Thursday, November 3, 2011

How To Save Modern Journalism...

...In Ten (Not So) Easy Installments

A lot of people in the industry of journalism are getting really freaked out these days, for a number of reasons. For starters, newspapers are going belly up across the United States en masse, and those that made the leap to online news are complaining about inadequate revenue models. It seems like EVERYBODY has offered a one-time only, quick fix solution to what ails the profession, but I have YET to come across an answer that seems even remotely feasible of getting the media out of the economic slog…
                …which is EXACTLY why I decided to save the industry myself.

                Granted, I may not be the savior the profession wants, but by golly, I’m the savior it deserves. The bigwigs and stewards of journalism have made so many missteps over the last 30 years that it’s going to take a complete system overhaul to reverse the bad juju that’s practically engulfed the entire field, and it isn’t going to be an easy rehabilitation, no matter how we dissect it.
                Even so, I managed to iron out a ten stop program to turn mainstream journalism in the United States around. Now, a lot of these ideas are fairly radical, but what do you know? These are radical times we’re living in. If you want to survive with the times, you have to keep growing: with that in mind, perhaps the best way to look at my program is a means of achieving accelerated evolution for a profession that’s been about two or three epochs behind the rest of the world.


                Forget all of that hubbub about the Internet “killing” modern journalism, because the cubicle has done far more harm to the profession than just about any technological advent since Watergate.
                Simply put, true journalism cannot exist within an office or a newsroom, because the news stops being the news and becomes a component of a trade. Information stops being an intellectual and social commodity and turns into a financial resource, leading to just about every negative you can think of about journalism.
                In an office environment, journalism is a business, and not a vital social service. You don’t think in terms of information and education, but in terms of budget constraints and deadlines. The moment - the precise moment in which making money becomes more important to the writer or reporter than getting solid information out there - is the moment that journalism turns into something completely different.
                We all know that offices dehumanize people. It leads to groupthink, and detachment from reality, and a sense of elitism and perceived security. All four of those things are highly poisonous to the journalistic profession, and if we want to right the wrongs before the ship hits iceberg, we’ve got to get rid of the “9-to-5” mentality so many people within the profession lug about.
                There’s only one kind of authentic journalism going on these days, and that’s mobile journalism. As the industry slowly shrivels up like a prune (thanks in no small part to all of those office-roaming dinosaurs, of course), the multimedia ronin are not only the last of the old guard, they symbolize what journalism in the 21st century must do to survive. That means constant on-the-road reporting, mandatory cross-platform story-telling, and absolutely no work desk in sight. The first step to regaining the people’s trust entails actually being out there amongst the people - a crazy idea, I know.


                You know that old platitude about “all politics being local?” Well, that’s a tremendous load of B.S., because much to the chagrin of many, globalization is a reality.
                Back in the old days, one of the first questions you asked an employer if you were a journalist was about “the scope” of the audience you’d be writing for. Today, that’s not even considered a worthwhile inquiry, because no matter who or what you report for, the answer ought to be the same: all 7 billion inhabitants of the planet.
                You don’t have to be a part of a multinational to bring in an international readership base. Even hyper local publications can garner attention from foreign readers, as long as there is content that appeals to mass, diversified audiences. And if you are in America, that means you should REALLY try your best to “globalize” (NOT “nationalize”) your stories.
                Why? Because there’s an absolute megaton of first and second generation Americans (all fluid in the lingua franca of English, by the way) that have vested interests in issues pertaining to Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, that’s why. If you want people reading your stuff, it has to be material that appeals to larger and larger audiences - and if your employer vouches for the contrary, I’d advise you to start shopping around for new employment opportunities PRONTO.


