Continuation of the discussion on potential sustainable economic models for various media

CONVENOR: Lisa Cohen

PARTICIPANTS: Ken Berents, Cindy Zehnder, Lew Friedland, Nora Paul


Ken is concerned that citizen journalism doesn’t provide for a gatekeeper and gatekeepers are necessary.

For 40 years profits steadily increased for the broadcast owners, but with the economic pressures today, he believes broadcast companies would be better off if they were private. He also thinks cross-ownership should be allowed because it can allow more profitability. He says public broadcast companies are expected to have the same profit margin as all other publicly-held companies, which puts a strain on the amount of money actually allocated for newsrooms.

Television news takes the easiest way out right now… covers the easiest no-brainer stories and don’t make any attempt to do more in-depth because it’s too time-consuming given the needs for feeding the beast with 24-hour news.

Ken says duopolies are very profitable.

Cindy suggests finding a successful way to connect with people will lead to profits. Is there a way that the product can drive the profit? For example, the Google model.

Walled Garden vs. NYT approach for extra profits.

Wall Street Journal uses the “walled garden” approach…charge everyone to use any part. That leads to a finite number of subscribers. The New York Times is using a different approach but offering 95% of its paper online for free, but just now is beginning to charge for access to its columnists and its archives. Archives are a great source of revenue.

Lew asks still “Who is covering the school board” How do we make money enough to cover local news? It’s valuable in the aggregate, but not in the disaggregate.

Ken looks at Weekly looking at local news issues … profit is 15% as opposed to dailies who’s profit is closer to 30-pecent or higher. So there is an approach that is possible if we are willing to accept a lower profit margin.

Lew talked about the Commons Model” he is creating to train citizen reporters in the basics of journalism so they can collaborate with local papers and, possibly, other mediums. It is currently grant-supported, though that’s not what he envisions in the future. This is not blogging, the student journalist must learn to report accurately. This can take objective cost-effective journalism down to the local level. They’re trying to carve out space be creating a city news model… citizen journalists pitch stories to city desk at local newspapers and can possibly follow up by providing more research or even reporting. He is still determining whether you can create something of value for journalists with this model, and is still working out the revenue model.

Ken doesn’t like the gifting model because it ebbs and flows according to the economy.

Cindy — for TVW, legislature hasn’t cut funding yet, even in tough economic times. They’re trying to diversify –getting a few private contributions. They’re beginning to increase their revenue with underwriting by large companies with stakes in public awareness, i.e. Boeing, Microsoft, etc. They’re beginning draw underwriting to new edited programs, though these don’t involve “reporting” in any sense.

Lew is concerned that sponsors will slant the programs editorially which can crowd out true reporting.

The Commons model has to be a rigorous training model –University center training—that would possibly charge papers and/or other media to have access to the story ideas and research. It also stimulates more interest in the model by building relationships with reporters.

Lew is also developing a civic mapping system, a software model that maps community networks of social pathways. It extracts content about “who’s working with whom… audits, reporting, and community leaders. It’s designed to be combined with traditional reporting as a tool to enhance and deepen storytelling. He hopes this model could help build an appetite for public journalism.

It’s designed to curb the negative impacts of high newsroom turnover. A huge issue as older people leave and institutional memory is lost. It also can be a valuable reader/watcher tool… leading to a virtuous cycle rather a vicious cycle.

Cindy is trying to effect and enable direct representative democracy as TVW moves to the second generation of Public Affairs programming.

Lew suggests there are two possible newspaper models…

  1. Sell subscriptions to people who can afford it.
  2. Keep publications partially subsidized
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