Tuesday, September 8, 2009...9:36 pm

Should media owners ditch journalism altogether?

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An interesting piece from Fast Company examines the idea that media owners such as the New York Times and AOL can tap into a “local-advertising pot of gold” by turning over their content infrastructure to hyper-local content producers.
The New York Times launched a hyperlocal community offering – called The Local – in March. Its aim is to mop up the kind of local advertising revenue that would otherwise pay for corner shop window advertising cards – small individual revenues that build up to a hefty total. In theory.
It’s a nice idea. And I’m a big fan of the hyperlocal idea. But I do wonder if the hyperlocal, blog-it-yourself model of self-publishing is at all compatible with the “professional” journalism, top-down hierarchy of traditional media organisations.
Aside from the fact that, according to Fast Company, advertisers don’t seem that keen to fund hyperlocal content, I think the big problem will be cultural.
For example, as part of its move into community publishing, the New York Times is toying with the idea of licensing its local web platform to local content producers.

“Our hypothesis,” [Jim] Schachter [editor of digital initiatives] explains, “is that there is a swath of people — experts of various sorts, journalists, self-trained bloggers — who would want our assistance in professionalizing their work and who would love to be associated with the Times. We could help those people mobilize their communities and gather local-advertising dollars in extremely low-cost ways. That could work, economically, for these local journalism entrepreneurs, and, at scale, it might work for us.”

In effect, that means opening up its online blogging platforms and other content management architecture to user-generated content of various kinds.
But what status will such content have? If it is to come under the brand umbrella of the New York Times, as Fast Company notes, surely it will have to go through the same editorial process. That’s not cheap.
And the paper would have to decide if it wants to beef up its editorial team to ensure the user-generated material is high-enough quality, or spread its team more thinly and accept a dilution of standards generally. Given that news organisations are finding it hard to afford to generate their own content, the former seems unlikely.
There is a cost implication of providing all this infrastructure, too. Any organisation will need to keep employing programmers and web developers. And while bandwidth and storage are relatively cheap, they’re not free.
I wonder if the logical extrapolation is for some media owners to give over their entire infrastructure to hyper-local content producers and stop producing their own content.
Old-style “professional journalism” is taking a hammering – and I don’t think it can survive in its present form. Certainly not at its present scale.
So maybe news organisations should get into content infrastructure instead – in effect acting as vanity publishers for ordinary folks. In effect, the New York Times would act as a kind of WordPress or Flickr, or even YouTube, but with the cachet of the Times brand.
The trouble is that it would mean cutting out what it used to exist to do – providing journalism. And without that, its brand would cease to have much meaning.
And of course we already have WordPress, Flickr and YouTube doing the same job perfectly well (though not necessarily making much money). So it might be difficult to gain enough market presence to make it a solid business model.
It’s a conundrum. To make hyperlocal, user-generated content work, media organisations have to spend more. But the revenues are not necessarily there to pay for it. It’s a circle I can’t really see being squared any time soon.
[HT: Evolving Newsroom via Soilman]

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