinvent other ways to help communities come together and share what they know, which by the way also makes us more efficient. News can be a lot more efficient. If you look at Google News on a plane crash, you'll see 2,000 versions of the same story. Well, why? That's mass media economics, that says everybody has to have their own take on the same story so that we can get our own page views, and our own mass volume. What we need to do is shift to other models where we start to reward relevance, quality, originality. Yes, we'll still do articles when they're appropriate, but we'll also make tools, convene people to get together, and we should judge our success not by eyeballs by the ton; we should judge our success as to whether people have improved their lives and their communities. We may end up looking more like community organizers. That's a different, perhaps heretical way to look at journalism.
BOB: Now I'm sure legacy publishers would much rather hear you say, instead of that there's a new ecosystem a-brewing, that you have some magic beans for keeping the lights on. Not only don't you have that, and not only have you cited chapter and verse in your book about why the economics of mass media don't work anymore - having mainly to do with the plummeting prices that advertising fetches - you have questioned the very purpose of mass media anymore, because advertising no longer needs, you say, a particular publication as a proxy for the audience it wants to reach. Can you explain?
JARVIS: I may not have magic beans, but I think I do have a little bit of fertilizer here, Bob.
BOB: [Laughter] That has been said of you for many, many years.
JARVIS: You're welcome Bob; you owe me one. When you look at Amazon, at a pair of boots let's say, those boots are made for walking, following you around the Internet for weeks, right? That's because the data about you and your purchase interest is more valuable than the editorial context. Putting a boot ad next to a boot story. Well, there we lose because we don't know our readers. But if can start to learn our readers and learn what they need, then we can get our own, as it's called, "first party data". I've talked to newspapers, Bob, who went so crazy trying to bring in traffic through search engine optimization and social likes and so on. They ended up with a lot of traffic outside their markets, though they have advertising sales only inside their markets. So I asked them, what's the difference in value from an inside to an outside user? And it was a 20 to 25 time multiple. That's to say, if you just knew whether a user was in your market you could multiply their value immensely.
BOB: You get more for serving an ad to them, you get more money from the advertiser.
JARVIS: Exactly. You also probably, if you serve them more relevance, you get more engagement and more traffic from them, and more value. That's an important starting point.
BOB: But do you have any hope whatsoever that rethinking the purpose of a news organization and rethinking the way the publication engages with its readers, has any possibility of restoring the levels of profitability that made this a really, really good business for a long time?
JARVIS: God didn't grant us monopolies, Bob. But we do have a role in society and I do believe that journalism can pay for itself. I think that there are young people certainly who can reinvent journalism, and I even think the big old companies are starting to wise up. Is there a time? Well, we'll see.
BOB: Jeff, thank you so much.
JARVIS: Always a pleasure, and thank you, thank you very much.
BOB: Jeff Jarvis is director of the Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He also writes the blog Buzzmachine.com, and is author of the new book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News.