Since the Internet Age sent the newspaper industry into a tailspin, media moguls and journalism academics have shed many a tear in search of the elusive business model that will “save journalism.”
As time has passed and social media entered adolescence, it’s become clear that no single panacea will put print media back in its comfort zone; however, several emerging trends are proving effective in sustaining the fourth estate. The question of whether brand-produced content will eventually surpass ad-supported journalism produced by “traditional” media was one of the main topics of discussion at New York’s Social Media Week yesterday, at a panel discussion called Democratizing The Conversation: The Future of Brand Journalism in Social Media.
“We’re all media companies now,” said Dan Abrams, founder of Abrams Media, a few minutes before the panel opened up. But the question remains, despite the rising swell of content produced by corporations, will branded publishing “save” the time-honored journalism industry?
The consensus – at this panel at least – was “yes and no.” Brand journalism provides a way for good journalists to create quality, entertaining, and thought-provoking content. But some types of journalism – investigative, breaking news, and politics – may very well always be the domain of traditional press, even if those entities are whittled down to very few niche publishers.
It comes down to what subject matters can be profitable topics for brands to cover, said Amy Vernon, VP of Content and Alliances for Hasai, a digital marketing firm. “If you’re looking for entertainment or DIY, yeah,” she says, “but if you’re actually looking for breaking news of the day, I don’t think so.”
“It’s about money at the end of the day. Great journalism, great writing, comes from talent,” said Matt Spangler, EVP of Content for Tribeca Enterprises. “If brands have a lot of money to spend on smart strategy and the team behind great content, they’re going to attract attention for it.”
Regardless of the percentage of journalism that will be “saved” by brands, their willingness to pay for high quality content is providing much needed income for struggling stringers. “I don’t know if brand journalism will save journalism,” said professor
Duy Linh Tu, Head of Digital Media at Columbia University Journalism
School, “but it will save journalists.”
With that in mind, I believe there will be four business models that will save journalism in the next five years:
Platforms like Spot.us and Kickstarter have shown that people are willing to donate in order to fund important community journalism. Grant-funded nonprofits pursuing investigative reporting may also end up being important to the future of the industry.
But since investigative journalism is generally not popular in terms of page views and papers sold (these days), it will likely remain the domain of the donation-based world.
Similarly, “singles” marketplaces like Kindle Singles and platforms like TheAtavist are helping journalists “crowd fund” their long-form stories through individual sales. Over the last couple years we’ve seen a (refreshing) willingness of consumers to pay a buck or two for a good long-form feature story. This is allowing good journalists to invest in the kind of reporting and thoughtful writing that makes for fantastic 20,000 word stories. When 10,000 people pay $1.99 for a story, essentially the “crowd” has “funded” the journalist at $1 a word.
I predict we’ll see more of this – mainly among the best independent storytellers with personal followings – in the future.
Twitter and Facebook are breaking news faster than earthquake shock waves can travel and newswires can send updates. The status update train shows no sign of slowing down for beat reporters to be first to show up to crime scenes anymore.
Furthermore, robotic reporting via companies like StatSheet and Narrative Science are fast replacing the need for feet-on-the-ground in industries like sports and finance. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a world where trained journalists are sifters, curators, investigators, and analyzers rather than straight news reporters.
Lean, digital publishing operations like Mashable are able to subsist on ads (with heavy sprinklings of sponsored content) by eschewing the fixed costs of traditional media companies.
Without giant buildings, printing presses, and bloated staffs, lean publishers in niche industries will surely continue to be support journalism and entertainment media in the digital world.
In the next five years the majority of rich, exciting, educating, and evergreen content – the kind we read in magazines and newspaper feature stories – may very well be produced by brands.
With full transparency, corporations like American Express, Intuit, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, Gilt, Degree, and many others are already starting to publish authentic, non-self-promoting content that’s indistinguishable from so called “real” journalism. Brands’ deep pockets will provide means for journalists to spend time crafting true stories that entertain and educate.
We’re seeing the taboos around journalists freelancing for brands being stripped away. As Duy Linh Tu pointed out in yesterday’s panel, digital media professionals have been spanning the brand and traditional media worlds for some time. It’s common for a photographer to shoot a news story on Friday and shoot a wedding on Saturday. As social media promotes transparency, more and more brands will hire magazine editors and employ journalists to produce real quality content that enhances an individual’s career rather than hurts one’s chances of future work.
In the end, the model that will save the journalism we love so dearly is open-mindedness.
Disclosure: Shane Snow has written for Mashable. Contently has worked with several of the brands mentioned throughout the story.