                The Internet was the future 20 years ago, so how come so many publications are still denying that the “Great Transition” from print to electronics is going to take place?
                Long story short, it already has, and if you haven’t made the leap to online and mobile media, you might as well just close down your publication and save yourself a couple of dollars for when you declare chapter eleven.
                FACT: Online media is cheaper than print media, not just for consumers, but for publishers.
                FACT: More people get their news from online sources than ANY other form of media except local television.
                FACT: Online media allows you to diversify your product, and reach exponentially larger audiences than you EVER could with print media.
                FACT: Online media allows use of video and audio, which are scientifically proven to generate greater rates of retention for observers than pictures and words. Oh, and storage for video, audio and even obtaining bandwidth for the site? All yours for the low, low cost of $0.00.
                FACT: Via use of paid-for index listings, targeted ads and user generated subscription bonues (which all cost the online publisher zero dollars, in case you were wondering), online publications can maintain steady revenue on par with (if not MORE) than the aggregate American newspaper revenue circa 2000.
                To summarize: ONE printing press unit would cost about a thousand times more than it would for one to begin an online news site, and through the miracle of the Intraweb, that same news source can reach an audience about a billion times wider than  if that news source were presented in a circulated paper. In other words? Either fall online, or fall of the radar completely.


                It may surprise you to note that  a lot of newspapers and online sites spend a tremendous amount of their budget on advertising and marketing research. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to note that most of the publications that do this are losing a ton of cash in the process. That’s because we’re living in a post-advertising culture, and to reach a largely Internet-oriented audience, you have to make use of other forms of social contact.
                YouTube, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Fark, not to mention the millions of specialized forums and message boards out there on the Internet - THESE are your new forms of advertising and marketing research, and they cost you a grand total of NO dollars to take advantage of.
                Social media sites are really the most inexpensive forms of syndication for your publication imaginable. Thanks to the very Dawkins-esque nature of the Web, all it takes is one person to re-tweet or plug your site on one of these services and suddenly, you’ve got a mass influx of visitors and potential long-term readers.
                If you’re looking for an area to cut costs, start with advertising and marketing, because all you REALLY need to get the word out about the words you are putting out is one person that’s really saavy with social media promotions.


                It doesn’t matter if you are a freelancer or a multinational corporation, one of the chief aspirations you should be gunning for is achieving brand status.
                An example? Take Walt Disney, a person who embodied a company which embodies a certain quality of product. Just having the words posted next to something connotes a certain consumer meaning, this “value” that one expects from whatever it is that the entity releases.
                If you are a news publication in the 21st century, you better represent something for the consumer base, and I can’t think of a better example of this then a fellow by the name of Paul Heyman.
                Heyman was a businessman that purchased a share in a low rent, Philadelphia-based professional wrestling promotion in the mid 1990s. Through the use of an exceptional marketing strategy, Heyman turned an organization that routinely ran shows out of bingo halls into a world-recognized brand with well above average Pay-Per-View revenue, a weekly television show on cable TV, and merchandising deals with toy companies and video game manufacturers.
                If you want to survive in a market glutted with billion dollar companies, you’d best take Mr. Heyman’s pivotal advice and turn your publication into something much more than just another site.

                When members of the FCC are citing modern “journalism” as being “too fluffy,you know the profession has an image problem.
                In a world in which local papers are lobbing nothing but softballs and a majority of the most-visited online news sites are actually owned by gigantic conglomerates, being a hard-hitting, independent - and above all, CREDIBLE -  new source is just the sort of “gimmick” that ought to give modern journalism a boost in the arm. Imagine that - one of the things that turns journalism around in the 21st century is a return to actual, investigative and unbiased journalistic practices.
                In a lot of ways, the industry never really got over Hearst and Pulitzer’s “yellow journalism” model. And if you don’t think baseless sensationalism isn’t STILL an integral part of mainstream media. . .yeah, think again.
                The “Silver and Black” model I propose is an ode to the recently deceased Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who lead his team to perpetual victory in the ‘70s through hard-nosed, smash-mouth football. What worked for the Raiders four decades ago is what works for journalists in the 21st century: we need writers and websites that go after controversial matters, that ask hard questions and above all, refuse to promote soft news as headline material. The modern era is not one of passivity, and if journalism wants to survive in an increasingly aggressive world, it’s going to have to change with the times, too.


