The future of news can’t be built on a broken view of the past

The world wide web is made up of more than 1.7 billion websites. This explosion of expression on the internet has changed how we communicate, how we learn, how we buy and sell things, how we are informed of the issues of the day and even how we form opinions about those issues.

Access to all of this information has brought extraordinary value to our societies, but it has also introduced new challenges — to our institutions, to our politics, and especially to journalism.

The internet dramatically lowered the barriers to publishing and created a vast marketplace for information that offers exponentially more choice than the world of print. This richness of choice has triggered dramatic changes in consumer behavior, and thus a major shift in how we need to think about the future of the news industry. Amidst these shifts, we need to not only reconsider the business models that enable journalism to flourish, but also how we can engage audiences in a way that supports the role journalism plays in our communities and society.

How has the news industry shifted?

Think back 30 years ago to traditional newspapers like the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, where my dad kept the presses running. You could think of papers like this one as the internet of their communities. They weren’t interactive, but they offered all the information someone might need to live their daily life. They had the local news and all the mundane, but useful information in one place — from sports reports and movie reviews to recipes and classified ads. This kind of information was not only immensely valuable to people, but it was also a magnet for advertisers.

But the vast marketplace of information that is the web changed information-seeking behaviors and daily habits of readers. Today we no longer go to a single newspaper site for all of this information. Instead, we hunt and peck around the internet and go to different sources, websites and businesses to find what we need to know.

Consider the immense changes in consumer behavior that have happened just in my lifetime. When I turned 16 and was old enough to drive, my dad bought me a used car through the classified ads in the local newspaper. Today you’d go to Craigslist in the U.S., Gumtree in the U.K. or AutoScout24 in many parts of Europe. When my mom wanted a new recipe for Sunday dinner, she clipped one from the newspaper’s food section, along with coupons for discounts on the ingredients. Now my spouse and I go to Epicurious.com, BonAppetit.com or New York Times Cooking. Or we order food online to be delivered from an array of restaurants.

This shift has made the traditional business models of newspapers obsolete

Not surprisingly, advertising dollars have also shifted as these behaviors changed. That means that the ad revenue generated by classifieds, movie ads, supermarket ads and the like is no longer what it once was for news companies. And it was that revenue that cross-subsidized the serious journalism; hard news in general-interest newspapers was never the major draw for advertisers.

Some media companies have responded by investing or acquiring new online businesses. In Australia, NewsCorp owns RealEstate.com, the largest real estate listings site. In Germany, Axel Springer owns Stepstone, the largest job site. But these businesses are separate and exist on different balance sheets—they no longer contribute to the creation of news.

Bottom line: The business of journalism has changed. But beneath the dust and smoke of disruption, you can see the bright, healthy seedlings of the future of news and how it’s creating not only new business opportunities, but also a new sense of community.

New approaches to audience revenue

Forty years ago, advertising largely supported U.S. newspapers, and subscription revenue was less than 5 percent of revenue. Today the balance is shifting towards subscription revenue being a  majority of revenue.

The New York Times’s 2.8 million digital subscribers surpasses print subscribers by nearly two-thirds. In Paris, MediaPart—a digital publication founded by former Le Monde editor Edwy Plenel—is a profitable venture with more than 150,000 subscribers and 40 reporters. In Italy both Corriere della Sera and La Republica are showing strong year-over-year subscription growth in a market where newsstand sales were historically more common than subscriptions.

Alongside subscriptions, the membership model—one where people either contribute a set amount or whatever they can afford as a one-off or regular payment—is gaining traction. Publishers ranging from the Guardian U.K. to Berkeleyside in Berkeley, CA, have shown healthy growth with this approach. In fact, 800,000 people now support The Guardian via memberships.

This dual focus on subscriptions and memberships is part of a broader change in how news organizations relate to the communities they serve. News sites are beginning to learn that the  value proposition for readers is not always about access to content via a paywall, but more about citizens understanding and supporting the role that a news organization plays in local communities.

The shifting nature of audiences and community

At the Bristol Cable in the U.K., they use different terminology that represents this change in thinking, renaming certain employees from marketing managers to “community organizers.” It’s symbolic of a shifting philosophy in how a news organization engages with the community they once thought of only as “the audience.”  

Bristol Cable, along with publications like De Correspondent in the Netherlands or the Texas Tribune in Austin, now focus more on involving community and creating community. They town halls, solicit input and develop a two-way dialogue with communities to better understand their needs and concerns.

While we live in a dramatically different world, there is much to be optimistic about when it comes to journalism in the digital age. It’s about far more than just business models or technology or product design. Journalism plays a critically important role in our societies and our democracies: It gives people the tools and information they need to be good citizens. And the changes that are happening are reinvigorating the relationship between newsrooms and the communities they serve—all for the better.

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