Rasmus Nielsen is post doctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The following is a reflection on his lecture at the Oxford Internet Institute on Feb 13, 2013.
What does the Internet mean for journalistic content creation and the business model that supports it? Rasmus Nielsen attempted to shine some light on the threats and opportunities posed by the shift to online journalism. His talk focused on the threats but was informative nonetheless.
He draws an important distinction between the effects of online journalism on individual journalists, the organizational norms of journalism, and the journalism industry as a whole. As he explains it, the Internet has increased the capabilities of individual journalists in a transformative way. The access to information and means of communication available to the individual journalist today are far superior than what they were in the past. These new capabilities have become the norm within news organizations. Journalists are expected to get answers quickly and produce content in time with the quickening pace of 24-hour media organizations. This has mixed effects, Nielsen says, as rapid digital content creation crowds out more traditional journalistic practices.
Where the effects of the Internet on individual journalists and news organizations have been either positive or mixed, Nielsen sees its effects on the industry as largely negative. The traditional business models that supported journalistic content creation are crumbling; whatever online revenue these organizations are capable of generating cannot keep pace with declines in print revenue.
Although Nielsen was quick to point out that there are reasons for optimism—he used the NYTimes coverage of the 2012 election as an example of the richness and depth that new media journalism can offer—he maintains that the search for a single replacement for print revenues is ultimately pointless. This is especially true with respect to younger generations, who expect content to be available anytime and for free. The production of the content that we expect continues to be funded by print revenues, which are in a seemingly endless decline. To paraphrase Nielsen, the media environment we enjoy—free content, anytime—is financed by the media habits of our parents.
Nielsen’s most interesting point was about the alternative revenue sources available to news organizations. If revenue from paywalls and online subscriptions are unable to keep up with declining print revenues, what can news organizations do to sustain their content production? Nielsen suggests they experiment and build a diversified portfolio of revenue opportunities. They might take a cue from the music industry and focus on building their brand around events and communities. Nielsen believes there is still time to get this right and that in this transitional period, experimentation is crucial.
The idea of events—think speaker series or conferences—run by major news organizations is an interesting one. That may not help the El Dorado Hills Telegraph, though, or the Sacramento Bee, to name just a few of many small market newspapers struggling to stay afloat. There are but a few news organizations with brands strong enough to command an audience on their own.
The news organizations that have survived this first shift in the media landscape are strong brands, like the New York Times or The Guardian, and specialty publications, like the Wall Street Journal or The Economist, which cater to a niche but valuable audience. It remains to be seen whether broadly focused, quality journalism aimed at sustaining civic engagement can survive. For small, local papers in particular, the prospects look bleak. But as with any major disruption, opportunities exist for innovative business models and creative methods of content creation.