                “Market Segmentation” is one of those unavoidable buzz words going on in the world of journalism today, and in many aspects, there’s some validity to it.
                Although you should aspire to reel in as many people as you can with your service, the reality is that it’s going to be next to impossible for anyone to just start a publication that has universal appeal. That means that for the fledgling journalist, perhaps it would be a good idea to start off covering niche news circles, or aspects of society that are either underreported or given inadequate to misleading coverage. And looking at the millions of segmented markets out there - from video game enthusiasts to mixed martial arts fans to conspiracy theorists - there’s probably an opportunity for one to worm his or her way into a “limited appeal” market that actually has plenty of long-term readership possibilities.
                Take the website, for example. The site started in the 1990s to cover the growing sport of mixed martial arts, which at the time, had an extremely limited fan base. However, since Sherdog was one of the earliest such news sources for the sport, as MMA grow in popularity, there was a correlated effect for Sherdog’s website traffic. Today, Sherdog is considered the premier source for mixed martial arts news, and gets well over a  9 million individual user hits per month. . .all due to the fact that the creators of the site spotted a niche market, and hopped on it before anybody else realized its potential.

                If your publication isn’t up for putting out new material at least every day, you might as well not even bother. In today’s extremely fickle media, what would have had a freshness value of a week ten years ago has the market freshness of about a day in 2012 terms. If you think there’s just three days between Monday and Friday, think again: in that 72 hour period there is going to be more information created, processed, presented and disseminated than there was in first 4,900 years of all human existence. Nowadays, being one day behind is enough to set a company back indefinitely.
                Constant, original content is an absolute necessity in today’s field. Several of the most viewed websites for the coveted 18-34 demographic all have one thing in common - they’re updated several times a day. IGN, Fark, Something Awful, and especially Cracked are bookmarked by just about every college aged male in the U.S., because they have fresh material presented every couple of hours.
       is worth singling out, because it’s pretty much the case study as far as successful transitions from print to electronic media are concerned. Cracked, which started off as a competitor to Mad Magazine, started experiencing sales drop-off in the early 2000s, and after a failed magazine re-launch, they decided to make the magazine online only, complete with daily columns, articles, and videos. As a result, Cracked is one of the culture’s preeminent humor sources, while Mad Magazine languishes in print purgatory (at last check, they went from being a bimonthly magazine to being a seasonal publication released just four times a year.)
                If you’re a fledgling journalistic site, you have to keep all of the above in mind. The trick isn’t in just simply having new content out there, but having new content that can easily be placed in an intra-site archive for future reference. Just because your site is constantly putting out new content doesn’t mean that content won’t have a lengthy shelf-life; in fact, one of the key aspirations for any site should be producing content that remains worthy of a glance four, five or even ten years after it was originally published. The road to recovery for journalism means that we have to keep information from becoming expendable; that means that in the long haul, it’s the best written news  - not the quickest released - that will result in the most eyes glued to your product.


                Dave Meltzer is a guy that knows the ins and outs of print media better than just about anybody else in the world of mixed martial arts, because he’s made his entire livelihood off it. Meltzer made a small fortune off his 1980s newsletter The Wrestling Observer, which remains the most-respected trade paper for the world of professional wrestling. Slowly but surely, Meltzer has begun the transition to an online version of The Wrestling Observer, which provides paid subscribers to the tangible newsletter all sorts of awesome bonuses, like access to over twenty years of back issues on the web and exclusive radio content. Dave’s site provides constantly updated news briefs, but to get the in-depth analysis, you guessed it, you have to subscribe to the newsletter. The Meltz has successfully found a way to synergize electronic and print content into a single brand, maximizing the effectualness of both formats. Although his is a rare exception, his schema should be acknowledged by just about everybody hovering between the worlds of online and print.
                If print media is going to coexist alongside online media, it can only do so as a supplement to the online content. That means that you really CAN’T use a website as a bridge to a paid print publication, and you most CERTAINLY cannot use a paid print publication as a bridge to metered pay content on the web. The online content for a new-wave site should be free, and if your going to vouch for a printed supplement to that site, it better be free as well.
                The question, no doubt, is exactly how one is going to get paid using such a model. Well, there are plenty of options out there, ranging from charging businesses for index listing space on websites to paid subscription bonuses for users that take advantage of certain functions on a site. This, we need to go more in depth with.
                Back in the 1980s, Fangoria Magazine had a gimmick where if you bought a year’s subscription to the publication, you were allowed to print a 300 or so character message within the magazine itself. Back in high school, I remember selling around five hundred dollars worth of print space in our newspaper’s annual Valentine’s Day issue, so that students can send brief messages to one another through the medium. Just about every newspaper in the country has run a buzz section for at least awhile: my inquiry is, why aren’t we looking at this is a possible source of revenue for our publications?
                If I were the head of any online publication, I’d vouch for a small print newsletter (definitely no more than eight pages, and nothing that couldn’t fit in a standard envelope) for website readers that choose to purchase a supplemental good from the online store. For example, if a reader purchases $20 or more from the site (he or she buys a coffee mug, or a hat, or a tee shirt, or any other good that can be mass produced for a marginal publisher cost), he or she gets four or five issues of the monthly newsletter. The newsletter itself would consist of some original content, but it should be marketed to only the most hardcore and dedicated of the readership base. As an incentive, limit circulation to around 500 or so mailers a month, and at least one double truck within that newsletter should contain purchased comment space by online readers. The Fangoria/Valentine-Gram model can be utilized in the 21st century as an appeal to the most engaged viewers and readers for a specific publication, and a service that can generate more than enough revenue to keep the print operation sustained and then some.
                Lastly, one has to note we may be on the cusp of an inversion of the print and electronic media relationship paradigm. Originally, users began using the internet to assume anonymity, but thanks to online tracking programs (some of which are so advanced, it can track a person’s every virtual footstep, regardless of the solid state hardware he or she uses), there may be a market for readers that would like access to more risqué or controversial fare that may turn to newsletters or small print publications as a means to avoid procuring such information through the Internet. Even throughout the electronic revolution, print mailers pertaining to extreme political ideals and quasi-prurient interests have been curiously unaffected by internet advents - which means that renegade, rouge or niche journalistic publishers may indeed have a built-in market for supplemental literature already there.


                To abridge: if you’re in journalism for the money, do us all a favor and get out. If you’re worried about pay models and consistent employment, just turn tail and find some other profession to mess around with. Become a PR head, or an educator, or sell your services to a company. You’ll make a lot more money, and you don’t have to worry about all of those trifling things  like “making the planet a better place” and “providing the last bulwark of protection to the common man” or “being the only profession capable of bringing justice to those that are above the law and order.”
                Journalists are supposed to be the policemen of the police, and those that preside over those that preside over everybody else. Journalists are the great ombudsmen of society, those that investigate, uncover and explain to the general population why things are why they are. Whether they know it or not, all journalists are nothing more than contemporary historians - we record, we report, and we get the information out there that things happened, are happening, or are on the verge of transpiring. We provide a fairly simple service for society, but it is one that is absolutely vital to a healthy, functioning culture - without journalism, there is no such thing as true justice within a society. The one commonality between ALL despotic regimes throughout human history have been that none of them have allowed free presses. Even in the most hellish of environments - Hitler controlled Poland, Pol Pot’s killing fields, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe - there are still components of “healthy” society present. There were hospitals, and policemen, and utility companies and courthouses. There were all the components of a “just society,” but without the existence of a free press, nothing else could be considered free, either.
                For all of the worry and concern about the death of “journalism” as an industry, let’s try not to forget this: of all of the occupations in a democratic society, ours is the absolute most vital. In fact, one can say that the free press is the literal embodiment of democracy itself, the utmost ideal of the entire notion of self-governance. Yes, transitional periods are difficult, and there may be a tremendous number of job losses as the field changes from one incarnation to the next, but as long as we live in a society that promotes the virtues and values of true justice and true democracy, we will be needed.
                If you want to be a journalist in the 21st century, you shouldn’t give a damn whether you make New York Times money or $22,000 a year. You’ve got a sacred duty to uphold, and if you’re willing to forsake that for financial comfort, you don’t even deserve to call yourself one of us.

1 comment:

  1. *Slow applause* One of the best articles I've ever read. Fantastic!


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